The devil and the 'deep sea' fishing

In the Indian context, the term 'deep sea' has very little to do with depth. It refers to India's Exclusive Economic Zone: the 188 nautical miles of waters beyond the 12-mile territorial sea. Soon after the declaration of the Indian EEZ in 1976, there were a number of efforts to develop 'deep sea' fishing. It was, in fact, one of the few areas where foreign investment was solicited. The development efforts have consistently faltered.

 
By Sebastian Mathew
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The devil and the 'deep sea' fishing

-- In the Indian context, the term 'deep sea' has very little to do with depth. It refers to India's Exclusive Economic Zone (eez): the 188 nautical miles of waters beyond the 12-mile territorial sea.

Soon after the declaration of the Indian eez in 1976, there were a number of efforts to develop 'deep sea' fishing. It was, in fact, one of the few areas where foreign investment was solicited. The development efforts have consistently faltered. The last such effort -- Deep-Sea Fishing Policy 1991 -- was bitterly contested by all sections of Indian fishing vessel operators and workers, supported by the National Fisheries Action Committee against Joint Ventures (nfacjv) and spearheaded by the National Fishworkers' Forum (nff). The strike prompted the government to constitute the Murari Committee in 1995, which recommended that the policy be called off.

Seven years later, November 2002, deep-sea fishing has another set of guidelines, which lay down that only Indian companies may fish in the India eez. This does not take into account the fact that foreign fishing companies can legally register as Indian companies with 100 per cent foreign equity participation. Therefore, a tuna fishing company from Taiwan can register as an Indian company, while also registered as a fishing company in Taiwan. It can move from eez to eez and fish for tuna by legally flying different flags (flag hopping), and then land fish where it wishes. All this well within the law.

The one major departure from the 1991 policy is that bottom trawling -- dragging a net on the seabed -- is no longer permitted. But the guidelines do not deal with how mid-water trawls will be prevented from bottom trawling. In states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal, the continental shelf extends beyond 200 nautical miles in some places, providing greater scope for bottom trawling.

The 21-point guidelines specify who can fish, how to and how not to fish, where to and where not to fish, but speak nothing of the safety of crew on board vessels. There is no mention of seaworthiness of vessels or working conditions. Both these are important state responsibilities under Article 94 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982. The Seychelles-based Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (iotc), of which India is a member, also recognises these provisions. There are also no provisions to protect vessel owners or workers on board vessels below 20 metres length fishing outside the territorial limits. And this in spite of the fact that smaller vessels are already fishing in waters beyond the territorial sea. Lack of protection to smaller vessels could lead to conflicts between larger and smaller vessels in the eez.

The guidelines rely far too heavily on voluntary compliance. The penal provisions do not clearly spell out how the guidelines will be enforced in the absence of voluntary compliance. The Indian Coast Guard has been given this task but the efficacy of this arrangement is in doubt. So far, the Coast Guard has been guarding the eez against illegal fishing by foreign companies. It is now required to implement regulations for vessels flying the Indian flag.

The critical question, though, is: why were the guidelines hurriedly announced before the announcement of a Comprehensive Fisheries Policy? In 1999, an expert group -- under K Gopakumar, then deputy director (fisheries), Indian Council of Agricultural Research -- was constituted to formulate a comprehensive policy on marine fisheries. The committee submitted its report over a year ago. However, instead of a comprehensive policy, the government has announced these guidelines.

If the imperative was to address the lack of a regulatory mechanism in the eez, the government ought to have thought of guidelines for all fishing vessels, big or small, in the eez. If the idea was to develop tuna fishery (increase fleet of larger vessels in tuna fishing) in anticipation of the rumours that iotc might allocate quotas to members based on their capacity, these guidelines are no way to go about it.

Tuna fishery will not develop in vacuum. India does not have a large domestic market for tuna (it is called 'chicken of the sea' in the us), or large distribution of tuna resources in the national waters (as in Indonesia), or onshore tuna canning facilities for export (as in Thailand). Even if India were to pull itself together now, the international market is already saturated.

The best bet at this juncture is to equip the existing fleet of smaller vessels to take up diversified, sustainable and safe fishing operations in the eez. This will reduce fishing pressure in the overcrowded inshore waters, and contribute significantly to the national economy in terms of employment generation, income and food security.

Sebastian Mathew is programme adviser, International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, which works with fishworkers in the small scale sector

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