Behind the fishing lines
AS THE May 7 deadline for the review of the Deep Sea Fishing (DSF) policy by the P Murari committee drew closer, the leaders of India's 80 lakh-strong traditional fishing community built up a tempest against megascale joint venture DSF projects. Sit-ins and rallies were held from Paradip to Delhi. On May 2, Thomas Kocherry, convenor of the National Fisheries Action Committee Against Joint Ventures began an indefinite hunger strike at Porbandar in Gujarat. The slogan was a single-edged blade: "Cancel all licenses issued to the joint venture deep sea fishing vessels."
The Murari committee report will be instrumental in deciding the future course of fishing in Indian deep waters. This territory is enviously sought after, particularly by multinational fishing giants 'suffering from the shock of massive stock depletion from over-fishing . The committee was set up in November 1994 after a countrywide agitation in which fisherfolk and their traditional rivals, the small, mechanised boat operators, clubbed together to harry the larger foreign trawlers from the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Now, the -National Fishworkers' Forum's (NFF) trepidation stems from the fact that since it is not represented on the DSF review committee, its concerns might be sidelined. "Once the recommendations are made and implemented, it would be too late," says A J Vijayan, NFF's Delhi spokesperson.
The face-off has slowly been turning blue around the gills ever since the government announced its new DSF Policy in 1991, encouraging 100 per cent export-oriented joint venture projects and the leasing of foreign vessels for fishing as well as for resource testing in the Indian EEZ. Reportedly, 170 licences were issued. Says P Issar, joint secretary in the ministry of food processing, defensively, "Only 36 vessels are in operation now. No new licences are being issued." The minister of state for food processing, Tarun GogoL revealed in Parliament that the number of foreign flag vessels had come down from 75 in 1991 to 16 in 1994.
The NFF's argument and that of the organisations representing small, mechanised boat operators is that seawater, up to 320 krn from the shoreline, cannot withstand the megascale resource exploitation by vessels over 20 m in length. Says Kocherry, "Give incentives to our own small mechanised boats to go offshore. Why should we subsidise largescale exploitation by foreigners?"
The Murari committee holds the key. The Indian EEZ is seen as a goldmine. The government estimates a resource potential of 1.69 million tonnes in Indian seas deeper than 50 m. The Marine Products Exports Development Authority (MPEDA) assures a profit between us $500 million- I billion, provided at least half the "readily exploit-able resources" like tuna, sharks, perches, cephalopods and deep sea lobsters and prawns are exploited.
A ministry-appointed study group had recommended a massive induction of 2,630 vessels in the Indian EEZ. Gogoi's ministry, afraid that such a big scheme might be driven by adventurism, turned it down. On December 15, 1994, he assured the Lok Sabha, "In fact, the target for the 8th Plan in this respect is only 200 vessels."
The NFF points out that the EFZ'S fish wealth claims are tall, and megascale piscine exploitation will not be sustainable. There are also genuine fears that bigtime operators will flout norms. Warns Kocherry, "Deep sea fishing vessels enter coastal waters in pursuit of migrating fish shoals. This means trouble f9r traditional fisherfolk."
A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study done for the government -of India in April 1992 also questioncd the viability of foreign trawling: "Theiforeign operators are primarily seekifig quick and highly lucrative results... They may therefore leave the EEZ without having demonstrated anything positive for the local entre.'freneurs." The FAo report notes that in the early part of the '90s, a rapidly increasing number of deepwater trawlers operating off the Andaman and Nicobar coasts led to a sharp drop in lobster catches.
FAO consultant M Giudicelli also noted that the boat leasing system can often introduce vessels too big, too powerful, too costly or too old for local conditions. Giudicelli diagnosed that "the invest- ment of Rs 3,750 million for the DSF fleet was not economically productive ... The priority need is resource management."
The government has yet to come up with a sustainable fishing programme instead of tired and vague promises. Says Gogoi, "The government is seriously concerned about the welfare of traditional fishermen and is totally committed to protecting their interest and improving their economic condition by providing greater incentives to them."