India's budget deals a potential blow to traditional, small-scale fishers

Fishing boat in India
Gaon Connection
Kochi, India
India's budget deals a potential blow to traditional, small-scale fishers

On February 1 India's Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Nirmala Sitharaman, presented the budget for the 2020-21 financial year to Parliament. Among many other things, she referred to the blue economy, saying the government “proposes to put in place a framework for development, management and conservation of marine fishery resources.”

Sitharaman proposed raising annual fish production in India to 20 million tonnes by 2022-23. Growing of algae, seaweed and cage culture is also set to be promoted.

Simply put, the blue economy refers to economic activities dependent on marine resources. As per a document from NITI Aayog, a government policy think-tank, “development of the blue economy can serve as a growth catalyst in realizing the vision to become a $10-trillion economy by 2032.”

However, the budget and its announcements have brought little cheer to traditional and small-scale fishers in India.

“In the name of the blue revolution or blue economy, the government is giving away our sea to the industries and other economic activities. A shipping corridor is planned, and wind and solar farms are also being proposed in the ocean," said T Peter, general secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum, the only federation of small and traditional fishworkers in India registered under the Trade Union Act of 1926.

"Where will we small-scale fishers go for fishing,” he asked.

“Because of the destructive fishing practices of large-scale operators, such as trawling and purse seine fishing, fish catch has already declined sharply. Small-scale fishers are forced to go deeper into the sea, which means additional fuel [diesel] consumption,” said Peter. “Rather than supporting us, there is pressure to do away with our fuel subsidies. Without the government support, small-scale marine fishers cannot survive,” he added.

The National Fishworkers’ Forum is already worried about 2020, which is expected to be a make or break year for traditional marine fishers in India.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14) aims to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources." Target 14.6 of SGD14 reads: “By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognising that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.”

A large number of international reports point towards subsidies leading to overfishing. The worst kind of subsidies, it is claimed, are those that reduce fishers’ operating costs, thus promoting over-fishing. Such subsidies include support for cheaper fuel, gear and shipping vessels.

document by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says, “access to these types of inputs at below-market rates increases fishing activities and ultimately leads to depletion of fish stocks, lower fishing yields, and decreased incomes for fishers. These kinds of subsidies also tend to favour larger fishers, not the smaller, traditional fishers who are considered most vulnerable.”

“We are fishing down the marine food web. Subsidies offered by the governments are facilitating overfishing. Every year, 10 million tonnes of fish are lost globally due to overfishing,” Ussif Rashid Sumaila, professor and director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit, Institute for Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, Canada, told Gaon Connection.

At the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Negotiating Group on Rules is already holding a cluster of fisheries subsidies meetings to seek members’ views in the hope of reaching a meaningful outcome at the 12th Ministerial Conference set to be held in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, in June.

So far, India has made a strong case at the WTO for continuing fisheries subsidies. Last year, it argued that “its subsidies per fisherman amounted to less than $0.10 per day and it is the large subsidisers who needed to be disciplined.”

Fisheries subsidies and overfishing

According to Sumaila, annual global fisheries subsidies are estimated at US$35 billion, of which more than US$22.2 billion are for capacity building, US$10.6 billion are deemed "beneficial" subsidies and US$2.5 billion are "ambiguous" subsidies. Capacity building subsidies (mostly fuel subsidies) artificially reduce the costs of fishing by allowing vessels to take longer trips, ever further from land, and gather more fish. These subsidies are considered harmful.

Of the total US$35 billion in subsidies, a large chunk — US$29.8 billion, or 84 percent — goes to the large-scale fisheries sector. And, within the large-scale sector, almost 60 percent of subsidies are for capacity-enhancement (See chart 1: Global fisheries subsidies magnitude and distribution).

Global fisheries subsidies
Chart 1: Global fisheries subsidies magnitude and distribution / Source: Sumaila et al. (2016); Schuhbauer et al. 2017)

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that 33 percent of the world’s assessed fish stocks are overexploited, while 60 percent are exploited at their maximum sustainable level. The share of overexploited stocks is steadily increasing and has tripled since the 1970s.

“Five countries — China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Spain — amount for 64 percent of high-seas fishing revenues. If subsidies are removed, 54 percent of the high-seas fishing won’t be profitable,” said Sumaila, who has been strongly advocating a complete ban on fishing in the high seas. 

Fisheries highly-subsidized in developed countries

A look at country-wide data on fisheries subsidies shows how this sector is highly-subsidized in developed countries and China (See table 1: Fisheries subsidies: India vs other countries).

Fisheries subsidies
Source: Sumaila et al. (2019)

Annually, China offers maximum fisheries subsidies to the tune of US$5,952 million, of which more than 92 percent is for capacity building that encourages overfishing. The annual fisheries subsidies in the United States stand at US$3,553 million, of which more than 35 percent is for capacity enhancement.

In sharp contrast, India’s annual fisheries subsidies are US$278 million. This is 7.8 percent and 4.6 percent of the annual fisheries subsidies in the US and China, respectively.

Of the total annual fisheries subsidies in India, more than 62 percent is categorised as capacity building. Experts suggest translating capacity enhancement subsidies to beneficial subsidies, such as insurance, livelihoods for fishers through conservation, etc.

“The Indian government offers subsidies to fishers, which are part of welfare subsidies for education, health and housing, as the fishing community is economically weak. These subsidies should be there,” K Sunil Mohamed, principal scientist and head of Molluscan Fisheries Division at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Kochi told Gaon Connection.

“But there are components of the subsidy, such as the fuel subsidy, which can be relooked at, as it leads to over-capacity. We already have a certain amount of over-capacity in our system that needs to be reduced,” he added.

A break down of the various types of subsidies in the fisheries sector shows a large chunk of fuel subsidies, which promote over-fishing, is offered by developed countries (See chart 2: Global fisheries subsidies break-up). And the majority of these subsidies are cornered by the large players in the fisheries sector. Traditional and small-scale fishers can barely make both ends meet.

Subsidy estimates
Chart 2: Global fisheries subsidies break-up / Source: Sumaila et al. (2019)

“Just like the agriculture sector, the fisheries are highly-subsidized in the rich countries. We poor small-scale fishers in India stand no chance to compete with the global fishers. In the name of WTO, if the government takes away our fuel subsidies, we will starve,” said Peter.

“In India, for each litre of diesel or kerosene purchased by a fisher, the subsidy component is about Rs9. A big boat of deep-sea fishing gets an annual fuel subsidy of about Rs9-10 lakh. In contrast, a small-scale fisher, who consumes less fuel, ends up receiving very little subsidy,” explained Ramachandra Bhatta, a marine resources economist with the College of Fisheries, Mangaluru, Karnataka.

“In the case of income tax, as incomes increases, the tax rate increases. But, in fisheries subsidies, owners of a large vessel receive more subsidy than traditional small-scale fishers. This needs to change,” he added.

According to him, large players, such as trawlers, are depleting the oceans of their marine wealth.

From 11 million tonnes to 20 million tonnes a year

Sitharaman has proposed increasing India’s fish production from 11 million tonnes to 20 million tonnes per annum in the next three years. However, there is a flip side.

Almost 50 percent of the total fish catch in India is for non-direct consumption and goes to fishmeal and fish oil factories, which is an input for export-oriented shrimp aquaculture and surimi (a paste made from fish). India exports 75-80 percent of farmed shrimp to the EU, US and Japan. India also exports around 96,000 tonnes of surimi per year, and it requires four kilogram of raw fresh fish to produce one kilogram of surimi.

“At 11 million tonnes per year, India is the second-biggest producer of fish. Almost 60 percent of the total fish catch in the country comes from subsidized trawling,” said Bhatta.

“The estimated landing of low-value by-catch in trawl fisheries has increased from 14 percent in 2008 to 25 percent in 2011, and now it stands at 35-40 percent. A non-edible trawl landing consisted of 237 species/groups of marine fauna with juveniles of commercially important fishes,” he added.

This has both ecological, social and health concerns. Indiscriminate biomass fishing to convert by-catch into target catch is highly unsustainable. It is also a food security threat, as the fishmeal and fish oil industry convert relatively cheap, small fish, which could be an affordable food source for the poor, into higher-priced fish and shrimp, mainly for rich consumers in export markets.

Studies carried out by Bhatta and others show how large fishing vessels are wiping out the world's marine wealth. For instance, a fishing boat with a 300-horsepower engine or more brings in about 7,500 kilograms of fish per trip, of which 30 percent are considered trash fish. In the case of a boat carrying a less than 140-horsepower engine, the quantity of trash fish is about 10 percent.

“There needs to be more government control over the fishmeal and fish oil industry to the extent of their capacity and the manner in which they are sourcing their catch. At the moment, this industry’s demand is driving unsustainable practices in the fisheries sector,” said Mohamed.

To protect traditional and small-scale fishers, marine researchers say large players in the fisheries sector and developed countries need to put in place effective measures to control overfishing. 

This story was produced following a workshop in Kochi supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

Banner image: A fishing boat with a 300-horsepower engine brings in about 7,500 kilograms of fish per trip, 30 percent of which are considered trash fish.

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