There’s usually a rich harvest of Indian oil sardines (sardinella longiceps) to be had off the coast of India. There are 14 species of sardines in the seas around India but the six-inch-long oil sardine accounts for 16% of the country’s total marine fish production. The other 13 species, together termed lesser sardines, make up about 3-7% of the total. As we drift along in pursuit of the oil sardine, mathi/ Chala, the fishermen seem to know exactly where we are in the inky blackness. Without the benefit of sonar, they are aware of which boats are around them and how far away. They are looking for a place to cast their nets, away from the trawlers although that fight has already been lost.
India’s fish exports generated a record $2.86 billion (Rs.12,901.47 crore; 813,091 tonnes) in 2010-11, up 34% in dollar terms from the previous year. This is set to rise to $6 billion by 2015, according to the Planning Commission working group on development and management of fisheries and aquaculture for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017). As opposed to the dire warnings issued by scientific, activist, and environmental groups, the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) has a more sanguine outlook. Against an estimated fishery potential of 3.9 million tonnes (mt), only 2.6 mt has been tapped, it says. Its aim is to double jobs in the fishing and fish processing sector by 2015, increase exports to 2 mt and make India one of the top five seafood exporting countries in the world. The fisheries sector is likely to grow around 6% on average per year during the 12th Five-Year Plan, according to the Planning Commission working group. At this growth rate, total fish production is targetted at 11.58 mt by 2016-17. To achieve this growth, the sector will require Rs.6,000 crore in the Plan period.
There are 3.5 million fishermen in 3,000 villages along India’s 8,129 km coastline and their catch, even in high season, is dwindling, threatening the livelihood of an estimated 15 million people dependent on sea fishing. The depletion of fish stocks and destruction of marine habitat in India is widely acknowledged, caused among other things, and especially, by mechanized overfishing by trawlers in the continental shelf-the sea bed adjacent to the shore. The continental shelf around India spans 530,000 sq. km in area, of which 71% is in the Arabian Sea and 29% in the Bay of Bengal.
According to marine scientists, overfishing is the biggest threat to marine ecosystems. The economic and ecological cost has been detailed in reports by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) such as Too Few Fish and The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture; award winning documentaries such as End of the Line and the new Greenpeace report Safeguard or Squander. Some 90% of India’s fish resources have been estimated at or above maximum sustainable levels of exploitation. At the current exploitation rate, the marine resource potential of India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches for 200 nautical miles (nm) from the shore line, is 4.24 mt, according to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).
The seas around India harbour 1,707 species of fish, of which just around 200 are commercially significant. According to CMFRI, areas around the seashore have been exploited almost to barely sustainable levels, while contributions from the deep-sea are insignificant. Gujarat emerged as the leading harvester of marine fish in the country in 2009-2010, followed by Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The species that are overfished include shrimp along the entire Indian coast, Bombay duck and pomfret off Maharashtra and Gujarat, and shark, catfish, mackerel, sciaenids, pomfret, squid and cuttlefish off the south-west and south-east coasts.
One of the greatest long-term threats to the viability of fisheries is the continuing loss of marine, estuarine, and other aquatic habitats. Destruction of natural habitats through deforestation of mangroves and reclamation of land has substantially reduced fish breeding and nursing grounds. Inadequate regulatory and management norms have made things worse.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the world’s ability to meet demand for fish from natural fish stocks has reached its peak and is now declining. In 2020, production will rely less on natural stocks and more on aquaculture and enhanced stocks, but it will take at least another 25 years beyond that before aquaculture meets the majority of the world’s fish needs.
Recreational fishing too has suffered. “Forget the big fish, we don’t even get to catch shrimp and mackerel,” said Daniel Mosses, who’s sought out by anglers in Goa looking for fish such as groupers, barracudas, snapper or giant kingfish. “There is no black pomfret either. Fifteen years ago, we use to catch so much fish that people use to throw them back into the water. Now trawlers operate 24x7. Continuous bull and bottom trawling within 5 km off the shore has destroyed eggs, the ocean floor, everything.” In bull and bottom trawling, a net is suspended vertically between two boats which then rake it across the sea bed.