THOMAS KOCHERY was one of the first persons in India to have taken up the issue of unsustainable exploitation of marine resources and its impact on traditional fishing communities. He rose to national prominence during the 1983 fishworkers' strike in Kerala, calling for a ban on monsoon trawling. A decade and half later, a number of people are speaking his language regarding the commercial use of marine resources. A government committee appointed to look into the health of the Indian coastland recently confirmed many of the fears expressed by Kochery and colleagues in the mid-'70s. Its report recommended emergency measures to save the coastal ecology, damaged largely by callous exploitation. Kochery, a 53-year old Catholic Redemptorist priest, had organised the 1983 strike on similar issues. Over the years, his leadership has brought together the semi-literate fisherfolk who live in penury in an apparently progressive Kerala. At present, Kochery is leading a national agitation against the central government's deep sea fishing (DSF) policy. DSF involves the introduction of over 2,600 vessels, each capable of harvesting 120 to 2,000 tonnes ***(in how long?). The total amount thus is around 0.83 million tonnes, which is half the potential in India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). On a recent visit to New Delhi to meet the minister of state for food processing, Tarun Gogoi, Kochery spoke to Max Martin:
What is the outcome of your meeting with the minister?
There is a deep sea fishing policy committee. They are now going to work out the final policy. The committee consists of bureaucrats and representatives of exporters. We are not represented in it at all.
Are you demanding representation?
Not at all. Our demand is to stop it (deep sea fishing) altogether.
Do you really think you can stop such a big business venture in this age of liberalisation?
The fishing scene is quite different. Even internationally, it is quite different from other ventures. Industrial-scale fishing is a flop all over the world. Past experience indicates that it will be a failure nearer home as well. Maybe these bigtimers will be able to meddle with fishing for a short while.
Is it not a plus point for India that its EEZ is still largely unexploited? Can't we expect a big haul in the coming decade?
That is true only on a conceptual level. Such claims can be made only by people who don't know what happened in the past and who don't know anything about fisheries resources.
Which aspect of large-scale deep sea fishing worries you more: its environmental impact or its effect on traditional fisherfolk?
Both these aspects are involved. About the resource base, the main argument has been that there are 40 lakh tonnes of fish available in the whole of our sea. Of this, 23 lakh tonnes are already being exploited: that is, within the zone of depth up to 50m. In this zone, only 20 lakh tonnes of sustainable fishing is possible. And even that is actually overfishing. This means that without any foreign intervention, and without much backing from the government, we are capable of catching more than the maximum resources in this zone.
The second point is that beyond the 50m depth, there are 17 lakh tonnes of fish available. Out of this, comercially viable species don't amount to much -- maybe, say, 5 lakh tonnes, including 2.65 tonnes of tuna. Only that much resource can be exploited profitably.
So who is doing the exploiting?
There are already 148 deep sea fishing vessels operating from Vishakhapatnam, many of them owned by public sector corporations. They are mostly financed by the Shipping Credit and Investment Corporation of India (SCICI). Out of these 148, only 20 are profitable, according to SCCI's own report. Moreover, the operators have to repay a debt of Rs 100 crore to the corporation.
You mean deep sea fishing in India is going to be a flop?
Going to be? It is already a flop. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) conducted a study in 1991. They also said that deep sea fishing can be profitable only if you concentrate on the commercially viable species. They have been proposing the multi-gear system for fishing -- that you go not only for prawn, but for tuna, shark and other species as well. All this so that 148 vessels can be saved -- nothing more than that.
How exactly are the traditional fisherfolk affected?
Even now, the deep sea fishing vessels from Vishakhapatnam are in conflict with the mechanised gill netters of West Bengal. If they don't get their catch in the deep sea, obviously they will come to coastal waters. These big vessels have the most efficient gear. So they will get the catch, bypassing everybody else. Instead of deep sea fishing, they are already into coastal waters, the domain of traditional fisherfolk.
Moreover, there are 100 chartered vessels operating from ports like Bombay and Cochin. They are also a failure. They come from foreign countries like Japan and Taiwan, and they can afford to stay idle. But they can sweep up the fish. They come and go, filling up with diesel at international rates.
Then there are the joint venture projects with American, Mexican and Japanese companies, started with the initiative of the Technology Mission. Already the government has issued 49 licences. Recently, a $50 million agreement has been reached with Mexico, involving six purse seiners, equipped with 15 to 20 km long nets, that can sweep up all the fish. If they come to coastal waters, will they leave anything for anyone else?
What if the government promises to enforce strict rules?
In 1991, the food processing industries ministry held a workshop on deep sea fishing in Cochin. There was an announcement that within six months there would be a Deep Sea Fishing Regulation Act. They are delaying matters deliberately; because if there is no law they can allow any nonsense.
There is enough of this nonsense going on. For example, the environment ministry has banned bull trawling, and the food processing ministry is encouraging it. The food processing ministry has no background of fishing. It only wants exports. To that end, it is issuing licences without looking into the fishing problems.
But you can't deny this new project would fetch foreign exchange.
Agreed, the new deep sea fishing is 100 per cent export- oriented. The catch will be exported to Japan and the Western countries. They will feed it to their cats and dogs. In the long run, our countrymen will be deprived of fish -- that is another problem.
For argument's sake, let's look at the advantages of the forex angle.
There are alternatives. We can still earn foreign money. And enjoy the entire profit, unlike in the case of foreign ties, where we get only a share.
As of now, sardine, mackerel and prawn are exploited both by the traditional sector and the mechanised sector. With the arrival of purse seiners and ring seiners, fishing in the coastal waters has already reached the point of saturation. Resources are dwindling and the growing number of fisherfolk do not get labour. Any improvement in the deep sea should be based on this fact.
So those who are dependent on coastal water should be encouraged to go farther and farther. Gill netters and trawlers of the small mechanised sector are already going to 100m to 150m depth in Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal. The public sector should support them instead of inviting foreign investment.
Foreign vessels can create a lot of problems. There are already clashes in the border areas of West Bengal and Gujarat when fisherfolk folk from either state cross over into the other's territory. Foreign vessels operating in these areas can pose a security threat.
Can't you rope in mechanised boat and trawler operators against whom you have been fighting?
Now, here we have have a common interest. In the monsoons, the anti-trawling strike will continue.
A personal query. Are you still Fr Kocherry after all the hue and cry of the local church authorities against your activism?
I am. Call me Fr Kocherry or Mr Kocherry. It does not affect fishing.
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