Safeguard or Squander? Deciding the Future of India's Fisheries

Lucy Towers
29 June 2012, at 1:00am

India's marine fisheries are in a state of crisis, despite official statements that there is still scope or fish landings to increase. Ninety per cent of India's fish resources are at or above maximum sustainable levels of exploitation (Srinath 2003, Srinath et al 2006), states a new report by Greenpeace.

Recent detailed analysis by leading fisheries researchers confirms that the phenomenon of "fishing down the web"- a key indicator of over-extraction in fishery- is well underway throughout the coastal waters of India.

This, in combination with observed declines in economically important species, increases in fishing effort required per unit of catch and the growing impoverishment of the fishing community are warning signs for marine fisheries in India.

In addition to the hard statistics, there is a significant and growing body of anecdotal evidence gathered from communities located all along the Indian coast/ine, where fishers are experiencing falling catches, significant changes in species size and composition, the necessity for longer fishing trips and hence greater investment to catch fewer fish, and, as a cumulative result, growing poverty, particularly among the non-mechanised sector.

If this situation is not rectified, an estimated 15 million people dependent on marine fisheries either directly or indirectly, will be adversely affected. India's fish exports generated $2.8 billion in 2010-11, and official targets are to raise this to 6 billion by 2015.

A significant source of foreign exchange via exports and domestic income generation will also be jeopardised by a fisheries collapse; and large numbers currently employed in the fisheries marketing and export chain will be rendered jobless.

Overcapacity (too many fishing boats) leading to overfishing, an over-reliance on destructive fishing techniques such as bottom trawling, and continued government subsidies for mechanised fisheries to the detriment of the more sustainable, employment generating nonmechanised sector (motorised and non-motorised) are the main causes of the current over-exploitation. This situation has of course been worsened by rampant pollution, destruction of breeding grounds such as mangroves and estuarine areas, hot water discharge from thermal power plants, industrial effluents, sewage from major urban centres and coastal over development.

Despite numerous studies from India's premier fisheries research institutions and scientists warning of signs of collapse, the central and state governments have either failed to take action, or have been unable to rectify the situation. This is often attributed to the complex, openaccess nature of India's fisheries, and the fact that fisheries in territorial waters (Le. 12 nm) lies in the jurisdiction of respective coastal states. While this is partly true, the bigger underlying issue, however, is that achieving sustainability in marine fisheries has never been a priority for most state governments, and is certainly not a priority for the central government.

The results of a failure to act are being borne by marine ecosystems, which are systematically being degraded, and over 15 million Indians, who depend on healthy and productive seas for their sustenance. However, it is not too late to turn the tide.

Marine fisheries in India clearly have a significant role to play and become a stronger engine for rural growth and social development in coastal India. For this to happen, a program of reforms, carefully implemented over an extended period of time at both national and state levels, must address core institutional, ecological and fisheries management issues.

This report builds on existing arguments and makes a strong case for a range of such measures to be implemented at the earliest in order to stave off a fisheries collapse, and set India's fisheries on a path to sustainability.

June 2012

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.