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Along the Kerala coast, the race is for faster, fuel-guzzling boat engines

Anoop George Philip
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CIFT, together with Goa Shipyard, undertakes a project to design a green fishing vessel to make fishing sustainable

Aboard a souped-up fishing vessel that set out from the Thoppumpady harbour in search of shoals, a wireless set suddenly crackles into life. It boomed a tip-off from a fellow fisher deep in the sea after spotting a shoal of sardines. With the coordinates in hand, the driver fires up the trawler’s Chinese-made 380 HP engine, a fuel guzzler akin to five sports utility vehicle engines put together

He races ahead of his competitors retrofitted with antique Indian-made truck engines. But after hunting in the sea for around 12 hours and burning 450 litres of diesel (around 40 litres an hour), the trawler is forced to return empty handed. When dawn-to-dusk hunt went bust, it offered a terrifying maths to the trawler owner — a loss of close to Rs. 30,000.

As the fishing industry in the State migrates rapidly from traditional to mechanised vessels, the use of high-power and fuel-greedy engines is fast replacing low-rev ones that sip fuel slowly. A 180 HP engine burns, on an average, 15 litres an hour (in water, mileage is calculated on the time spent in water); the result is that fishing is turning out to be more of a gambling, where one failed attempt spurs the fishers to make a second attempt on borrowed money, spending more time in the sea with larger and heavier fishing gear.

To sober the energy-intensive fishing practices and reduce bycatch, the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) has undertaken a Rs-12.25-crore project to promote a greener approach towards fishing. As part of the project, Green Fishing Systems for Tropical Seas, CIFT, together with the Goa Shipyard, will design and build a new generation fishing vessel, said Leela Edwin, the principal investigator of the project and head of fishing technology division, CIFT. “The 19.8-metre-long vessel aims to be a standard for all future fishing vessels with state-of the-art hull design, engines that squeeze the most out of diesel and light weight and durable fishing nets that last a lot more than the average life of three years,” she said.

As it has tied up with the Goa Shipyard for vessel building, it has also partnered with Garware Wall Ropes Ltd and DSM India Ltd for durable, eco-friendly fishing gears. The National Fund for Basic Strategic and Frontier Application Research is bankrolling the project. This project would herald the participation of private players in basic and strategic research in fisheries for the first time, the head scientist said.

A recent report by North Sea Foundation has spotlighted the terrible mismatch between energy spent against gained in fisheries sector. “The energy content of the fuel burned by global fishing vessels is 12.5 times greater than the edible protein content of the resulting catch,” the report said.

A senior scientist at CIFT said they were aiming for a 10% slash in fuel consumption.

“Light-weight fishing nets mean reduced drag on vessels, right engine means optimal fuel consumption. Also tweaking the hull design will ensure reduced wave resistance. All put together, we hope it will benefit the fishing industry,” he said.

The project comes in the wake of calls to help coach the fishing industry for the long run. The indiscriminate use of high-powered engines coupled with no-holds barred competition that scoops up even juvenile fish, ethics has taken the backseat in our seas.

Naval architect and a senior scientist who is part of the project said, “The neighbouring States like Karnataka have banned the use of engines above 290 HP in vessels between 15-20 metres in length based on the recommendations by a panel involving CMFRI and CIFT.”

But there isn’t any such visible curb in Kerala, and it has triggered a kind of barter sale. “The fishing vessels in Kerala are snapping up the used Shanghai-made engines banned elsewhere. And the fishers there are hunting in Kerala for the Ashok Leyland engines that power the traditional motorised boats,” said Jacob, a fisherman, whose surname has been withheld to protect his identity.

Charles George of Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI) said: “Technology is like a raging bull. It will always charge ahead. The world is not going back to the canoes. But there has to be some kind of a level-playing field. When our folks are going after fish that don’t obey borders, there can’t be two rules for maritime States. Though fishing is a State subject, the Centre has to step in to bring about a level-playing field.”

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