Towards sustainable marine fisheries value chain: Reflections amid COVID-19 crisis

A behavioural nudge to promote sustainable fisheries, community mobilisation can go a long way for the sector in post-COVID-19 era and beyond

By A Suresh , VK Sajesh , VR Madhu
Published: Thursday 30 July 2020

The impact of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is yet to unfold in its full ferocity. Major regulatory measures against it, the 21-day countrywide lockdown imposed on March 24, 2020 and the subsequent extensions, have been withdrawn. Normalcy, however, is yet to be reclaimed.

Marine fishery is among the many economic sectors languishing in India. The marine fishery value chain depends extensively on collective activities that involves a large number of people.

On the positive side, however, a few lessons have the potential to shape initiatives for sustainable and responsible marine fisheries practices.

Unsustainability issues

It is estimated, against the recommended fleet size, that the overall marine fleet size is in excess by about 125 per cent. Out of the total assessed stock of 52 species of various finfish and shellfish along the Indian coast, nearly 44 per cent are beyond their biologically sustainable levels.

Enhanced fishing effort in the last five decades has resulted in substantial increase in diesel consumption. Consequently, the carbon dioxide equivalent emission increased from 0.30 million tonnes (mt) in 1961 to 3.60 mt in 2010.

This means that for every tonne of fish caught, carbon dioxide emissions increased from 0.50 to 1.02 tonnes (Vivekanandan et al, 2013).

Efforts towards sustainable fisheries

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has promulgated a Code Conduct of Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) to be voluntarily adopted by the participant nations. One of the key features is to regulate the fishing practices that have destructive impacts on the environment.  

India’s efforts are largely along the lines of adhering with the CCRF norms. All coastal states have initiatives for sustainable and responsible fisheries — Kerala is pioneer for it adopted the comprehensive Marine Fishery Regulation Act.

COVID 19: Issues and prospects

Large-scale disruptions in the value chain have been mainly due to the supply shock — a large number of fishermen practicing longlining, gillnetting and trawling are not venturing into the sea. The total fish output in India was about 13.7 million tonnes in 2018-19, out of which about 35 per cent was contributed by the marine sector.

Some estimates indicate that the loss would be as high as Rs 6,863 crore per month, or about Rs 224 crore per day, due to COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown. The input supply chain is also broken. Not to mention, it has affected the livelihood of all the stakeholders, particularly the fisherfolks.

The difficult times, however, throw open some opportunities, which can transform the fish value chain to embrace a sustainable growth path during the post-COVID-19 period and beyond.

Promoting behavioural changes

The present scenario has the potential to act as a behavioural nudge to promote sustainable fisheries. Resource enhancement during the lockdown period can have positive influence on the fishermen’s behaviour related to sustainable harvesting.

Due to the non-operation of mechanised fishing vessels in the Exclusive Economic Zone during the lockdown, the fishing pressure has reduced, giving an opportunity to build up fish stocks at seas. There is also a high chance that the health of the marine ecosystem would have improved, as bottom trawling and many other gears were non-operational.

Since these vessels have not been venturing into the sea for some time, it is relatively easy to push for regulation regarding the number of vessels to be permitted to operate in the sea. The strategy used in Delhi to reduce pollution — such as allowing vessels with odd / even numbers to operate on a particular day or trip (with modification, as suitable to state / location) — can be tried in the fishing sector as well.

Strict compliance to the respective Marine Fishing Regulation Act and encompassing the principles of CCRF is a crucial step.

Handling of fish

For long, scientists and development workers have been advocating hygienic fish handling methods throughout the value chain, starting from on-boarding of fish vessels through landing centres, market yards, transport vehicles etc. COVID-19 has necessitated high level of personal hygiene, including frequent washing of hands, wearing masks, physical distancing, etc.

These measures have imparted awareness among the fishermen in an unprecedented way, resulting in a behavioural change that can be taken forward in the times to come.

Promoting co-management and community mobilisation

Co-management of fisheries is considered important for achieving sustainable management objectives. The experience during the COVID-19 in several villages in sharing food and meeting common challenges of the community provide a glimpse on possibilities of co-management.

The Kerala government has proposed a co-management system by institutionalising fisheries management councils — a first-of-its kind among states and that has generated much interest.

Meeting social security objective

Poverty is a major enemy of sustainability and addressing livelihood requirements as well as food and nutritional security of fisherfolks is critical to ensure participation. COVID-19 has accentuated the livelihood challenges of fishermen, who are already reeling under the pressure of reduced fish catch.

The regular fishing ban / trawl ban period has already started in some states, coinciding with the onset of monsoon. The states have a key role in incentivising and providing a strong support system.

Awareness generation is the quintessential first step. It needs to be followed by quick transfer of social security payments and other implementation of welfare measures.  Further, efficacy of conditional income transfer to incentivise the fishermen needs to be thought of.

The struggle to cope with the scenario created by COVID-19 has unfurled many opportunities to develop sustainable and responsible fisheries value chain. Many researchers have observed that advocating a change at the time of a major life event is more effective in averting their resistance to change (Schäfer, Jaeger-Erben and Bamberg, 2012).

Policy makers need to analyse how this period of restrictions can be utilised to propose new changes for sustainable fisheries. One interesting example is the ban on auctioning of fish in harbours and landing centres in Kerala as measure to avoid congregation of people.

Though it is not sure whether the new initiative will prevail in the post-COVID-19 scenario, there always exists a chance to make the impossible possible.

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