Fishing in the troubled waters of Kerala

fisher men

An MoU signed between a US company and the Government of Kerala has become a major pre-election controversy in Kerala. The plan under this MoU included deep-sea fishing through hundreds of deep-sea fishing trawlers and several mother vessels in the sea around the Kerala coast.  This project is not only against the existing fisheries policy but also has a tremendous impact on the livelihood and health of fishermen in the state. This essay explains the social and historical context of the controversy to help us to reach a nuanced understanding of the issues.

Seafood forms a major component of the diet of the population in Kerala and ‘fish’ to the people who live here is an assured source of animal protein which has less cholesterol than meat and egg. ‘Subsistence fishers’ make up a sizeable part of the coastal population. Any change which occurs in the extraction of marine resources especially in the fisheries sector will also affect the livelihoods of the fishermen.

The plight of the fishermen community in coastal Kerala had remained as a neglected aspect, until a minority group of activist clergies from the Christian Church, took up the fishermen issues in the early 1980s in the context of the arrival of a large multinational fishing fleet in the Arabian Sea.

In fact, most of the ordinary fishermen owned only their labor and they were subjected to severe exploitation by the local ‘Sea Lords’ who owned ‘boats’ and ‘nets’. Ordinary fisherfolk are still underpaid, unorganized, and uncared for by the authorities and even by the mainstream Church which baptized most of the fishermen in the coastal area. There existed a localized unresolved conflict between these subsistence fishers and the commercial fisheries on the Kerala coast. In fact, such conflicts are not confined to the Kerala coast only, but to the entire 7,500 km. the long coastal line of India in which 1,800 fishermen villages are struggling for their livelihood.

By and Large, traditional modes of fishing using traditional craft and gear are supposed to be ‘sustainable’ as they had followed the rules of the sea’. As fish is a living resource, it could be renewable through reproduction. Hence, the experts say, two- thirds of the fish stock can be safely removed to make the stock sustainable. Experienced traditional fishermen normally leave the young ones and capture the grown-up ones to maintain the required density. Moreover, they do not engage in fishing during the spawning season.

In the sea near the Kerala coast, the Indian Oil Sardine’ does their spawning with the onset of South-West monsoon. Any fishing during this period is inimical to the sustainability of these types of fishes. Understanding this, in 1940, Madras Government banned catching Oil Sardines during the spawning season.

The Liberalisation during the Congress era opened up the coastal areas to the fishing fleet of developed countries who used ‘bottom trawlers’ and big ‘purse seines. They arrived during the monsoon when the Oil Sardines spawn their eggs. When their helicopter sights a big shoal of fish or their vessel’s sonar system detects a shoal in the sea bottom, these vessels rush to it and their purse seine nets are strewn around the shoal and close the bottom of the net, trapping more than 12 tonnes of fish at a stretch resulting in genocide. The use of ‘trawl net to catch prawn causes intensive damage to seabed destroying the habitat of fish and other aquatic organisms. The juvenile fish which are also caught are discarded Later, as they have little commercial value.

The expansion of fishery activities into comparatively under-exploited areas of the Indian Ocean by developed countries such as Canada and Norway has a history of over-exploitation of their own coastal areas and the decline of industrial fisheries in those countries. Global fisheries experienced unprecedented growth during 1900-1970 and registered an eighteen-fold increase in fish caught during this period.

Since 1970 the fish catch stagnated and the ruthless exploitation of fish stock resulted in the demise of the fishing industry itself. For example, in 1992 Canada closed its Cod Fisheries unit in its Eastern Coast idling as many as 40,000 workers. The resultant social repercussions of these developments created a demand for more fish and “powdered fish meal” to feed pet animals and poultry and forced them to enter areas like the Indian ocean for fish hunting.

Though the government claims that such foreign fishing vessels are bound to limit their catch in predetermined quota, no such quota system could be effectively implemented as these Multinational company (MNC) vessels could remain for months together in the sea and could return to their shores with processed and marketable products. Understanding the inherent danger, in 1981 Government of India through the ‘Regulation of Fishing by Foreign Vessels Act’ banned illegal fishing by foreign vessels in Indian waters. However, many foreign trawlers had been operational since 1997 with the then Union Government issuing special letters of permission for foreign trawlers.

The arrival of MNC vessels on the Kerala coast caused unprecedented damage to the coastal ecosystem. For example, earlier, there were frequent occasions of big catch festivals such as ‘Chakara’ on the seashore. By the end of June, as the Southwest monsoon sets in, the level of backwater rises with huge quantities of biomass, carried into the backwaters from the hills by Kerala rivers such as Pampa, Manimala, and Achenkovil. Simultaneous with the entry of bio-mass rich backwaters into the sea, there used to be a periodic shift of the mud bank flourished with phytoplanktons in the coastal waters due to hydraulic pressure. All these would result in a phenomenon called ‘Chakara’ during which there was a huge concentration of prawns, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, lobsters, catfish, and so on the Kerala coast. Since 1997 the frequency of Chakara catch has come down. The massive reduction in fish catch greatly affected not only the livelihood of fishermen but also their nutrition status.

The BJP led Union Government in 2017 had withdrawn special permissions given for foreign trawlers for deep-sea fishing. Even the CPI (M) led the LDF government’s fisheries policy in 2018, opposed allowing foreign and native corporate vessels on the Kerala coast. In the ongoing controversy in Kerala, all parties are making allegations and counter-allegations on who was responsible for selling out the resources of the sea around the Kerala coast to foreign MNCs. While investigations in the coming days may fix the responsibility, whoever comes to power after the upcoming elections in Kerala must ensure that the local people are not deprived of their valuable resources, livelihood, and health.

(Kandathil Sebastian is a Delhi-based author and commentator on social issues. This essay has borrowed insights from his own Ph.D. thesis titled ‘Public Health and Urban Processes – A study of Alleppey’. One of the objectives of his research study was to understand the impact of globalization on the health of people living in and around the coastal town of Alappuzha)




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