Tamil Nadu _ India boasts the world’s second-largest fisheries after China, with fish catch totaling more than 12.5 million tonnes in 2017-2018. But much of that harvest is considered bycatch – small or juvenile fish that can’t be sold as food and is ground up for use as fishmeal or fish oil or tossed aside as waste.
These small fish play a vital role in the ocean's food web, allowing fish populations to regenerate and remain close to shore, where they’re easier for fishermen to catch. Without them, the food chain and coastal communities’ livelihoods are at risk, warn marine researchers.
The reason such a significant portion of the catch in India is bycatch is because of the use of bottom trawling nets that destroy reefs, seagrass and other natural marine habitats. And much of what’s driving the use of such destructive practices is government subsidies.
While they’re intended to help fishermen maintain their livelihoods by offsetting the costs of things like fuel, fishermen tend to put these subsidies toward bigger boats and bottom trawling equipment in order to compete in an industry where fish stocks are declining.
“The government is providing subsidies for the construction of boats and nets. It is misleading us,” said Francis, the leader of a traditional fishing society in Tharuvaikkulam.
His village is one of a few along the coast of Tamil Nadu that has banned bottom trawling and adopted measures to reduce destructive practices, such as the use of nets with wide mesh. These practices combine traditional knowledge with modern techniques and are providing a model for sustainable fishing that other villages are beginning to follow.
And while the government has started taking some action to reduce destructive fishing practices, leaders like Francis are pushing for officials to redirect fishing subsidies toward communities like his that are actively involved in conservation efforts. He says the government needs to work more closely with fishers and invest in initiatives like eco-tourism that preserve coral reefs and nearshore fisheries. Another option, putting money toward women’s self-help groups to train the next generation of fishers.
This documentary by Naresh Green tells the story of all the small fish that die in vain for every fish that comes to our plates and looks at how some places are finding their own solutions to this challenge.