Ground Zero Comment

Fishing in troubled waters

Sanjay Lalji, 28, unloads fish from a mid-sized mechanised trawler at Vanakbara fishing harbour near Diu after a 12-day fishing trip to Goa. As he and his co-workers unload more than three tonnes of fish from the trawler, he gets a message on his mobile phone to schedule a trip two days hence. He will have to leave an hour before dawn. Before setting out, Lalji and his colleagues will have to fill the storage of the vessel with seven to eight tonnes of ice, which is crushed in a machine on the jetty and flows in the storage through a conveyer belt from the crushing machine.

Vanakbara is a fishing village whose 10,000 inhabitants engage in fishing and related activities. The coastal village at the edge of Diu has a jetty with around 900 mechanised trawlers, 250 fibreglass boats and 300 small boats which go out for fishing near Okha, Dwarka on the Gujarat coast and up to Goa and Maharashtra.

Dangers and diminishing returns

The vessels from Vanakbara don’t venture into Jakhau in Kutch where they run the risk of being caught by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA). Fifty-one fishermen from this village are currently languishing in Pakistan jails for years. “Not only our men are apprehended, even our boats are taken away by Pakistan, so it’s best to avoid going there,” says Anwar Pathan, another fisherman on the boat, who is from small village in Kodinar taluka of Gujarat.

At the time of writing this report, it is estimated that 500 Gujarati fishermen are languishing in Pakistan jails after they were apprehended by the PMSA from the International Maritime Boundary Line off the coast of Gujarat. The Gujarat government pays Rs.200 per day to families whose members have been arrested by Pakistani authorities; the Union Territory administration does the same in Diu and Daman.

Fishermen from India and Pakistan are increasingly being convicted of trespassing even as fishery has become increasingly vital to India’s economic output and technical improvement — better boats that enable riskier navigation — and climate change alters traditional patterns of fishing.

But there is no other way than to venture deep into the sea in search of a big catch. “We have to go deep into the sea, which takes us 12 days and more depending on the catch we get. Sometimes we return in 10 days and sometimes it takes two weeks and even longer if we don’t get enough catch to fill the vessel,” says Lalji, as he talks about how the days spent in the sea are getting longer. According to him, this was not the case 10 years ago, when they would return in four or five days with a full catch.

“We sometimes don’t even get a boatload of fish after two weeks of fishing on the high seas,” he says as he shows the cold storage inside the boat anchored at the jetty.

Lalji had started fishing when he was 16 and it’s been more than a decade spent at sea now. “It is a laborious but not remunerative occupation due to dwindling catch and declining high-value fish such as pomfrets, larger sciaenids, threadfins and penaeid prawns.”

Suresh Kharva joins the conversation on the boat and tries to explain the economics of fishing. “Each trip is around 12 days. Every ship has 8-10 fishermen and one captain to navigate the vessel. For a 12-day trip, we need 2,500 litres of diesel and 8-10 tonnes of ice. Each person is paid Rs.250-300 per day plus food and the tandel or captain is paid Rs.1,000 per day. So effectively, per trip cost works out to around Rs.3 lakh. Now, if we don’t get three tonne good variety fish, we can’t even recover our money,” he says.

A major factor cited by the fishermen for the declining catch is an ever expanding vessel fleet — 35,150 fishing vessels in all in Gujarat as of 2011 according to the figures provided by the State fisheries department, which has resulted in overcapacity with larger fishing fleets competing for the limited fisheries resource.

The exploited coast

Pollution is the other big factor fishermen cite when asked why they go deeper in the sea risking their lives for a bigger catch. “The sea has become very polluted affecting fishing,” says Lalji. Says 60-year-old Jivanbhai Baria, who was earlier a fisherman and now runs a beer shop in Vanakbara, Diu: “Concentration of industrial corridors like chemical and pharmaceutical units in Vapi and Ankleshwar, petrochemicals in Vadodara, refineries and power plants in Jamnagar, and power plants and ports in Kutch have rendered the sea coast highly polluted and that is directly affecting fishing.”

Gujarat is endowed with the country’s longest coastline running into 1,660 km. As per United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for economic exploitation is delimited to 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) from the coast. Gujarat’s EEE covers 2,14,000 sq km. While its coastal waters are rich in fish resources, with the National Institute of Oceanography’s database listing 306 fish species in the area, the coastline is dotted with industrial corridors comprising chemical and pharmaceutical factories, petrochemical units and refineries, thermal power plants, cement factories, the ship-breaking and recycling corridor in Alang. Thirty five per cent of India’s total cargo is handled by the 42 ports on the Gujarat coast, where more than 10,000 ships move in and out every year.

Fisherwomen at the Vanakbara fishing harbour in Diu. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Nearly 60 per cent of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation estates in the State are located in the coastal districts, as also 59 per cent of the common effluent treatment plants. Power plants in the coastal districts account for 71 per cent of the total power projects in the State and 61 per cent of its generating capacity.

“Industrial pollution and overfishing are destroying fishery on the Gujarat coast,” says Porbandar-based Manish Lodhari, secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum, who fights for the rights of fishermen apprehended by Pakistan and estimates that there are up to 800-1,000 seized boats of Gujarati fishermen lying anchored at the Karachi fishing harbour. “Due to extensive fishing, small fish are caught in the net and their eggs get destroyed,” he adds.

According to a 2012 report on coastal and marine environment in Gujarat prepared by Arun Mani Dixit and Chandanathil P. Geevan for the Gujarat Ecology Commission, fishery in the State is currently dominated by low-value fin and shell fishes like smaller croakers, carangids, Bombay ducks, ribbonfish, threadfin breams, lizardfish, flatfish and non-penaeid prawns. The authors also noted that as per a study by the Kochi-based Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), there is conspicuous change in the resource composition over the years with quality (high-value) fishes like pomfrets, larger sciaenids, threadfins and penaeid prawns being replaced by low-value varieties.

Nationwide, about 1.9 million fishermen make a living off fishing, not counting those employed in the processing, sale and handling of seafood products. India’s Commerce Ministry notes that about 80,000 mechanised fishing vessels currently are in use along with 75,000-odd motorised fishing boats and 50,000 traditional non-motorised fishing craft. While the country has an 8,118-km-long coastline and an EEZ covering two million square kilometres, marine capture fisheries production is greater in waters off the west coast due to the large continental shelf in the Arabian Sea — 70 per cent of India’s marine catch comes from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa with cyclical swings.

A sea change underway

One of the most visible influences of greenhouse gases trapping heat and warming the oceans is on the spawning and migratory patterns of commercially harvested fish. A 2014 report by Climate South Asia Network — ‘Climate Change and Fisheries’ by Sumana Narayanan — found that fishermen from Tamil Nadu to Gujarat have started to register distinct changes. For one, fish catch has reduced and much of it consists of young fish. Several species are disappearing from their traditional habitats and traditional geared- and sail-fishing boats are being replaced by mechanised ones. “… Fisherfolk have also had to go further into the sea to break even (mechanised boats mean greater financial inputs and so require greater fishing returns) raising issues of safety at sea, not just accidents due to natural disasters… (but also) accidental crossing (of) international boundaries (and) getting arrested by the Coast Guards of neighbouring countries,” the report added.

Scientists also attest to warming forcing fish further from the shore. The Indian Ocean has warmed the most, among the seas that surround India, which in turn has led to increased temperatures along the Arabian Sea coast, says Madhavan Rajeevan, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences. “Fish generally prefer colder waters and so there may be a tendency to move away from the coast,” he says.

Fishermen from India and Pakistan are increasingly being convicted of trespassing. Photo: Vijay Soneji

During 2014, in its most comprehensive survey publicly available, the CMFRI noted that between 1950 and 2010, the sea surface temperature has gone up by 0.8 degree Celsius. Coupled with changes in the salinity of sea water and a shift in the pattern of sea winds, these patterns have upset the rhythm of the spawning and availability of key fish species that have been the mainstay of Indian fishermen.

For instance, the oil sardine, which makes up most of the fish harvested in India, was once largely restricted to a narrow stretch of the Arabian Sea. It has now become more abundant along the colder waters of the Bay of Bengal and almost up to Odisha and West Bengal. While on the surface, the greater availability may appear to be a good thing, scientists say that fewer such fish are beginning to be available near Gujarat and the ones being caught are smaller than they used to be.

Rainfall and ocean upwelling, a phenomenon in which cold nutrient-rich waters from the ocean depths rise to the top, are critical to the mating habits and consequent availability of fish. However, warmer waters mean that this upwelling is disrupted and better catches are available deeper into the ocean, forcing fishermen to venture further out and accidentally risk crossing international borders.

On the other hand, with fishermen increasingly relying on mechanised or motorised boats rather than limited-range sailboats, newer kinds of fish, prawn and clam are available to the adventurous seafarer. For instance, another important species, the Indian mackerel, has usually occupied surface and sub-surface waters and conventionally been caught by surface-drift gillnets of artisanal fishermen. Now it is increasingly getting caught in bottom-trawl nets operated by large mechanised boats at about 50 metres depth. This, according to Dr. V. Kripa at CMFRI, shows that the fish increasingly “descends down” to overcome warmer surface waters. Other studies note that the Bombay duck is maturing early at smaller size from 232 mm to 192 mm and the silver pomfret, that once matured at 410 g size, is maturing at 280 g size. Fish maturing when they are still small means fewer eggs.

Threadfin breams, that make up about 5 per cent of India’s fish catch and are worth Rs.360 crore annually, are extremely sensitive to temperature changes in the deep ocean. Unlike the sardine, the breams are found lower down in the ocean. Over the last two decades they have increasingly chosen to spawn when ocean temperatures at the bottom dip below 25 degrees C. Two other species of the Nemipterus family have also changed their spawning seasons to one when the waters are relatively colder. These differences in breeding behaviour often translate into unequal opportunities for fishermen and those with bigger faster boats have an advantage over slower ones.

Time to relook fishermen detentions

Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves says it is high time both India and Pakistan changed laws and started to see fishermen not as criminals but people “inadvertently crossing”. Later this month the Supreme Court is expected to hear a long-standing petition by civil society groups on the release of Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails, who are being detained in spite of having finished their sentences. Gonsalves says that such fishermen merit a different treatment because the government has never found them to be spies.

Over the years there was a joint judicial commission with members from both India and Pakistan who would meet up with fishermen incarcerated in each other’s jails. They had a key role in forcing governments to release prisoners. “However, this judicial committee hasn’t met in the last one and a half years. Even those who are released are forced to leave their trawlers behind, which cost about Rs.20 lakh,” says Gonsalves, “So we need an entirely new policy to address the rights of fishermen from both countries.”

If a policy does come through, Lalji, Karva and others from both countries can fish without fear. They can continue to heed the call of the sea.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 12:39:57 PM |

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