Ajay Bhattacharya, Joint Secretary, Fisheries, Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, Ministry of Agriculture

India coasts along – all 8,000km of them - When British Imperial Civil Service (ICS) officers left India in 1947, their Indian successors kept their immense power but inherited smaller fiefdoms. However, some officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) saw their reach grow. Peter O’Neill meets one of them – Ajay Bhattacharya, Joint Secretary, Fisheries.

We meet in the Ministry of Agriculture in Krishi Bhawan (Agriculture House) in Lutyens’ New Delhi. Bhattacharya handles one of the biggest and most populous fisheries sectors in the world, on land and sea and in terms of fish stocks and workers. While civil servants in Europe may have to cope with the occasional tragedy of a lost crew at sea, Bhattacharya, with a range of weather zones and more than 8,000km of coastline, can find himself on the end of a range of disasters. A Bay of Bengal cyclone or the effect of a tsunami can (and have) wiped out hundreds of coastal villages, killed tens of thousands in fishing communities and destroyed their vessels – from kattumarams (outrigged, long log boats) to mechanised trawlers. When disaster strikes (all too often on the cyclone front) he can have half a dozen Chief Ministers, of states bigger than most countries in Europe, knocking on his door for urgent assistance.

This also means that the process of developing the fisheries’ industry is complex with a whole range of vested interests in a dozen geographical areas. Looked at from outside, India still offers a tantalising source of uncaught fish. Despite forays into foreign collaboration and license agreements, it still aims to keep product for its own use. It processes and exports but politics means it protects the local artisanal (including small motorised) fleets within India’s coastal areas. Disputes generally occur as the small artisanal vessels venture further out into the EEZ with better equipment, while the larger vessels head closer in to the coastal areas.

Stocks are put at around 3.9 million tonnes (mt). “Last year [we caught] 2.8mt with most of our [volume] exports in angler fish, ribbon fish to China etc.” Seafood catch includes lower volume but high-value prawn, shrimp and tuna, cuttlefish, squid, octopus and lobster, along with lower value snapper, mackerel and catfish. Land-based production represents probably a further 2.6mt, much of which is carp.

When one sees the big, exponential expansion of the added-value processed sector in Vietnam and China over the last decade, why does India lag behind when it has so much raw material on its doorstep? Why are there regular reports of modern, Indian processing factories running well below capacity? Was it poor Indian investment, bad marketing, weak infrastructure, poor logistics?

“My gut feeling would be, compared with China or Vietnam, [is that] their emphasis has been on basically low-value shrimp, prawns and added value. Our farmed prawns intrinsically get a higher price. Our sizes are much bigger than China’s.

“You see, in quantitative terms, India’s exports have increased only marginally, and most of the increases have been in the aquaculture sector.”

So were they missing an opportunity with wild catch exports?

“No, I don’t think so. You see, we have always been missing an opportunity for wild catch as far as the deeper parts of the sea are concerned. But as far as the coastal waters are concerned we have certainly picked up. This is [by] the mixed, artisanal boat sector while the larger vessels above 20m are not normally allowed to fish in coastal waters. The [artisanal boat] can also be 10-15m, owned by a company or a group of fishermen. The poor, individual, fishermen will not be able to own these. Above 20m to 50m, the fleet would be less than 200; the 15-20m mechanised [fleet is] 53,200.”


There has been no policy of intervention to decommission vessels, he adds. But whether that means that stocks are not suffering from fleet activity is a more complex issue to pin down.

On the statistics there is at least a million tonnes of available stock not being caught. Bhattacharya says the problems arise when the over-20m vessels ‘poach’ on the territorial areas of 12 nautical miles. The Supreme Court decisions and restrictions mean control is more effective than earlier, though “there are occasional skirmishes between the mechanised over-20m [and others],” he says.

In terms of the worldwide overfishing debate, he says that Indian landings do seem to be down in product size terms. But is he for restrictions which may be wrong and may penalise the earnings of fishermen?

“It is better to err on the side of caution. It would be pleasant to have oneself proved wrong, rather than do nothing and be proved right,” he says. As far as the debate goes on the validity of ‘scientific’ data, he says: “things like the size of the pomfret and ribbon fish being landed, the [lower] lobster landings, all these things tend to indicate more and more juveniles are being caught than adults. That is anecdotal evidence of overfishing and it is not just the scientists who are saying this but the fishermen are saying this.

“We have these ‘fishing holidays’ for the larger mechanised boats during the breeding season which is the monsoon period. We have a moratorium on the east coast for the EEZ from 15 April to 31 May, and for the west coast from 15 June to 31 July – for larger boats over 20m.” He says that there is an attempt to have a uniform period and there is some justified complaining about who decides the start of the monsoon. ‘Traditionally’ the monsoon is used to start in Mumbai on the west coast on 15 June. Different parts of the coast have a case for more tailor-made dates reflecting their local weather. The monsoon for the smaller boats really is a natural break – try to launch or swim in the big monsoon rollers at the beach and you will grasp why.

Eating discards

In terms of the European discard debate, India in the past threw little away, certainly in the below-20m sector. Fish which are eaten locally here might be regarded as ‘trash fish’ in richer European regions with hungry fishmeal factories. But, in India, things have been changing because of larger mechanised vessels.

“When there is a good catch [on] one of these mechanised boats – these guys having gone on a two-day fishing trip – their hold is full so they will throw away the lower value fish,” he said. This change is reflected in research presented, at a June 2005 FAO meeting in Vietnam on trash fish in the Asia-Pacific region, by G.D. Chandrapal, then Deputy Commissioner (Fisheries) at Krishi Bhawan. He said that: “With the dwindling catch of [wild] shrimp, trawler operators have no other option but to increase the returns by utilisation of the by-catch”. He said it was conservatively estimated that at about 20% of the by-catch is lost during trawling operations, and total landing of the by-catch of fish was estimated to be around 1.3mt per annum.

Research on shrimp by-catch in the Bay of Bengal looked at volume and composition for possible use as food or feed and the use of ‘collector vessels’. It showed trawlers on the east coast of India discarded some 100,000t to 130,000t in 1988. A late 1990s study showed the [eastern] discard figure at 200,000t, produced by 3,450 [small] trawling boats operating out of five major centres. “Although much of the by-catch is small, this does not preclude its use as food. About 10-12% of the discards were used for retail markets…the rest were normally sold for feed use” and they got better prices in ‘fish-scarce’ urban markets. Pilot sea transfer schemes fell down however because of “inadequate supply of key inputs like ice, etc,” Chandrapal said.

A 2002 study on discards from bottom trawling in coastal Kerala (a top fish-eating state) showed up more logistical challenges. Apart from the [artisanal] bottom trawlers catching poisonous, inedible or unpopular species, on-board storage was a problem. Ironically, what would have sold as high-value restaurant product in Europe was being discarded: finfish, sole, crab, gastropods, shrimp and cephalopods. Finfish accounted for 37.13% and crab 28.46% of some 240,000t discarded by Kerala bottom trawlers. And 85,000t were edible product.

One example of diversification through export is that India, according to Eurofish, “exported about 40,000 tonnes of octopus to the EU, making it an important and growing player on the European market for octopus” and, based on 2006, that will grow, targeting the lower end of the market and being an important player in Italy and Spain.

Most important was the comment in Chandrapal’s presentation that, while “the practice of bringing [discards] to the shore and selling it to the poorer sections of the consumers is gaining momentum, [there are] no further works relating to the transfer technology by using floating net bags, etc.” The report suggested offering incentives for landing by-catch for use as value-added product which would interest both processors and consumers.

Bhattacharya is open to the idea, that, just as large trawlers, at sea for weeks, are often bunkered at sea by oil tanker barges, so ‘trash’ tankers could be called in to collect ‘discards’ from over-full holds so the fish is not lost. He agrees this could be organised but within the Indian context the volume of trash would be far less than in areas such as Europe. Such reverse ‘fish-bunkering’ could also have a role to play as an input to the Indian fishfeed sector, since India does buy in a lot of fishmeal for farming from Latin America, he says.

Does he have any advice for Europe on the consumer use of such fish, rather than discarding or trashing?

“The European scenario is qualitatively different. There you have a smaller number of larger vessels. In India there is more sustenance and smallscale fishing. The situation is so different in the Indian context. I don’t think in Europe there will be any vessel going out for less than seven, 10 or 14 days.”

This brings us of course to the European debate over the economics of the small vessel either for coastal overnight catches or a three- or four-man crew going out for a limited number of coastal days and selling into a local fishmonger and extensive restaurant chain network with good cold-chain logistics as in France, Spain or Greece. India still suffers from a weak cold-chain and the result is mind-boggling official waste figures for spoilage of vegetables, never mind fish and meat. Certainly, China’s fresh fish logistics and retail sales network are years ahead of India’s. So, by implication, the European small fishermen’s efficiency and marketing would seem to be far better than that of their Indian equivalents, and the latter do have a tougher time getting their profit share of the catch. An Indian getting perhaps Rs150 (about US$3.50) per kg for his landed tiger prawn can only dream of UK supermarket profits based on re-selling that kilo at nearly $55 and only perhaps no more than $5+ being spent per kg on air transport cost.

Bhattacharya suggests that, while inland statistics are not as thorough as marine product data, the fish that most of India eats comes mostly from the land sector’s 2.6mt annual production (rivers, lakes, tanks (artificial ponds). “Inland fish is growing between six to eight per cent per annum, [though that data is] from statistics which have to be taken with several pinches of salt,” he adds.

Down your way

On the scientific front, Bhattacharya is attracted to the idea of India examining the movement of fish stocks according to water temperature and weather cycles. With so much coastline, from Kolkata at 22º lat., down to Kanyakumari at 8º lat., it might be a natural laboratory of fish stock movement. With a unified national reporting system, research should be simpler than across multiple national boundaries as in Europe, and potentially of global use in the warming debate. “One must get into this field!” he says.

The other area which India has been developing, the breeding and sale of ornamental fish by fishermen, based on special training schemes by scientists at local centres, was doing well he said. But, it was still only a small part of overall cash generation for fishermen.

On the international marketing front, he says that the fights of the past over hygiene issues on Indian products have all gone. There may now be one or two small incidents which are related to antibiotic issues. By and large the new testing laboratories are working well, he says.

In terms of Indian fishery research, compared with the high investment say in China, he says he would not expect it to be at the same level because Indian consumption of fish per head is far less when compared with Chinese home and restaurant consumption. Further, he adds, India also has a much narrower range of commercialised species on the retail market. The range of exports is also a narrow basket of products. China was, of course, now pushing its own branding, to counter its products being made invisible under multinational brand labels. But, all said and done, he smiled, Indian exports were still pulling in a useful $4 billion or so a year.



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