A trawler off Kochi port. Photo: Sibi Arasu.
On an evening in February, the Old Mangaluru Port – as is the case on most days during fishing season – workers from around the country employed as labourers in the giant multi-day trawlers were either resting on the port’s landing or lazing about on the vessels, which doubled up as their houses. On any day, over a thousand trawlers are anchored here employing many thousands of workers who go out to sea for anytime from a few days to a few weeks.
While these trawlers are a vital source of income for people employed by the fisheries sector, many of these vessels engage in indiscriminate fishing. One important reason (among many) this is possible is the Centre and state governments exempt their fuel expenses from taxes, sometimes for up to 300 litres a day. Without this subsidy, the trawlers wouldn’t be able to fish as much as they do – although they wouldn’t be able to employ as many people as they do either.
The nationwide lockdown, to arrest the spread of the new coronavirus inside India, had put paid to all fishing activity in late March and early April. The Ministry of Home Affairs excluded fishing activities from the lockdown only on April 10.
When there isn’t a pandemic, extensive fishing is possible because governments subsidise it. Governments around the world spend an estimated $35 billion a year (Rs 2.66 lakh crore) on fishing subsidies. According to a study in the journal Marine Policy published last year, India accounted for $277 million (Rs 2,110 crore), of which $174 million (Rs 1,325.5 crore) is believed to contribute to destructive fishing practices.
In India, an estimated 14 million people are employed in the fishing sector, which contributes to around 1% of India’s GDP and 5% of the agricultural GDP.
The subsidies can be direct and indirect. Direct subsidies include those for the purchase of vessels, gear, engines, fuel, modernisation and assistance with aquaculture activities. Indirect subsidies include financial assistance through welfare schemes, construction of ports, fishing harbours and fish landing centres, development of post-harvest and market infrastructure, tax exemptions, investments in fisheries corporations and enterprises, grants for disaster and safety preparedness and exports.
According to the Marine Policy paper, in 2018, India awarded Rs 632.26 crore as beneficial subsidies, Rs 1,325.5 crore to enhance capacity and Rs 144.7 crore for other reasons (all converted from dollars to rupees). Capacity-enhancing subsidies contribute to overfishing.
“Countries do not generally differentiate between vessels when they provide subsidies,” Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Institute in the University of British Columbia and coauthor of the Marine Policy study, said. “Therefore illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels also benefit from the subsidies provided. It has been made abundantly clear in the literature that, everything being equal, these subsidies increase profits artificially, making an activity like IUU fishing more attractive.”
“Subsidies that go to bottom trawlers can be especially harmful. They are destructive to the habitat and have a large proportion of by-catch in their landings. Too much overfishing can lead to the complete collapse of fish stock.”
The Indian oil sardine crash of 2016 offers a case in point. Sardines are part of the staple diets in many coastal states, especially Kerala and Karnataka, so farmers caught and sold record volumes of the fish in the early 2010s. Those in Kerala caught 390,000 metric tonnes of sardines in 2012 alone, for example; however, only four years later, their catch plummeted to 45,000 tonnes.
Scientists from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) found that overfishing – among other reasons including lax regulation – was one of the primary causes. (Many fishers had also caught juvenile fish, compromising the sardines’ ability to grow their numbers.)
The overfishing situation remains more or less the same to this day. According to a study by researchers at CMFRI, the number of multi-day trawlers – which receive the maximum subsidies since most subsidies in India are for fuel – exceed the optimum fleet size by nearly 60%. There are too many of other motorised boats as well.
Essential for livelihoods
In a proposal submitted to the WTO in March 2019, the Indian government said four million fishermen could be in the lurch if the government scrapped subsidies. International negotiators were, and are, keen for governments to eliminate harmful subsidies since the UN Sustainable Development Goals seek to vanquish subsidies that contribute to IUU, overcapacity and overfishing by 2020.
“In my opinion, these subsidies can be turned into positive incentives. This is something that I have been arguing for a long time in my push to bring in more regulations and sustainability into the system,” Sunil Mohamed, principal scientist at CMFRI, said. “There are a number of regulations that remain on paper and are not enforced. Subsidies can be given to those who comply with regulations as an incentive.”
According to him, the overarching issues standing in the way of the Indian fisheries sector becoming sustainable include overcapacity, paucity of up-to-date regulations and improper assessment methodologies.
Indian fishers also think a blanket denial of subsidies will only worsen their situation. As T. Peter, general secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), said, “We need these subsidies because our survival depends on them. We are faced with competition not only from large Indian trawlers but also international vessels.” He conceded, however, that “the subsidies should be restructured”.
The Blue Revolution, a government scheme to increase fisheries’ productivity, has also inadvertently directed a significant portion of subsidies towards the big trawlers. This is because there is no ceiling on a boat’s horsepower or size beyond which it could become ineligible for subsidies. So the larger the boat, the more subsidies its operators receive. “If they address these issues,” Peter said, “small scale fishers will benefit more.”
A just balance
Fisheries economists have argued that the best way forward is for India to withdraw subsidies in a phased manner while also implementing regulations to control overfishing.
“It is indeed in the best interests of the fishers’ community to control harmful fishing subsidies,” Shinoj Parappurathu, a senior scientist at CMFRI, said. “Such subsidies may be redirected as beneficial ones.”
Some areas that could benefit from more subsidies include access to safety and navigation gear, insurance premiums, and funding for research and development of fisheries. Parappurathu added, “The primary bottleneck is that we are not in a position to enforce fishing restrictions. We presently have too many vessels and too many people depending on the sector.”
He also flagged the absence of a catch-reporting system and markets incentivising destructive fishing practices, such as juvenile fishing, as other issues that need to be resolved ASAP.
However, if a ‘business as usual’ scenario continues, India’s fishing capacity will swiftly outstrip the stock available to fish. As Sumaila said, “India is a very influential country. I really think it can play a stronger role to help the world remove harmful subsidies. The amount saved can be redirected to support fishing communities in ways that don’t destroy the fish stock.”