Addressing livelihood issues of fisherfolk during fishing ban

A fishing boat. Seasonal fishing ban is usually invoked for 45-70 days, coinciding with south-west monsoon or pre-monsoon season.

By A Suresh and VR Madhu

Seasonal fishing ban is an important conservation-oriented regulatory measure governing the harvest of marine fish resource. This is one of the several regulatory measures enacted under Marine Fisheries Regulation Acts to prevent over-exploitation of fishery resources. India is entitled to undertake fishing operations within a 200 nautical mile zone from the shore under the Maritime Zones Act of 1976. The jurisdiction over the territorial waters, extending up to 12 nautical miles from the shore, however, is with the state governments and each state has its own MFRA to govern its fishery resources.

Even though there are several measures to conserve and sustainably harvest marine fish resources, SFB is the one that is most diligently followed by most of the maritime states (Vivekanandan, E. et al., 2010. Seasonal Fishing Ban, Marine fishing policy brief-2, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, Kerala). The seasonal ban usually varies between 45 and 70 days in different states, generally coinciding with south-west monsoon or pre-monsoon season.

The logic of seasonal ban

A major reason for invoking seasonal fishing ban is to protect the spawners at their peak spawning season and allow having at least one cycle of reproduction, so that the maximum benefits can be reaped later. This is expected to keep the stocks at harvestable limit and manage fishes sustainably.
Over years, the fishing capacity in Indian marine waters has increased tremendously. High level of capital infusion in marine fishing sector, particularly in the form of larger vessels and engines and advanced gear system has led to “race to fish” and “race to bottom” in the marine waters.

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High capacity engines, traditional accumulation of capital with the boat owners, easy availability of credit, and imperfection in the credit-market systems has facilitated such competitive fishing practices. The common property nature of marine fisheries incentivised the “maximise harvest” attitude, failing the health of the overall marine ecosystem. Also, fishing techniques like trawling and negative impacts related to plastics are found to disturb marine ecosystem adversely.

In India, the SFB was first started in 1988 in Kerala, targeting trawl fishing. There have been wide variations in terms of implementation of the ban, both regarding the time and the duration of the fishing ban and also with regard to the classification of fishing vessels. The controversy continues till date. A comparative account of the fishing ban adopted in different states (as on 2019) is provided in Table below:

policy circle image

In Kerala, during the SFB, trawl fishing is banned and other fishing methods like ring seines, motorised and traditional vessels are allowed. On the other hand, in states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, SFB extends the closure to all the kind of mechanised and motorised fishing methods.

Impact of seasonal ban

The SFB has evoked serious discussion among scientists, academicians, policy makers and activists, with even diverging opinion on the efficacy of the fishing ban on enhancing fish catch and conserving the ecosystem. A study by a team of scientists at Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi on the impact of SFB during the period of 1985-2008 reported no significant impact of SFB either on catch or catch per unit effort along the western coast. (Vivekanandan, E. et al., 2010. Seasonal Fishing Ban, Marine fishing policy brief-2, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, Kerala.)

The marginal improvements in the eastern coast are due to improvements in the efficiency of craft and gear and extension of fishing to the offshore regions. The positive outcome of the SFB includes arresting the increase of annual fishing effort, improvement in the price and value of fish due to increased growth, and improvement in the recruitment of the dominant demersal fishes. A recent study by Mohamed et al., (Mohamed, K., et al. 2014. Report of the committee to evaluate fish wealth and impact of trawl ban along Kerala coast. Kochi: Government of Kerala, Department of Fisheries) shows that the positive benefits of trawl ban in Kerala lasted only for a decade and the catches have since then reduced drastically.

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Recent scientific evidence points towards revisiting the fisheries management practices in view of climate change also, as it was found that climate change affects the behaviour of several targeted fish species in terms of age/size-at-maturity, spawning, phenology, fecundity, migration, growth, reproduction and recruitment. (Zacharia P.U et al., 2016. Relative vulnerability assessment of Indian marine fishes to climate change using impact and adaptation attributes. CMFRI Special Publication No. 125, (CMFRI-NICRA Publication no. 5), Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, India pp. 192.) Overall, it can be concluded that the evidences are inconclusive on several biophysical impacts of SFB.

Unintended consequences

A study on the impact of SFB in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry by Colwell et al (Colwell, J.M.N. et al., 2019. Unintended consequences of a seasonal ban on fishing effort in Tamil Nadu & Puducherry, India, Fisheries Research 212 (2019) 72–80) notes that while the SFB has a decreasing impact on the overall effort exerted within the fishery; the fishing efforts during the post-SFB is more than that during both before- and during the SFB. The increase during the post-SFB is due to an increase in the operation of surukku valai, an unregulated and discouraged fishing gear type.

This unintended consequence arises as the fishermen indulge in a race to fish maximum immediately during the post- SFB period. To attain these objectives, it is noted that the engine capacity is altered and repaired during the fishing ban period. Such behaviour has its origin on the common property nature of the ocean and the failure to implement a regulation that limit the fishing effort in terms of the fishing capacity. Limiting the fishing effort seems rather a difficult option in India in near future due to the existence of a large number of fishermen households who depend on marine fishing for their livelihood.

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Conflicts among fishermen

The SFB has differential impacts on different categories of fishermen, depending on the type of fishing activities carried out, involvement in auxiliary services, and the asset base of fishermen. For example, in Kerala since only trawl fishing is banned during this period allowing all other fishing systems to operate, the labourers/crew engaged in trawl fishing end up in severe income loss. The legal backup to fish using high powered engines and large vessels in the name of modified traditional systems (mostly ring seines), have led to resentment among the trawl fishers, who believe that that the ban intended to protect juveniles should be applicable to all mechanized vessels. On the other hand, traditional fishers accuse trawlers of operating in the zones earmarked for them, often ending in conflicts between the fishermen groups.

The mobility of the fishermen to other jobs is quite low. This is because fishing has family/ community cornerstone and the skill is acquired from their surroundings. Due to unemployment, they end up having severe income shocks, pushing them to abject poverty during the SFB period. This has got inter- and intra-household implications too. Though there are supports from the state government and other agencies, it is inadequate to meet their requirements. The large-scale unemployment and income shocks impact the food security of the fishermen households adversely. The lack of income during this period renders them easy prey to money lenders, who take this opportunity to have complete control over these fishermen during the fishing seasons.

The reactions of the fishermen towards the reforms of SFB vary over the craft-gear combination in which she/he is engaged. One common pattern among these responses is the mechanised sector’s demand for relaxing the duration of SFB and rescheduling it, while those sectors that are exempted from SFB argues for rigorous continuation of SFB. Other opinions largely fall in between these extremes. Many of these arguments hold water from a context specific viewpoint supported with some empirical evidence. However, rigorous empirical evidences for many arguments to draw a common pattern are yet to emerge. The impact of climate induced phenomena including rise in temperature and other global phenomena like el-nino affects the physiology and behaviour of fishes. This is noticeably reflected in their reproductive and migration behaviours. This makes evolving an informed decision with full scientific data a rather difficult task.

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The bottom-line is that the SFB cannot be considered as a panacea and standalone step to address the unsustainability issues in marine fisheries. It is to be combined with other regulatory issues including minimum legal size of fish to be caught, mesh size regulation, regulations on engine capacity and number of vessels, regular Monitoring, Control and Surveillance, licensing of fishing vessels, and gradual shift towards co-management systems of marine ecosystems. The Government of Kerala has undertaken an important step in this direction by revising Kerala Marine Fishing Regulatory Act (KMFRA) in 2018. The act has several provisions towards the above direction.

Livelihood issues and institutional response

One important aspect is the impact of SFB on the livelihoods of the labourers/ crew. This is particularly so with respect to employment, income, food and nutritional security, debts and repayment, and expenditure on education and health. Some state governments provide support in terms of providing free food material during the SFB period. However, the supports by various state governments and other organisations are inadequate to meet the households’ expenditure.

Several fishermen try to find alternative employment opportunities – mainly construction work, fishing-net making/mending, farming operations and other unskilled jobs. With their primary skill only in fishing, they find it hard to succeed in other ventures. A large part of migrant workers- a major chunk of the marine fishing workforce in India- return to their home states to be with their family during SFB. The authors have not come across with any study on the kind of gainful employment undertaken by these migrant workers at their native places and income earned; but a discussion with experts on this indicates that they hardly find attractive job opportunities at their native places too. They often thrive on the meagre amount saved during the fishing season.

Policies and strategies

The above situations warrant development of policies and delineate long term strategies to be implemented by all the maritime states to support their fisherfolk and their households during the SFB. The overarching idea is to support them with sufficient economic opportunities to maintain at least the same level of welfare as during the pre-SFB period.

The food requirement of the households is to be supported by efficient operations of the public distribution system (PDS). Since fishing households have exceptionally low occupational diversity, universal free PDS can be implemented for such households. At the operational level, this requires identification of fishing households and linking them with the database for PDS. Another intervention would be to link the households with fishermen card also, so that it would be easy to identify/locate personnel involved in cases of calamities. The PDS supply could include those items which are essential for leading a minimum quality of life, without compromising incentives to participate in the alternative job market. Governments like Kerala provide the fishermen households with free ration during the SFB period.

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Direct income supports during the SFB period is one option. Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) is a Central Sector scheme operated with 100 per cent funding from Central Government. Under PM-KISAN, the families of all small and marginal farmers (SMF) across the country are provided with an income support to the tune of Rs 6000 per year, distributed in three equal instalments. The amount is transferred directly to the beneficiary account. The scheme can be modified to include fishermen also, dovetailed to suit the special requirement during SFB. Though this would have fiscal implications, it would help supporting the livelihood of fisherfolk household, create demand in coastal areas and generate income through the multiplier effect.

Fishing is an unorganised activity, but many mechanised fishing methods are labour intensive, involving large number of crew. The crew members are given wages- generally crew gets a share of the income through a sharing arrangement between the owner and the worker and a bata- much less than their economic contribution. Much of the value of output goes to the owner of the vessels- single or shared ownership. The “surplus value” is re-invested either in the vessel or in the form of additional fishing vessels, contributing to the fishing capacity and leading to unsustainability issues. Many fishermen continue in the same vessel for quite a long time. However, there are no social security schemes like risk allowance, gratuity, or pension for the fishermen with active contribution of owners of fishing vessels. Owners of the fishing vessels can be encouraged to contribute towards this, the way the small scales industries do. The contribution could involve a share that could be withdrawn during SFB period and to smooth the income shocks. Once this can be accepted as a matter of policy, the modalities can be worked out. Appropriate legal involvement in this respect can be thought of.

Another strategy is to provide fishermen with alternative employment opportunity, particularly during the SFB period. This needs to be on a family basis, inclusive of the women member of the household as well. Given the low job mobility of the fisherfolk outside the fisheries sector, one worthwhile strategy is to provide job opportunity in the ancillary sectors of fisheries, viz. net making, different type of fish processing and value addition, utilisation of secondary by-products of fish, aquaculture and related activities, manufacture of fish feed and other raw material, and modern fish marketing. Many of the employment avenues mentioned above are suitable for women also.

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Skill upgradation emerges as a natural corollary of providing alternative employment. Fisherfolks are to be provided adequate training on above aspects in approved training centres. The institutions related with fisheries under the Department of Fisheries, Government of India, Research Institutes under Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), fisheries universities and other academic institutions and Department of fisheries with state governments offer opportunities for training and skill upgradation. The Agribusiness Incubation Centres (ABIs) related with these institutes provide initial handholding for business ventures in terms of training. They also help in linking with markets and credit. The institutions under private sector can also be roped in.

During the times of crisis like COVID-19 and droughts, programmes under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) have emerged as a relief for many unemployed workforce in the hinterlands. However, the scheme needs to be modified to suit the requirement of the fisherfolks during SFB, with the aim to provide employment to the otherwise unemployed fisher household. The type of work can be ideally targeted to create infrastructure for fisheries and aquaculture in coastal areas, conservation of coastal areas from sea erosion, creation of small-scale fish processing facilities, maintenance of harbours and landing centres, removal of plastics from coastal areas and the seas, to mention a few. Appropriate legal and administrative steps need to be devised towards this.

Many issues faced by the fishermen can be addressed through collective action and co-operative movement. Co-operative fishermen movements are prevalent in many states. Such fishermen co-operatives can be formed and encouraged to undertake several activities which can provide both permanent and seasonal employment to fisherfolk. They can be linked to credit and markets. This can serve as a buffer to absorb the pressures arising out of the SFB.

Concluding observations

Notwithstanding some of the adverse observation, SFB is as an important step to address some of the unsustainability issues in marine fisheries. This is particularly so in combination with other regulatory measures. But the fisherfolk in general face several hardships during the SFB period. Currently, the SFB is not accompanied with guidelines for supportive coping mechanisms. The response of state governments in this regard is patchy, even though pro-active measures are undertaken by some governments. As a matter of policy, the SFB regulations need to specify the steps to be ensured to protect the interest of fisherfolk. Such steps need to keep in mind the long terms need to enhance economic wellbeing of the fishing community and health of the marine ecosystem.

(The authors are scientists with ICAR — Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Kochi. Views are personal and need not necessarily be of the organisation they belong to.)