Kerala's Fishing Industry is Failing to Adapt, and the Costs are High for Stakeholders

Getting the nets ready at Munambam harbour/ Image: Shaji N Jaleel
The News Minute
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Kerala, India

Kerala's Fishing Industry is Failing to Adapt, and the Costs are High for Stakeholders

A combination of factors including high fuel prices, overdependence on bycatch for sustenance, and the failure to modernise and adapt sustainable fishing practices, despite legal mandates, is pushing the marine fishing sector in Kerala into the red, according to stakeholders.

While the state of Kerala had taken the lead in framing laws to ensure sustainability of fisheries resources, it has struggled to provide the required handholding for mechanised boat owners through skills-training or support for modernising their vessels. 

Moreover, most senior officials of the fisheries department sit in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, where there is no trawling. They are not acquainted with the culture, which is reflected in the policies. 

"It's not that we don't want to modernise. Other than what we gained during the Indo-Norwegian Project, till date the government has not provided us with training or programmes for skill development. Our workers are bold enough to go anywhere and fish but not much skilled when it comes to processing practices. If fishers are trained to turn tuna they catch into sashimi grade (for export), the catch will fetch a better price," said Peter Mathias, All Kerala Fishing Boat Operators Association (AKFBOA).

Mechanisation of fishing happened in Kerala in the late 50s and early 60s with the advent of the Indo-Norwegian Project (INP). The INP, implemented with UN assistance, was the first bilateral development project in what is considered the Third World and was implemented in the villages of Sakthikulangara, Neendakara and Puthenthura. A new breed of investors adopted mechanisation as most traditional fishers chose to stay away. This also resulted in creation of a ‘class divide’ between mechanised boat owners and traditional fishers, said Sunil Mohamed, a former principal scientist with the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) and chairperson of Sustainable Seafood Network of India (SSNI). 

While their enterprising counterparts in Gujarat and Maharashtra became fleet owners and even ventured into processing, fishers in Kerala largely chose the status quo, Peter said.

Export an impetus for sustainability?

Added to the lack of modernisation in the fishing industry and the gap between policies framed and the ground reality for fishers, reports have shown that the marine fish production has plateaued in the country since the 90s, due to over-exploitation by trawl fisheries. About 69% of the species studied in 2020 were found highly vulnerable along the Indian coast, with the east coast feeling more pressure than the west. 

"Eighty percent of our resources have already been exploited. There has been a steady decline in export of wild-caught fish,” said K S Srinivas, chairman, Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), headquartered in Kochi. 

The dip in catch over the years indicates the need for interventions, as Mathias pointed out. 

In 2020, the Union government introduced a new scheme under the Prime Minister's Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY) where boat owners would receive assistance to upgrade fishing vessels to ensure better prices and 'export competency'. Under the scheme, boats are eligible for a 40% subsidy (borne jointly by centre and state) to install a slurry ice unit and bio-toilet, with a unit cost of Rs 15 lakh. 

For each boat, owners would have to spend Rs 9 lakh for upgradation. "This would result in better value realisation as fish would have better contact with crystal-sized ice in slurry form with a temperature of minus 4 degree celsius," said Smitha Nair, joint director, Kerala state fisheries department. The advantage is that they don’t need to transport blocks of ice, which take up three-fourths of the hold, and can make ice as per need. The use of slurry ice would delay rigor mortis and other biochemical processes in captured fish, ensuring a better price when the catch is landed -- an incentive to not target bycatch. 

But on the flipside, the machine runs on diesel, raising questions about its advantages. “I don’t think we are in a position to afford this when diesel prices remain high,” said Peter Mathias.

Meanwhile, MPEDA, under the Union ministry of Commerce & Industry imposed a moratorium on new fish meal and fish oil (FMFO) units in 2019 after it found that the fish meal and fish oil sector contributes to marine fish depletion. The Low-value Bycatch (LVB) from the sea is used by fish meal units to make feed for the country’s growing aquaculture sector. Aquaculture refers to farming of fish in artificial and natural environments.

a chart displaying fish meal units per Indian state. Kerala has 7, while Tamil Nadu has 19 and Karnataka has 26.

"Even as we stop the supply of juveniles and bycatch to these factories, there is a need to look for an alternative for aquaculture feed. Soya is one but right now the import duties are high. Import of fish meal also attracts a high import duty of 15%. We have written to the ministry to do away with the import duty. Aquaculture is our only future," said Srinivas.

Eco-labelling of fisheries

While the aquaculture industry begins to explore alternatives to fish meal, marine fisheries are realising that they need to make big changes to stay afloat too. Especially, when it comes to implementing sustainable fishing practices, as more countries are demanding eco-labelling and sustainability certification for the products they import.

India has been facing a US ban on shrimp exports owing to the failure to mandate Turtle Exclusion Device (TED) in trawl nets, resulting in a loss of $300 mn  annually. Karikkadi shrimp, which goes into everything from salads to pizza toppings, fetches a high price for exporters. "Since the US market is closed, we have to sell it to others who don’t pay as much," said Alex Ninan, president, Kerala chapter, Seafood Exporters Association of India (SEAI).

The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) had come up with a TED design but fishers have so far been wary of adopting it, fearing it might affect the capture of large fishes.

“If you engage in Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing most countries don't want to buy from you," said MPEDA’s Srinivas.  

"Now Japan, too, has started saying that they want sustainability certificates. Once they stop buying, we would have a bigger problem," added Ninan, highlighting the urgency of the situation. In 2019, the SEAI and the Forum for Deep-Sea Shrimp Sustainability developed an action plan and initiated a Marine Stewardship Council pre-assessment to realise a fishery certification by 2024. 

"Within the next 2 or 3 years the industry here may not be able to export to countries in the EU and the US without eco-labelling certificates. Countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand already have certified fisheries or have fisheries moving towards certification," said Dr Vineetha Aravind, India’s first accredited MSC Fisheries Auditor, and a coordinator for the project. Eco-labelling refers to seals given to products that cause less adverse impact on the environment in comparison to competitive products. 

Currently two Fisheries Improvement Plans (FIPS) are being piloted for pre-assessment: ‘India Kerala Deep-sea Shrimp - Trawl’ (Arabian Red Shrimp, Deep Sea Shrimp, Indian Nylon Shrimp) and 'India Kerala Shrimp and Cephalopods - Trawl '(Kiddi Prawn, Flower Tail Shrimp, Neglected Octopus, Indian Squid and Pharaoh Cuttlefish).

Eco-labelling of fisheries in India is not an easy job because of complexities. "It's a bit difficult for tropical fisheries. Agencies like MSC started issuing certification in Europe, where they have one major fishery and not much bycatch. Here when we put the trawl net out we get hundreds of species and it varies with season. In one year and one season one particular species would dominate, next year it might be another," said Vineetha, a consultant for the WWF for the two FIPs.

Joseph Xavier Kalappurakkal, secretary, All Kerala Fishing Boat Operators Association (AKFBOA), feels such certification would only benefit exporters and not fishers. "Would we get a higher price because of this? They cannot assure that we will. Fish we used to export now fetch better prices in the domestic market," said Joseph.

Sakthikulangara harbour in Kollam. (Photo credit:Nevin Thomas)
Sakthikulangara harbour in Kollam / Credit: Nevin Thomas

Sunil Mohamed said they have taken this issue up with SEAI. “We asked them to pay a higher price, at least 1%, for catch brought by vessels that follow the legal mandates and principles of green fishing. Tentatively they have agreed,” he said.

Take into account socio-economic impacts

To get fishing vessels up to standards mandated, Smitha Nair, joint director, Kerala state fisheries department, said the use of Automated Information System (AIS) (for vessels longer than 20 ft), holographic registration plates, Turtle Exclusion Device (TED) and square mesh codends have been made mandatory since September 2019 and directives have been issued to patrolling officers to ensure that these rules are adhered to. 

"The Kerala Marine Fisheries Regulation (KMFR) Act was amended in 2017 and rules formulated in September 2018. Fishers were given one year till September 2019 [to implement the mandated practices]. We would start enforcing them this year onwards," said Nair. The strategy is to create awareness, issue warnings for violation and impose penalties as the third step, she said.

The push by fisheries officials to make trawl boats adopt Automated Identification Systems (AIS), which relay vessel position in real-time, as specified in KMFR Act, is also facing resistance. 

One reason behind the hesitancy is that the skippers fiercely guard the positions in which they fish as a trade secret. 

Legal mandates that are punitive and hard to implement within a community, and ignore the social and economic impacts are unlikely to be a sustainable solution. "The intricacies in the system make effective regulation challenging,” said Mohamed. “Most Kerala boats have men from Colachel in Tamil Nadu as chief skippers. They are highly skilled and have a share in a boat's earnings. If the catch landed is less it's their reputation that is at stake,” he added.

A model-boat experiment to change minds 

Before the trawl ban was lifted this year, the Central Institute of Fisheries Technologies (CIFT) and Sustainable Seafood Network of India (SSNI) actively scouted for trawl boat owners, who would loan their vessels for a model-boat experiment to encourage the adoption of these sustainability measures. But no one seemed interested and many were wary of such an experiment when diesel prices were at an all-time high. But Suresh NS, a boat owner who is not a member of the association, agreed to provide the trawl boat in which he owns a share. The model boat would engage in fishing with square mesh codends and gear as mandated by KMFR with an aim to realise better quality, and therefore value, for catch. 

Suresh is one of the few boat owners who had applied for the subsidy so far. He has made a payment of Rs 32,000 for two codends, holographic registration plate and GPS as mandated for one boat in May this year, but is yet to receive them.

In August, the model boat began to ply the seas with square mesh codends provided by the CIFT. Suresh, who is concerned about marine resource depletion, was enthused by the results. "The first trip for 'Karikkadi' (a type of shrimp) was a disaster. We only got 'chori' (jellyfish) in our nets. But the results were consistently good from the second trip onwards. When the catch is of uniform size, we can ice them fast and sorting doesn’t take much time. The drag was also less since the square mesh, unlike the diamond mesh, does not contract while we haul," said Suresh. 

Dr S Velvizhi, co-ordinator, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation’s (MSSRF), pointed out that it took several demonstrations repeated across seasons to convince fishers about the efficiency of square mesh codends.  "Enacting a law is easy. Everything would look fine on paper. But unless the fishers themselves are not oriented towards the concept of sustainability, you cannot win this," she said. 

“Changes won’t happen overnight. It will take time to bring in behavioural changes,” said Sunil Mohamed, who pins his hope on the ‘model boat’, and changemakers like Suresh who are volunteering for the cause of sustainable fishing.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by The News Minute on 27 October 2021 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Getting the nets ready at Munambam harbour / Credit: Shaji N Jaleel.

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