An ongoing case in the Supreme Court, to decide whether the ban that several States have imposed on purse seine fishing is justified or not, has revealed the faultlines between small, marginal and large fishers, with the Centre and States also taking different sides on the issue.
Purse seine fishing, deployed widely on India’s western coasts, uses a large vertical net to surround dense shoals of pelagic or midwater fish in the open ocean, and then draws in the edges like tightening the cords of a drawstring purse. In some States, it is linked to concerns about the decreasing stock of small, pelagic shoaling fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies and trevally on the western coasts.
The scientific community argues that climatic conditions, including the El Nino phenomenon, are responsible for the declining catch of such fish in the last ten years. However, fishermen using traditional methods have placed the blame squarely on the rise of purse seine fishing, and fear a further fall in the availability of these small fish if the ban is lifted. They have also demanded that, as the Centre has supported the lifting of the ban, it should publish the expert committee report it has based its stance on.
A major concern is the dwindling availability of oil sardines, a favourite of Kerala fish eaters. In 2021, Kerala recorded a catch of just 3,297 tonnes of sardine, a sharp decrease from the haul of 3.9 lakh tonnes in 2012. While traditional fish workers blame purse seines as a reason for the decrease in sardines in Indian waters, those using big boats with purse seine fishing nets claim that it is simply a more scientific way to catch fish, particularly from the first layer of the sea.
‘Efficient and scientific’
“It is the best and most efficient gear to catch small, shoaling, sea fish. The controversy against using this gear is due to jealousy in certain quarters,” said Sunil Mohamed, former principal scientist of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI). “On the eastern coast, this method was not used earlier. A boat which uses purse seine gear will be full of fish and this may have created some jealousy and concern among others that if this continues, the fish stock availability will end very soon.” Dr. Mohamed said the advantage of the purse seine method is that it does not exploit other species, since it focuses on shoaling fishes only.
However, he added a note of caution, warning that without regulation, the concerns of traditional fish workers would not be addressed. “Of course, there should be regulation and it is up to the government to manage the fishing boats and equipment. Automatic identification systems can be established to identify the boats engaged in fishing. Purse seine gear can create concern only if it is used without any control. The number of boats sent for fishing should be decided based on the availability of fish,” he said. When asked about the declining sardine population, he insisted that it had nothing to do with a specific fishing gear. “It came down between 2014 and 2021. But in 2022, it has been revived. Fishing methods are similar worldwide, but regulation is important,” Dr. Mohamed added.
‘Release expert committee report’
Trade unions working among fish workers urged the Centre to release the expert committee report that it depended on to prepare its affidavit against the ban. “There is no one view among fish workers on this issue. It is for the government to take a decision on this. The Centre has not revealed the details of the expert committee on purse seine fishing yet,” said Trade Union Centre of India general secretary Charles George. “The concerns of the traditional fish workers should be addressed and it can be addressed only if the expert committee report is made available to the trade unions and State governments.” Noting that different States have different stances on the ban, he said that it was natural that fish workers, especially those who use traditional gear, would have problems with purse seine users.
S. Prabhakaran, working chairman of the National Association of Fishermen, said that his organisation has supported the lifting of the ban. “Rather than banning, the government should bring in certain regulations. Those who don’t use mechanised boats and use small boats should be allowed to operate within five nautical miles. But in the deep sea, it should be permitted to catch shoaling fishes using purse seines,” he said. “It is an internationally used scientific method. There should be sufficient debate. The community must be taught about this system. We are sure that a court verdict will help us in finding a solution,” he added.
‘Detrimental to marine resources’
Both the Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments have decided to file petitions in the Supreme Court on the matter. Kerala Fisheries Minister V. Abdurahiman told The Hindu that the State would oppose purse seine fishing. “Fishing is a State subject and the management plan for marine fisheries in territorial waters is the job of the State. Purse seine is a non-targeted fishing gear and catches all sorts of fishes which come in the way of the net, including juveniles. Hence, they are very much detrimental to marine resources,” he said.
Tamil Nadu State Commissioner of Fisheries K.S. Palanisamy said that the State would adopt a stand and file an affidavit in the Supreme Court as well.
Currently, bans on purse seine fishing are implemented in the territorial waters of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Odisha, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands up to 12 nautical miles. States such as Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, West Bengal have not imposed any such ban, while Maharashtra has issued some orders to regulate, but not ban purse seine fishing in its territorial waters.