KOLLAM: The recent decision of the Union government to permit foreign trawlers to operate in Indian waters beyond 500 metres depth would hit hard the fishing sector in the state, which has shrunk by more than 50 per cent on account of dwindling catches.
The number of fishing boats in the state have come down to 3,000 from 7,000. Kollam, which once held a pride of place as a fishing hotspot with around 3,500 boats dotting its coastline, now has less than half the number. Kollam witnessed a fishing boat boom in the late 1960s after shrimp prices registered a surge. The industry captains of the cashew nut processing hub realised the export potential of different varieties of shrimp gave fillip to the sector by investing in fishing boats.
K Ravindranathan Nair of VLC Cashews, known as the nut king of India, Rajen Nair of Poyilakada Group, MICE group owned by Varkey and politicians like Baby John and Henry Austin led the ‘blue revolution’. Many of these businessmen had fleets of 10-30 boats, which adorned the Neendakara coast.“Exporting of Karikkadi shrimp began in Kollam much ahead of Kochi. This attracted businessmen to become boat owners and exporters,” said M S James, president of Kerala Boat Operators’ Association. The government tried to make the industry popular by “gifting” boats to fishermen, starting an ice plant and freezing unit at Neendakara. But the dwindling catches and mounting loss made many wary of continuing in the business.
Smaller exporting units which depended only on wild shrimp had to shut down and those who expanded the processing capacity either turned to farmed shrimp or other varieties of fish. It has been observed that the local boats, confronted with dwindling catches in the coastal waters, are now moving offshore. It is in this backdrop that the boat operators opposed the recent decision by the Union government to permit foreign trawlers to operate in Indian waters beyond 500 metres depth.
The decision was made following the recommendations of the expert committee headed by B Meenakumari, Dy Director General (Fisheries) of ICAR, that reviewed India’s existing guidelines for deep-sea fishing in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in August last year. It is the fourth such attempt to open the sea for foreign vessels with the aim to transfer the skills of deep sea fishing to the locals. But the government itself had scrapped similar plans in 1996 following the recommendations of the Murari committee which found that the local fishermen didn’t benefit from such foreign collaborations. Interestingly, Norwegians chose Kollam, thanks to its English speaking minority, to transfer their technology as part of the transnational pact.
James, who designed three steel boats 20 years back for deep sea fishing, said that the committee overlooked the capabilities of the local fishermen. “Even with out any technology our fishers are capable of deep sea fishing. There are some who venture as far as Maldivian islands to catch fish. Foreigners come here as they want unhindered access to our marine resource,” said James.
According to James none of the boat owners benefited from the Letter of Permissions (LOPs) scheme which could have provided financial relaxation in acquiring deep sea fishing vessels.
K Sunil Mohammed, Principal Scientist, CMFRI, said the report should have focused on empowering the local communities. Sunil, who was part of a state government committee to look into the issues of the fishing industry in 2013 says none of the 66 recommendations made by them have been implemented.
“But even the fisherfolk does not seem to be bothered by it. Its high time they thought about their future,” he said.