THOOTHUKUDI: The Union government recently listed the Indian Marine Fisheries Bill, 2021 to be passed in the ongoing Monsoon session of Parliament, and fisherfolk have strongly objected to it, saying it would benefit corporates and deprive traditional fishermen of their livelihood.
As per the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1983, fishing is permitted on country craft boats within 5 nautical miles (nm) and on mechanised vessels between 5 and 12 nm. Mechanised vessels with trawlers are only to be used between 5 am and 9 pm. Over the years, fishermen on both country craft boats and mechanised vessels have moved far beyond the 12 nm mark, as the availability of fish reduced in the terrestrial sea. The State government has control up to 12 nm from the base line, while the rest is vested with the Union government.
Now, the Union government’s Indian Marine Fisheries Bill, 2021 proposes to only grant licenses to vessels registered under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, to fish in the EEZ (see chart). It also puts the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) in charge of Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS), and proposes punishments for fishermen breaching the EEZ without a licence, not complying with ICG orders, and obstructing ICG officials.
‘Legislation lacks clarity’
National Union of Fishermen president Anton Gomez told TNIE the Bill lacks clarity on the varieties of boats to be registered under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958. Fishermen choose catamarans, country boats, fibre boats and mechanised vessels based on their financial condition, he said, adding that most fishermen are poor, and use country boats and fibre boats. Treating all modes of fishing as one shows their insensibility, Gomez asserted, and pointed out that the Bill was drafted without consulting traditional fisherfolk.
He further said the Bill is draconian as it lets the ICG penalise those who net non-permitted species. “Fishermen don’t engage in selective fishing; their nets catch all kinds of fish,” he noted. Gomez welcomed the move to restrict foreign vessels from entering the EEZ, but added that there are suspicions that corporates backed by international fishing agencies would be encouraged.
Thoothukudi District Country Boat, Cattumaram and Fibre Boat Fishermen Welfare Association’s legal advisor advocate Dayan said the Bill seems to generalise all modes of fishing. Obtaining a license is difficult, the charges are high, there are annual fees, fitness certificates need to be renewed, and on top of all this, the penalties are unaffordable for poor fishermen, he argued, adding that traditional fishermen are illiterate and cannot register themselves online. Even little violations could lead to seizure of boats, and this would affect the livelihood of fishermen. Moreover, a one-year jail term for questioning Indian Coast Guards is extremely unjust,” said Dayan.
Availability of fish reducing
The fishermen said they primarily depend on the continental shelf area and the EEZ because of the availability of fish in the terrestrial sea is shrinking. In fact, there has been a drastic decline in fishing resources in the Indian ocean, they pointed out, attributing it to destructive fishing practice by trawlers, climatic changes, the continental plate drift during the 2004 tsunami, and excess fishing by international long liners in the EEZ.
Traditional fishing includes conch collection from the seabed. Several hundreds of fishermen depend on conch diving. Conch-collecting fisherman from Trespuram MRB Regan said the Bill would destroy their prospects as they collect conches beyond 12 nm.
M Krishnamurthi, from the Unorganised Workers Federation, said the Bill’s restriction on traditional fishermen venturing beyond 12 nm without a license violates the traditional right of fishermen to access fishing resources. “Fishermen might accidentally go further. Impounding their vessels due to this would leave them in abject poverty,” he remarked, and alleged these restrictions on traditional fishermen were aimed at handing over fishing and trading rights to international corporate entities.
Corporates set to gain?
Fisherman Kebiston said a similar Bill proposed in 2009 by the then Congress government was shelved amid opposition from the fishing community, but now, the BJP-led Union government has made a few modifications and drafted the Bill again.
Another fisherman, Gunasekaran, from Vembar fishing hamlet, said regulations are needed to protect the marine ecosystem, but not to have corporates replace traditional fishermen, as this would be counterproductive. “The Bill would impoverish 90 per cent of traditional fishermen, and benefit corporates waiting to monopolise the ocean’s fishing resources,” he added.
‘Bill violates Constitution’
Thoothukudi Country Boat Fibre Boat Fishermen Association president Dr SJ Gayes alleged the Bill violates the Constitutional guarantees of the right to life and personal liberty, and the right against exploitation enshrined in Articles 21 and 23 respectively. Besides, putting the Indian Coast Guard (which is under the Central government) in charge of monitoring, control and surveillance of fishing obviates the State’s hold on fishermen’s welfare, he added.
Gomez said the Bill is against the interests of traditional fishermen, who contribute several crore rupess to the Gross Domestic Product, and should be withdrawn as it was not drafted in consultation with traditional fishermen along the coast.
The government, meanwhile, says the Bill would ensure regulation of fishing in the EEZ, which is under the purview of the Central department of fisheries. It is envisioned to provide a framework for sustainable exploitation of aquatic living resources, protect endangered threatened and protected marine species, and reign in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, an official stated.
Lines in the sea
Here’s how zones are classified
Territorial zone - 12 nautical miles (nm) from shore baseline
Contiguous zone - 12 nm from end of territorial zone
Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) - 200 nm from end of territorial zone
High seas - from end of the Exclusive Economic Zone