Fisheries have emerged as an important economic activity that makes a substantial contribution to nutritional needs, employment generation and foreign exchange earnings in India. In recent times, fisheries have grown into a mega-industry providing employment to hundreds of thousands. It brings in a million tonnes of fish annually. Fleets of mechanised boats and motorised country craft are deployed. The growth is largely due to technological innovations in the marine fisheries sector.

Nevertheless, the use of modern technology has raised critical issues. One aspect is the impact of the intensive use of trawlers and other sophisticated fishing gadgets. It should be examined whether the level of introduction of mechanised fishing vessels matches the resources available.

Other issues include the intrusion of foreign trawlers into India's exclusive economic zone. Poaching adds to the pressures on marine resources. The Indian fisheries sector should pressure the authorities to see that fishery reserves are not thrown open for indiscriminate exploitation by outsiders. Primarily it is the state's duty to protect marine resources by effective patrolling by the Coast Guard. A fishing fleet to conserve valuable marine wealth could be formed.

Indiscriminate trawling by Indian vessels along with intruding foreign vessels, the absence of regulations regarding the size of the craft, gear and engine, have spawned formidable problems, ecological and otherwise.

Research has pointed to a need to regulate fishing. Over-exploitation could spell doom in the long run. A moratorium may be imposed on the construction and replacement of mechanised vessels to stop over-exploitation. There is a need to make periodic estimates on the status of fishery resources and deploy fishing efforts accordingly. Such a marine audit would help ensure the sustainable development of resources.

Fishing is central to the livelihood and food security of 200 million people, especially in the developing world. One in five people on this planet depend on fish as the primary source of protein. Its depletion will pose a threat to food supply. Statistics reveal that global marine fish stocks are in jeopardy, under pressure from over-fishing and environmental degradation.

What is the solution? Experts believe that the establishment of Marine Protection Agencies (MPAs) may hold the key to conserving and boosting fish stocks. Yet, less than 1 per cent of the oceans and seas are covered by MPAs.

Viewed from another angle, the rapid growth in demand for fish and fish products is leading to the price of fish soaring faster than that of meat. Investment in fisheries has become attractive to entrepreneurs and governments. This has led to a drastic fall in commercial fish population as a sequel to over-exploitation.

The situation calls for quick measures. Some experts recommend ‘zero catches' to allow for regeneration. One study projects the global collapse of all species currently fished by mid-21st century. More than 75 per cent of world stocks have been fully exploited, and this calls for a revolutionary change in the management of fishing resources. There will be total collapse of fisheries by 2050 if no action is taken to halt over-fishing. At the current rate of fishing there is a clear and present danger of stocks declining to an extent that would render commercial fishing impossible.

Global warming and climate change pose threats to fisheries. As carbon dioxide levels rise, the oceans become more acidic, rendering the water inhospitable to marine species. The impact of temperature changes on marine species can be dramatic from the standpoint of reproduction and survival. Temperature is a major factor in the occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) which impact areas used by the shell fish industry.

Temperature changes result in species abandoning an area and moving beyond the range of fishery, hitting the industry and not the species as such. Therefore, we should have systems to monitor any marine activity that might have a negative impact either on the species or the industry.

Another likely fallout of global warming and climate change is an increase in the variability of environmental conditions. Long-term variations and fluctuations in the marine environment call for adaptability. Sustainable economic levels of fishing capacity should be determined with a focus on the variability of environmental conditions.

One hindrance to sustainable fishing is pervasive, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). It works against those fishers who act responsibly, honestly and in accordance with the terms of fishing regulations. IUU fishing needs to be curbed. If fishers are given a free hand to target vulnerable stocks that are subject to management control and moratoria, efforts to rebuild stocks to healthy levels will turn futile.

Oil spills and oil wastes – approximately 706 million gallons of oil reach the oceans every year – constitute a threat to marine life and fisheries, harming the deep ocean and coastal fishing and fisheries. The immediate effect of toxic oil waste may be mass mortality and contamination of fish and other food species, but the long-term ecological effects may be worse. Toxic oil waste poisons and damages sensitive marine and coastal substrata, interrupting the food chain on which fish and sea creatures depend and on which their reproductive success is based. Also, commercial fishing may be profoundly affected.

Discharge of effluents into inland waters which eventually carry them to the oceans constitute a grave threat. Acute and chronic fish mortalities in rivers and fisheries are frequently produced by toxic pollutants in industrial effluents and agricultural wastes. The increasing pollution load and over-exploitation of water resources for drinking purposes, irrigation, industrial and thermal power plants to meet the requirements of the growing population significantly reduces their assimilative capacity. This stress on the water course is ultimately faced by the biological species inhabiting them. Aquatic life faces severe oxygen shortage due to bacterial decomposition of untreated sewage; high turbidity restricts the penetration of sunlight in the deeper layers affecting photosynthesis. Anaerobic decomposition of algal blooms leads to generation of toxic substances. The end result is excessive growth of phytoplankton due to increase in turbidity, depletion of dissolved oxygen and consequent suffocation of fish and molluscs.

In aquaculture, agricultural farms were converted into commercial aquaculture on a large scale. They utilised enormous quantities of sea water pumped through pipelines from the sea. The impact was painful and horrifying: it led to the salinisation of a large extent of groundwater, pollution of ponds and other water sources, destruction of landgroves and so on. Abandoned shrimp farms and ponds remained virtually unusable. The Supreme Court in Jagannath Vs UOI (1997) 2 SCC considered the question of whether the aquaculture industry is an industry that needs coastal facilities. Under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, any industry that needs foreshore facilities is exempted from the prohibition. The aquaculture industry needs brackish water. The Supreme Court said this fact by itself was no justification to locate the industry on the foreshore. The court said brackish water can be brought from the sea by pipes and therefore the aquaculture industry needs no foreshore facilities. The court, while disposing of the case, referred to the “Polluter Pays” principle. This means that liability for any harm caused to the environment extends not only to the victims of pollution but also to meeting the cost of restoration.

The Central government has given shape to Marine Fisheries Management Bill. The Bill has come under criticism on the ground that it transgresses the constitutional rights of the States relating to fisheries. The core of the objection is that ‘Fisheries' is a State subject under the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution (State List), and the Maritime Zones of India Act of 1976 provides that the territorial seas extending up to a distance of 12 nautical miles from the coast are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State concerned. Therefore, the provisions of the Bill authorising the Union government to exercise jurisdiction over fishing activities in the territory legally under the domain of the State cannot be legally sustained.

Advancement in science and technology can be a boon or a bane. It will be a bane the moment we become slaves to technology. We are depleting scarce resources with the help of advanced technology, forgetting that the members of the present generation are trustees and guardians of the environment for succeeding generations. It is legally and morally bound to preserve and conserve the environment, as otherwise what is left for tomorrow will be parched earth and exploited oceans and seas. Minors Oposa theory of intergenerational equity and responsibility reminds the present generation that it has to be fair and just to itself, its unborn children and to Mother Earth.

(The author is a former Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court)

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