Pause on Mechanised Fishing

An insight into various perspectives of the fishing ban and the mechanised fishing business

Come May 31st and the boats are pulled to shore, the banks and jetties are bereft of their usual crowd and the fisherwomen make their way towards paddy fields. The annual 61 day fishing ban, extending from June to July, serves two primary reasons. It allows for spawning of commercial fish species such as oil sardines, mackerel and black pomfret, thereby ensuring conservation of biodiversity and sufficient fishing resources. It also prevents trawlers from venturing out into the rough, choppy sea, during the stormy monsoon season.

The fishing ban provides a good opportunity to reinitiate small-scale fishing practices. A visit to Baga creek, an area normally abuzz with boats coming in, surprised me, as I found the shore silent, devoid of men hauling in the catch and crows fighting over the stray mackerel. As I walked along, however, I noticed men and youth with rods and nets, as they caught young ‘shevto’ (mullet) from the incoming tide. One such fisherman, Jerry Dias, called it ‘hobby fishing’. I was most eager to buy his fresh catch, but he refused to part with it. Throwing his net every five minutes or so, he caught a huge red snapper while conversing with me. As locals with improvised fishing rods made from bamboo sat by the creek, some threw in nets. Their own renditions of the waist bag, a fine net wrapped around their waists, served as the storage for their catch. They caught shevto (mullet), tamoso (red snapper), perch and prawns. Canoe fishing also gains popularity during this season, with canoes dotting the rivers such as Mandovi and Nerul.

Mayuresh Gangal, a biologist and conservationist, co-founder of Know Your Fish (KYF), along with Pooja Rathod and Chetana Purushottam. KYF is a voluntary initiative by a team of researchers that works towards an ocean-friendly lifestyle, with emphasis on the western coast) revealed an interesting aspect of the fishing ban. He said that in the 70s and 80s, the non-mechanised fishermen faced competition due to the dominance of mechanised fishing in near shore waters. Hence, the seasonal ban was established, and that the ecological benefits of this move are incidental. Amongst calls for shorter and longer ban periods, Mayuresh recommends that fishing regulations should be ‘biologically informed’. Tools like seasonal restrictions based on gear use should be explored. An example would be temporary restriction on trawling in a certain depth zone during a specific month, wherein the regional and monthly information is based on breeding periods and habitat use of fish species which are commonly caught by trawling.
Gangal commended the Goa government for its well-drafted legislation on fishing regulations. It has banned environmentally-harmful practices such as bull-trawling, night-fishing, etc. However, the implementation and enforcement needs to be amped up.

Harmful impact of Bull Fishing
Some of the locals who used to own trawlers share a very critical perspective about the fishing business. They described with alarm, what they termed as ‘China fishing’. While they spoke of huge trawlers with Chinese motors and completely mechanised fishing systems, the government only allows use of trawlers with motors of power up to 300 horsepower. Having admitted to using LED lights to attract shoals, ex-trawler workers described how they used various methods to lure fish. The local fisher-folk described bull-fishing to be the most exploitative form, when two trawlers release a huge net in between, thus not only trapping mackerel, but all forms of marine life. While the local community mentioned rampant use of bull fishing, the trawler owners from Cutbona Jetty said that since most countries and states (including Goa) have banned bull fishing, they use the method of ‘pursing’ or pocket-fishing. Also called ‘seines’ according to the ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, the ‘pocket’ is formed by ‘surrounding nets’. These large netting walls are set for surrounding aggregated fish both from the sides and from underneath, thus preventing them from escaping by diving downwards. Apart from a few exceptions, surrounding nets are surface nets. This method results in bountiful catches of mackerel, tuna, cuttlefish and occasionally, shrimp.

Protecting Territorial Seas
The trawler owners complain that politicians, during their campaigns, always promise the fisher folk community they won’t let trawlers from other states enter Goan territorial waters. However, the fact is that Goa’s coastline is so tiny in comparison to its neighbouring states that the trawlers are restricted to a very limited resource pool. In order to conduct deep sea fishing, trawlers need to obtain a special licence from authorities in Delhi. However, the pre-requisites of this licence entail provisions of specialised labour force along with a captain of the trawler. This is not feasible for Goan trawler owners due to a lack of skilled labour in this industry. An important guideline Mayuresh suggested is that a state shouldn’t look at their territorial waters in silos, but coordinate all fisheries policies, rules and regulations with neighbouring states. Fisheries management needs to be a collective and biologically-conscious effort.
As openly stated by experienced fishermen, the use of the term ‘ramponnkar’ is an irony today, as many Goans do not pursue fishing as a profession. It is alarming that no Goans are involved in the process, as migrant workers from Jharkhand, Orissa and Karnataka work onboard trawlers. Fishing boats need upto 10 helpers, but the trawlers have a crew of around 35 to 40 workers each. The workers are paid for 10 months, after which they return home to farm their land. There is no assurance that all the workers return the next year, as trawler owners mostly rely on new employees every year.

The Formalin Scare
To cater to domestic market needs, fish is being imported into the state at exacerbated prices. Coupled with the price-hike, are concerns over addition of non permissible amounts of formalin to fish as a preservative. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India does not permit use of formaldehyde as a preservative on fresh fish and fish products, and has limited the acceptable levels to be between 30mg/kg to 100mg/kg. Nonetheless, the trawler owners provide a different perspective on the matter. They say that they sell most of their catch to out-of state clients, such as markets in Kerala. Hence, inter-state trade is bound to happen, especially when dearth of supply occurs in a state with large domestic fish consumption. They call the use of formalin a cheap choice made by few traders.

Over Fishing

When the number of fish harvested is more than the number of new additions in the fish  population, the population of fish starts declining. This is termed as overfishing. The sustainability of any fishing method is mostly dependent on its scale. Any fishing method practised on a small scale is relatively less harmful and more eco friendly compared to large scale methods.

Trawling is a major cause of overfishing and overcapacity in the western coast. Stating that it is tough to estimate the actual numbers to determine whether overfishing is happening or  not, Mayuresh pointed out a  lot of circumstantial evidence  that shows the same. Citing  the works of reputed marine biologists Daniel Pauly and Brajgeet Bhathal, he termed it  the ‘fishing down the food web phenomena’; a move from high trophic levels to low trophic levels, which is a clear sign of overfishing. The result is that with declining catches and low  returns, the fishing business is no longer considered lucrative. Mayuresh called for regulations on new entries into the business and focus on welfare of the existing fishing community. To aptly conclude with his words, one must “look at fish as living creatures, not commercial products”

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