The next four weeks will be crucial for the fishing community in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka as a moratorium on destructive fishing methods of bottom trawling and double trawling in the Palk Bay between Sri Lanka and India will kick in on Monday. The Indian side agreed to a month-long moratorium as part of a formula to address the contentious issue of bilateral fishing rights. That was the main takeaway of the first round of talks convened on Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s initiative between fishermen of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka during their meeting in Chennai on January 27.
Sharing the outcome of the meeting during her address to the State Assembly on February 3, Jayalalithaa said pair trawling and purse seine fishing will not be done by both sides and those violating it could face action. The next round of talks will be held in Sri Lanka, she added.
While pair trawling involves two boats towing one huge net with a wide mouth and a small mesh at the cod end, in bottom trawling, the net goes right up to the sea floor before towing. It is destructive fishing because the net ends up catching not just the target school of fishes but everything else as well — bycatch in fishing jargon — and destroys all marine life in its sweep.
To be fair, overexploitation of marine resources happens not just in the Palk Bay but also across the globe, according to a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for Nature. It paints a doomsday scenario of fishery resources across the world vanishing by 2048, which itself is an optimistic estimate, according to an official from a department falling under India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He cites a UN report that predicts drastic depletion in fishing resources even by 2028, if destructive fishing practices continue unabated. “The main reason for the depletion is the bycatch or incidental catch of juvenile fish by bottom and double trawlers that use banned fishing nets. In the process, the habitat of fishes, including coral reefs, are irreversibly damaged,” he points out. Such bycatch forms a significant proportion of the actual catch and is segregated for use as poultry feed in Tamil Nadu. Elsewhere in the world, dead bycatch is released in mid-sea itself.
Another indicator of depletion: according to WWF data, the PPR (Primary Production Rate) along the coastal stretch of Tamil Nadu is down by at least 30 per cent. In other words, the amount of food required for juvenile fish to grow in the coastal area in Tamil Nadu is short by 30 per cent. The depletion is mainly attributed to bottom trawling and double trawling using banned fishing nets, including twin-fold and monofilament nets. That perhaps offers one explanation why Tamil Nadu fishermen choose to stray into Sri Lankan waters despite a history of harassment by the neighbour’s law enforcement agencies. While the Lankan waters have abundant schools of fish, their population on the Indian side of the Exclusive Economic Zone has diminished because of overexploitation of resources.
Before joining the chorus of environmental activists demanding total ban on bottom and double trawling, here is some seafood for thought. Way back in the 1970s, it was the Indian government that had aggressively promoted bottom trawling, packaging it as an idea whose time had come to multiply the catch, improve the livelihood of the fisherfolk and give a booster shot to the industry. The government offered generous subsidies to people ready to invest in the new technique. At last count, Tamil Nadu had around 15,000 motorised trawlers operating from Chennai to Kanyakumari. Their catch includes about 800 species of elasmobranches, teleosts, crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms.
These are the boats that need to be redirected to the high sea away from the Palk Bay. The challenge is to make it lucrative for them to stay off bottom trawling. Remember there is a huge fishing community living in an estimated 50,000 fishing villages across the Tamil Nadu coast whose livelihood needs to be secured.
Express reporters who spoke to a wide cross-section of fisherfolk across the State to get a sense of the way forward, found complete unanimity in the view that bottom and double trawling are totally unsustainable methods of fishing. They do it because of lack of alternatives, though they fully understand that destructive fishing can only be disastrous. If a viable and lucrative option is offered — through persuasion and not coercion — they would certainly consider it, they say. While persuasion would involve partial bankrolling of equipment, including boats and spreading awareness about sustainable fishing on the high sea besides giving the fishing community ample time to change their practices, an immediate blanket ban could be seen as coercion.
According to Tree Foundation’s Supraja Dharini, many rare species may become extinct and the fishing stock will be depleted if the government does not impose a total ban on bottom trawling. “The government should also bring in a regulation on the mesh size. Net manufacturers should be forced to fall in line,” she said.
“Before imposing a total ban on destructive trawling, the government must provide alternative solutions to fishermen,” said M D Dayalan, president of Indian Fishermen Association. “Sri Lanka wants us to go in for gill netting and hook and line fishing. For that to work, the gap between each ship should be at least 1 km, which is not feasible and could create further complications. Besides, the waters around the International Maritime Boundary Line in the Palk Bay aren’t deep enough for hook and line fishing and gill netting,” argues Dayalan.
Bottom and double trawling can’t be wished away in the short term. If banned, there will be people who will be tempted to violate it till they have alternative means of fishing, Dayalan pointed out. The way forward involves providing government subsidies to modify trawlers to go for deep sea fishing. “We know bottom trawling is dangerous to marine ecology, but the changeover to gill net and hook and line should be done step-by-step and not in one go,” says Dayalan.
Fishermen in the Nagapattinam area are okay with the idea of deep-sea fishing, vexed as they are with frequent arrests and seizure of boats by the Lankan navy.
Speaking to Express, M Ilango, general secretary of National Fishworkers Forum, said, “We have been involved in bottom trawling for the past four decades. That concept was sold to the fishermen by the Central and State governments in the late 70s, by offering various subsidies. A fresh round of subsidies would be needed to nudge fisherfolk towards deep-sea fishing with liberal assistance for fishing gear.”
Tamil Nadu Subsidy
In its policy document on the fisheries department for the current fiscal, the Tamil Nadu government had sweetened the deal by doubling its subsidy offer to 50 per cent to buy new boats for deep sea fishing with gill nets. “To encourage the fishermen to take up diversified fishing methods and to optimally utilise the under-exploited/unexploited offshore / deep sea fishery resources, the existing pattern of subsidy towards procurement of new tuna longliners will be enhanced from 25 per cent to 50 per cent and a sum of `30 crore will be allocated for this purpose. Accordingly, 50 per cent subsidy assistance of the total cost of `60 lakh subject to maximum of `30 lakh per tuna longliner will be given,” the policy statement read. Longlining attracts fish with a central fishing line that ranges from one to over 80 km long.
If a group of six fishermen or a fisheries cooperative society or even an individual fisherman wants to buy a new tuna longliner, the government will pay 50 per cent of the cost. With a 120 HP engine as its main power source, the tuna longliner boats can accommodate as many as 1,000 fishing hooks. It also has refrigeration and can also store up to 250 kg of bait to be used for the catch. Besides the navigation and communication gear, the vessel can accommodate one tonne of gill nets for trapping the catch vertically while fishing at deep sea locations.
Besides, the government announced a pilot project on ‘Mid Sea Fish Processing Units cum Carrier Mother Vessel’ under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) mode. The project is intended to help Tamil Nadu fishermen take up deep sea fishing so as to reduce fishing pressure in inshore waters. Stationed at mid sea, the mother vessel will act as a source of critical inputs for the baby vessels involved in commercial fishing in the deep-sea, including water, fuel and ice, and will have all the facilities for onboard fish processing. This will also act as a value added export oriented facility and ensure quality standards for export and good price to fishermen for their catch. The project envisages to station two vessels, one at the Bay of Bengal and another at Indian Ocean, the policy note said.
Ilango agreed that it was a win-win alternative for all stakeholders. To make fishermen bite the bait, they need to be educated on the economic benefits of deep sea fishing vis-a-vis bottom trawling. Till it gives them a sense of financial security, they would be very wary, Ilango reasoned.
“The cost factor can’t be overlooked,” said Vijayakumar, secretary of Mechanised Fishing Boats and Fishermen Association in Jegathapattinam. “Look, our fishermen invest anywhere between `10 lakh and `70 lakh to construct mechanised boats. Bottom trawling is the only way to meet our expenses. Even that has not been rewarding at times when the catch is low. Suggesting that they go for longlines is a big ask,” he said.
However, not all fishermen want a kid glove approach from the establishment towards destructive trawling. “The solution lies in the strict enforcement of laws. For example, twin-fold fishing nets (rettai madi valai) and ring seine nets (surukku valai) are banned. Yet there are quite a few fishermen who use them with impunity. “Unless violators are penalised with, say, withdrawal of their diesel subsidy, they continue operations,” suggested Kumaravel, a fishermen representative from Akkaraipettai. But according to Coast Guard officials, offenders, if caught, are punished. That perhaps is like penalising helmetless motorists in Chennai. Yes, they are penalised, but the offence continues. Since enforcement happens only for a few days each month, it fails to act as a deterrent.
Though sustainable fishing practice is desirable, should not be at the cost of fishermen’s livelihood, warned K Venkatraman, director of the Zoological Survey of India. “We have 50,000 coastal villages and 15,000 trawlers. Already, agriculture has been hit, and many farmers have taken to fishing,” he reasoned. “We have 33 different Acts for conservation of biodiversity. Let those be implemented first,” Venkatraman contended.
At the time of going to Press, there were conflicting reports on the implementation of the moratorium, with a section of fishermen from Karaikal saying they had already put out to sea with their bottom trawlers.
While the moratorium will test the willpower of Tamil Nadu fishermen to find a sustainable solution, there must be reciprocal action from the Sri Lankan side. The recent arrest of fishermen could vitiate the atmosphere of goodwill generated during the first round of talks, as Jayalalithaa pointed out in her letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The process of building mutual confidence has begun. With political maturity, it can be taken to its logical conclusion. If bottom trawling and double trawling are phased out, fishing by the two sides across the maritime boundary may be possible, as it has been for ages.