JOHN KURIEN, a faculty member at Thiruvananthapuram's Centre For Development Studies, which devotes itself to developing linkages between research and action, finds teaching the economics of fisheries to researchers as important as teaching economics to fisherfolk. The inspiration for Kurien's work seems to come from his activism, and now, the rights of fisherfolk are his driving force. Kurien participated in a seminar on environment and economics in the Capital in January and spoke to Uday Shankar about the threat to the marine environment and marine resource-based communities from unsustainable economic and business policies. Excerpts:
What is the Indian marine fishery scenario?
Total catch is increasing. But the economically important species - mainly prawns, oysters and mackerels - which account for 50 per cent of the total export output, are stagnating.
Why has the output declined?
The main reason is over-exploitation of prawn. For instance, Kerala's prawn catch during 1960-65 was about 24,000 tonnes annually. This went up to as much as 80,000 tonnes in the mid '70s, but has now stabilised at about 33,000 tonnes.
What has caused this?
Largely the use of "over-efficient" technologies like trawling and drift nets. Trawling is very efficient - in the sense that the total biomass procured is very large. But this also includes juveniles and other species that do not have commercial value. Nevertheless, you rake up a lot of biomass like sand and stone, damage the reef and destroy the ecosystem.
Would you say that trawling has been the cause of disaster?
Trawling has played a major role in the decline of the marine crop, especially in Kerala. It has also altered the composition of the output. The 24,000-tonne output of the '60s consisted mainly of larger species. The output of the '80s was primarily smaller species. The average size of the fish has declined because of overfishing.
If we had been able to retain the mix of the '60s and used more selective methods, our foreign exchange earnings from this source could easily be three to four times more, because of the larger size.
Do you recommend that trawling be stopped?
Yes. In fact, I am involved in the process of starting a global campaign for banning trawling.
Wouldn't this mean that only manual fishing should be allowed?
Not manual. You use a net. You can talk about the net being active or passive, selective or non-selective or of the net being used seasonally or perennially. You can catch prawns passively - by waiting for them to be trapped in the net; selectively - by using nets that will only trap prawns of a specific size, or seasonally - by fishing when the number of prawns in the area is likely to be highest. That's not manual. The manual dimension is only the propulsion of the craft, which can be either manual or engine-driven.
Basically, you're talking about using nets of the proper dimension at the proper time.
In other words, using more ecologically friendly nets that are "less efficient". That was the hallmark of the techniques used until the mid '60s by fisherfolk who have evolved their technology in keeping with the ecosystem.
Don't you think that they are also the people who have been pushed out gradually by more cost-intensive and capitalist fishing operations?
Yes. And that is an additional reason for talking about a ban on trawling. This is a problem faced not only in Kerala or India. Everywhere in the world today, trawling is highlighted as the cause of the majority of problems afflicting fish stocks.
But India's policy is to push aquaculture and fishing in a big way because marine-based industries have a great dollar potential. Won't it be difficult to reverse the trend at a time when India is pitching hard to get more foreign exchange?
Regulated aquaculture is welcome because, to some extent, it will reduce the pressure on the marine ecosystem. But, right now, it is undertaken in as anarchic a fashion as trawling and we cannot afford this anarchy. Look at what it did to salmon aquaculture in southeast Asia and Norway. People went broke because prices crashed due to over-production. Within five years, you had a boom and a bust.
Do you see that kind of situation developing in India?
It's bound to if we continue pushing aquaculture the way it is being done now - completely anarchically. No precautions are being taken.
Will you elaborate on this anarchy and insufficient precaution?
Big entrepreneurs are taking over cheap land in coastal tracts, especially in Andhra Pradesh and the southern parts of Tamil Nadu, often converting agricultural land into fish farms. There should be greater control on land use and the systems needed to pump saline water and effluents. For things like this, we are not taking sufficient precautions. We are concerned only with dollars, which I think is a very short-term approach.
Will scientifically-disciplined aquaculture reduce the pressure on oceanic fisheries?
I think an aquaculture policy that gives priority to coastal communities and is subject to environmental controls will reduce the pressure on the marine environment and also result in greater equity.
But the ones who control it today will just make a fast buck and walk away. They will ravage the ecosystem. So far in India, there is little environmental pollution because of fishery: pollution in the coastal areas is because of sectors like industry and tourism. But you're soon going to face a situation where the environmental degradation of the coasts is caused largely by fishery.
And, aquaculture can also lead to a situation where you are feeding fish to grow fish. You feed two kg of fish to grow one kg of prawn. In terms of the energy balance, it is a negative situation. You are investing more calories than what you harvest and the only rationale is dollars. This is not sustainable, as shown by the disastrous experiences of Ecuador, Thailand and Taiwan.
How far do you think India is from such a disaster?
Pretty close. An excess of supply in the world market is something that can happen anytime within the next couple of years.
Because of the high investments needed in this business now, do you think that traditioqal fisherfolk have been dispossessed of marine resources once and for all?
Right now, it may not be as bleak as that, but aquaculture is definitely out of the reach of traditional communities. There, however, seems to be no reason for this because entrepreneurial input is something that can be provided by a well-run cooperative of poor producers who hire managers. So, that's not really the issue. The issue is whether they will be given a chance in the political economy of today.
On the other hand, if the government introduces some aquarian reforms, things can still improve. We say, "Land to the tillers", but why can't we say, "Boats to those who will work on the boats. If you want to own a boat you better be on it"? Something like this will have a salutary effect on the marine ecosystem. If it is implemented in Kerala, for example, 4,500 of the approximately 5,000 boats will go out of circulation.
Are you optimistic that this can be implemented, though fisheries and aquaculture are now big business?
Ten years ago, there were doubts about whether traditional fisherfolk could have an exclusive fishing zone. Most people thought it wasn't possible. The fisherfolk themselves took up the issue under the banner of the National Fishworkers' Forum and were able to get an enactment passed. This happened because of the pressure from below; because of the social conflict that this was creating; because of the political implications of a coastline that was literally burning, and because traditional fisherfolk were burning trawlers.
Is the bargaining capacity of fisherfolk better today because of the intervention of big players?
It varies from state to state. The position that existed in the late '70s was utterly hopeless - they had no say. Today, they are a force to reckon with globally. Today, we are trying to ensure that the rights of fishworkers are protected. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization held a world conference on fisheries. We got together 100 fishworkers and supporters and held a parallel conference in Rome, in which we highlighted the threats to traditional fisherfolk.
Are our coasts becoming socially very tense? Are our coastlines becoming a law and order problem?
Yes, the problem is increasing. However, I don't see this as a law and order problem but a consequence of failing to address development issues. If we don't put a check to this, the situation is bound to explode. In Keiala, every- body is tense. The fisherfolk, the administrators, the politicians are tense. But nobody wants to get together and address the issue - it's so highly political. And this is not the case in India alone - all over the world, marine fish resources are generating tension.
So what is the solution?
Practical and effective regulatory mechanisms have to be worked out. We need to accept that national and international waters are a common heritage of humankind. We have to allow people the right to fish, regulate technology and create a global fishery fund. I don't see this as impossible.
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