The overfishing along the coast of South-West India
The south-west coast of India consists mainly of two states, Karnataka and Kerala. Both of them are among the richer regions (Kerala is one of the richest) of India and they play a leading role in India's fishing industry. Some of the fishing centers are Mangalore and Karwar in Karnataka, and Kotchi in Kerala. Both regions have a typical tropical climate and rich sea life (the Arabian Sea). There are numerous fish species living along the coast of south-west India, such as prawns, sharks, dolphins, catfish, whitefish, silver pomfret and others. But some of them are seriously threatened by overfishing, and the stocks of catfish, for example, have already been depleted.
Overfishing is a global problem and all around the world we can see the depletion of fishing resources (fish are the biggest renewable resource). Modern fishing techniques such as trawling or purse seining are devastating for the underwater environment. They cause huge damage to the sea bottom (trawling) and result in an extreme by-catch of non commercial fish (trawling and purse seining). Another problem is capture of juveniles which thus prevents the affected fish populations from recovering. This is caused by the mesh sizes of the nets. When the mesh sizes are very small (such as 20mm) the trawlers catch huge quantities of by-catch and juveniles. Because of this damage trawling and purse seining have been banned by law in many countries of the world, but not in India.
The industrial-scale fishing companies (using factory freezer trawlers) cause most of the damage in the world and small-scale fishing operations are seen as one of the solutions. But the overfishing in India is caused by small-scale fishing operations themselves.
For decades the government of India supported deep sea fishing and funded the modernization of the fishing fleets, especially in Karnataka and Kerala. This has led to the over-exploitation of local sea resources and growing economical, environmental and social costs. Fishing is the only livelihood for large numbers of people in south-west India. And the traditional artisanal fishing people cannot compete with modern super-efficient fishing methods. The numbers of motorized vessels have grown quickly over the years.
The scheme of fishing along the west coast of India is clear. At the top, there are the trawlers and purse seiners fleets owned be rich Indians or foreigners. They make the biggest profits. They have been able to keep their numbers of fish caught steady but only at the cost of huge financial investments in more efficient equipment which has further damaged the fish population. The Indian government banned night fishing for them, but it lacks the means for enforcement. This makes the ban much less efficient.
Then there are the fishermen on small motorized boats. They are the most numerous. They fish overnight near to the coast. If you look at the sea at night you see them simply everywhere. It seems like a floating city that has just appeared there. Their share of the fish catch is decreasing due to the depletion of the stocks and you can notice it everywhere. In the local fish markets the large number of fish are juveniles only or very small adults that barely had a chance to breed. The local people complain about these small fish and the tourists are simply making it worse. They are the ones who want to taste exotic shark meat, but this and the demand for shark fins (mostly from Japan and China) are seriously damaging the shark population. Several types of sharks are now endangered in the Arabian Sea, and in the markets you again see just very small and young sharks. (Sharks are one of the species that needs a lot of time for breeding so killing young ones is fatal for the population. It's similar for catfish, now considered as a depleted stock).
But in the end it's the local artisanal fishing people that are suffering most from the over-fishing. They form the third group of local fishing operations. And they are struggling for their livelihood because there is almost no fish left for them. They use very old and inefficient methods (albeit sustainable) that can't compete with the modern ones. You can see it mostly in south Kerala. There are the ancient Chinese fishing nets introduced by Chinese merchants around the 16th century. These huge nets are operated by up to 10 men, but nowadays they catch just garbage dumped into the sea and a few very small fish. I never saw them catch more than 4 (20cm max).This has led to various violent conflicts between the trawler crews and local fishing people, which has even claimed some lives.
As if there were not enough local issues to deal with, there is also an illegal foreign fishing problem. It is against the law but the penalties (mostly fines) are simply too soft. Huge fishing vessels such as factory freezer trawlers have been spotted along the coast of south-west India, even from as far away as Denmark. These trawlers are able to catch large quantities of fish, leaving the local fisherman with nothing.
In the past few years, the Indian government has passed several laws protecting the local artisanal fishing operations and the environment. But in India almost any law can be broken if you have sufficient funds (corruption). And in some cases the government has even been encouraging the commercial trawlers to fish in the coastal waters reserved for the local fishing people. The problem is that nothing can be accomplished when the government just soughs economical benefits.
Fortunately, this is changing and in 2003-2004 the government of India banned any fishing along the west coast during the monsoon season (10 June to 15 August), which is the breeding season for most of the species. Sadly, the Indian reality is that now the traditional fishing people violate this ban, saying that it's their only opportunity to make a profit and living, which is true. So in the end they were granted an exception. But this exception is preventing the fish stocks from replenishing themselves.
One of the players in destroying India’s sea life is also Indian Navy. Just a few kilometers from the coast of Karnataka is Netrani Island, a place with rich biodiversity and one of the few coral reefs along the west Indian coast (discovered only in 2005). But this unique place serves as a training ground for the Indian Navy and the live firing practices are seriously damaging the local fragile ecosystem.
Sadly, over-fishing is not the only problem in South Indian waters. There is also a major pollution issue. India has the second fastest growing economy in the world, but this success has its price. The rivers and coastal waters are polluted by industrial dumping and high usage of pesticides (like DDT), and in the rich and industrial regions like Kerala and Karnataka this is doubly so. Another source of pollution is overpopulation and even tourismbecause most of the human waste ends up in the sea. In Goa (north of Karnataka), which is one of the most touristed places in India, the sea water is well-known for being especially polluted.
The overfishing along the south-west coast of India is a complex issue and it differs from the global perception of this topicbecause the local small-scale fishing operations there (local trawlers and small motorized boats) are the biggest threat. To limit the fishing by declaring a quota on the numbers of fish that can be caught is a limited option only because no one really knows the size of the various species.
One of the ways is to promote knowledge among local fishermen to make them understand the need for sustainable fishing because of their future.
Another point would be to stop large-scale fishing (like trawling and purse seining) for export. And by promoting local traditional fishing methods that are sustainable and which need less capital and more people.
But any further steps toward sustainable fishing in this region (and in all India) require a responsible role to be played by a government that would really enforce the implementation of its regulations and that would promote sustainable fishing and biodiversity protection. This might prove to be the most difficult part because even as a tourist (and especially if you talk to the locals) you can see that corruption is everywhere. And economic profit comes first place.
- Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication. (UNEP)
- Depleted and Collapsed Marine Fish Stocks along Southwest Coast of India – A Simple Criterion to Assess the Status
- The Hindu newspaper indiaenvironmentportal.org.in
- Costal Environments: problems and perspectives.
- My own experience.