India: Too many fishermen?

16 Jul 2013
Fishing boats in Gujarat. Credit: Koshy Koshy/ CC-BY-2.0

Fishing boats in Gujarat. Credit: Koshy Koshy/ CC-BY-2.0

Menakhem Ben-Yami looks into the stagnation of Gujarat's fisheries.

There are several terms defining ‘overfishing’, but for practical purposes (my apologies to nit-pickers) we can talk of ‘biological overfishing’ and ‘economic/financial overfishing’.

Biological overfishing is a situation where excess fishing effort negatively affects the reproduction, size, and age/size composition of the stock, where as economic/financial overfishing is where the total stock remains in a more or less stable state (in spite of being fished by an increasing number of fishermen), but, consequently the ‘cake’ becomes divided into increasingly smaller shares, so that individual fishermen's income dwindles.

In some cases overfishing is a combination of more than one sort, and sometimes the stock may become impoverished not because of fishing, but due to some other, environmental or climatic factors. Sometimes, fishing or climate may change the yield composition, with some species down and others up.

All this should be kept in mind when considering reports and opinions on Gujarat's fisheries. Gujarat, the westernmost state and one of the most industrialised in the Indian Federation, has a very developed coastline of 1,600km facing the Arabian Sea – a fifth of India's total and a 165,000km2 continental shelf (up to a depth of 200m from the shore line). With such geography and a population of over 60 million, it has developed a flourishing fishery industry. All the more that Gujarat's per capita income is 2.5 times that of the national average and accordingly there's considerable demand for fish.

While according to Rajiv Shah of TNN, in 1995 21,018 fishing boats operated from Gujarat, Syed Khalique Ahmed of the Indian Express wrote of some 33,000 mechanised boats operating there presently. Among the fishing gear are anchored bagnets, employed mainly to the south and east of Veraval and serviced by mechanised and non-mechanised boats. They catch about 25% to 35% of the total state's yield, taking mainly high priced Bombay duck (Harpadon nehereus) with relatively little bycatch. Mechanised and non-mechanised gill netters, provide about 19% of the state's catch of high quality fish for fresh consumption and export, as well as large quantities of small elasmobranches for curing, with very little bycatch.

According to Shrabonti Bagchi of TNN, while fishermen complain that stocks are depleting, state statistics show a steady rise in marine yields both, from the offshore and inshore fisheries. They have swelled steadily since 2005, when 664,000mt were landed, and in 2010-11, 720,000mt, in spite that 15 years ago the Gujerat's maximum sustainable yield of finfish, crustaceans and cephalopods was estimated at 567,000mt. So why do the fishermen complain? 

Fishing effort per area
Due to the steady increase in the number of active fishermen, the area per fishing unit inshore, up to the depth of 50m, decreased from 1,453ha during 1961-62 to 499ha during 1990-91. Similarly, the area per fishing unit offshore, between the 50 and 200m isobaths, shrunk from 2,214 to 760ha during this period. The area available per active fisherman, between 1960-61 to 1990, declined from 554 to 136ha, inshore, and from 843 to 207ha offshore.

Apart from more diners to share the cake, there appear to be also other reasons for the ‘stagnation’. Veljibhai Masani, vice-president of All-Gujarat Fishermen's Association, complains of chemical and other pollution in coastal waters, particularly off south Gujarat and south Saurashtra, to look for fish in deeper waters. In addition, in the Gulf of Kutch, large-scale destruction of mangroves has degraded inshore fish-breeding areas. Also upstream damming has led to a sharp fall in the flow of river water and, thus, also of brackish waters in the estuaries, affecting productivity. Fishermen are thus forced to go deep into international waters, risking capture by the Pakistani coast guard - he says.

This rather confusing state of affairs in Gujarat's fisheries is quite typical of the whole of India. India has 8,118 kilometres of marine coastline, 3,827 fishing villages, and 1,914 traditional fish landing centers. As of 2010, the marine and freshwater resources offered a combined sustainable catch fishing potential of over 4 million mt of fish. In 2004, the share of pelagic and midwater species in the total marine fish yield was about 52%. With the intensification of small-scale fishery in coastal and offshore waters, in 2003 FAO Fisheries assumed that, since the curve of India's marine fish production from near shore waters had flattened, any significant yield increases shouldn't be expected.

According to FAO, total fish output in India doubled between 1990 and 2010. While it grew from 800,000mt in 1950 to 4.1 million mt in the early 1990s, during the next 20 years the upward trend continued up to some 8 million mt (both, marine and freshwater) fish yield. Special efforts have been made to encourage deep-sea fishing, albeit through joint ventures. Altogether, more than fourfold increase in the fish production from 520,000mt in 1950 to 2.4 million mt in 1990, and close to 8 million in 2010. Both, banning of trawling by chartered foreign vessels and motorisation of traditional boats in the 1980s had boosted catches.

FAO's C. M. Muralidharan believes that there's rather stagnation than dwindling of total catch, for it's the rate of catch per boat, which is decreasing. The catch is not responding to the increasing fishing effort and the use of improved technology - says Muralidharan. While there seems to be considerable potential for development in offshore pelagic and deep-sea bottom fisheries, frequent fluctuations, such as cyclic and climatological events, influence marine ecosystem and, in particular, pelagic fish populations.

Altogether, apparently the marine fishing effort in India's coastal waters, Gujarat included, has more or less reached a level over which further expansion and capacity development won't produce much more total yield, if at all. It is for the authorities to influence the distribution of the benefits from fish resources among the present and potential stakeholders, because, if the above conclusion is correct, any growth of larger scale, including foreign fisheries must come at the expense of the small-scale and artisanal Indian fishermen.