As the Quad grouping looks to track and address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Indo-Pacific, an ambitious effort to install satellite-based Vehicle Monitoring Systems (VMS) for small fishing vessels (less than 20m) across the country’s coastline in the aftermath of 26/11 Mumbai attacks is still to be rolled out. Despite pilot studies being conducted, the project remains stuck, according to Government officials.
“Tracking of our small fishing vessels is something pending since 26/11, but it has been stuck primarily due to two reasons,” a Government official said on condition of anonymity. “Fishermen don’t want to get tagged as they do not want any of their illegal activities recorded and they are sceptical that others will get to know of where there is good catch. Second is that fishing is a State subject and there are local politics involved,” the official explained.
The official further stated that there is no legislation to force fishermen to install the transponders and efforts by the Ministry of Fisheries to table the Indian Marine Fisheries Bill 2021 which covers this has been repeatedly delayed due to opposition from States and fishermen.
The Quad grouping, comprising of India, Australia, Japan and U.S., announced at the Tokyo summit last month an ambitious Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) initiative to track “dark shipping” and build a “faster, wider, and more accurate maritime picture of near-real-time activities in partners’ waters” integrating three critical regions in the Indo-Pacific - the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
There are two main regulations globally on IUU fishing - Cape Town Agreement (CTA) and the Agreement on Ports State Measures (PSMA) and India is, so far, not a signatory of both the agreements.
Automatic Identification System (AIS) is for bigger ships which was made compulsory for all vessels above 20 metres after 26/11 by the National Committee on Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) headed by the Cabinet Secretary set up to look into issues related to coastal security.
For smaller fishing vessels, VMS, which is slightly different from AIS, is used, another official said, explaining that AIS is a broadcast mode which anyone can receive while VMS is a proprietary system and one can’t receive unless the data is given. It terms of functioning VMS has a transponder which relays data via a satellite.
Trials were conducted on tracking of vessels under 20m first fitted on small patrol boats in Mumbai followed by trials on fishing vessels both of which were successful, the official said. “Further a pilot was carried out on a small number of fishing vessels along the coasts of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.”
The trials were conducted in association with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on one of their communication satellites and the transponders have advanced features like weather alert and so on but there has been no progress, the official further explained. “Trials were again conducted in 2021 in collaboration with a startup which were also successful. But there has been no movement since.”
World over fishing vessels are supposed to have VMS which does not only give the position identity, the fishing vessel is also supposed to feed in the volume of the catch and where was it caught which tackles the issue of IUU.
Growing concern on IUU
There has been growing concern and action on IUU fishing that depletes fish stocks, destroys marine habitats, puts fishermen at disadvantage and impacts coastal communities, especially in developing countries.
In addition, there is also the issue of subsidies for fishermen. It is believed that the more subsidies given, more the illegal fishing and there has been a campaign across the world against subsidies. India has been under pressure over this, two officials independently noted.
Addressing the 3rd Goa Maritime Conclave in November 2021, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar talking of various non-traditional maritime threats had said, “Moreover, IUU fishing greatly discriminates against those who that act responsibly, honestly and in accordance with rules. IUU fishing, mostly from outside our region, is threatening marine biodiversity, food security for communities and the livelihoods of those involved in fishing.”
As reported by The Hindu earlier, there has been a growing incidence of Chinese deep sea fishing trawlers deep in the Southern Indian Ocean.