Every year after the trawling ban (that is enforced to conserve marine life) is lifted mid-monsoon, the fishing harbours in Kerala would buzz day and night for weeks. Boats with fresh coats of paint would arrive and depart in batches. The windy wharves smelling of fish would be a riot of colours and sounds: nylon nets and funky floats, joiners hammering down on deck planks, the syrang (chief skipper) and crew running last minute checks on everything from wireless sets to rusty anchors. All this amid the clamour of loading workers, auction agents, merchants and middlemen.
On the morning of August 12, less than a fortnight after this year's trawl ban was lifted, the mood at Beypore, the most prominent fishing harbour in north Kerala, historically known for ship building, was far from festive. Kerala, the southernmost state in Indiaâs west coast, forms 10% (590 km) of the countryâs coastline. A strict COVID-19 protocol, which required a negative RT-PCR test to enter the premises was in place, but the pandemic was only one of the reasons for the lack of cheer.
Only two boats were being fueled, readying for a trip later in the day. The diesel prices on all three pumps at Beypore harbour on that day hovered at around Rs 95 per litre for diesel. In 2019, a litre of diesel was around Rs 70.
âNormally, in the months of August, September and October we had work day and night as boats keep coming in with the catch,â said Rajagopal KP, a loading/unloading worker and district treasurer of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a trade union with links to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangh (RSS).
âThere wouldn't be an inch of space for your toe as the harbour would be full of fish and people. We would not even have time to clean the harbour," Rajagopal said.
But this year, the work hours have sharply reduced, impacting boat owners and fishers.
Over the last few years, increasing fuel costs and dwindling catch due to exploitation have made the going tough for the sector. It has also led to the proliferation of several unsustainable practices: juvenile fishing and targeting of Low-value Bycatch (LVB), which supply fish meal and fish oil (FMFO) units. While juvenile fishing can deplete a particular species as the immature fish are caught before they can replenish the population by spawning, bycatch can affect the marine ecosystem by changing the availability of a particular species.
Rising fuel costs
Beypore has close to 600 trawl boats but only a hundred or so have made fishing trips since July 31. Many boat owners were not sure they would be able to afford fishing trips outside the season because of the high cost of diesel. "My boat returned with a catch worth Rs 1.5 lakh after 3 days. I had filled 1,300 litres (of fuel) at a cost of Rs 123,500. It's a loss any way you look at it. You need to land a catch of Rs 5 lakh in 3-4 days to survive," said Mustafa Haji, a boat owner and member of Beypore harbour management committee. (While trawl boats in Kerala do not receive diesel subsidies, traditional fishers are eligible for subsidised kerosene. In comparison, states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu do provide diesel subsidies ranging from Rs 8 to Rs 10 per litre to fishers.)
âMonetising anything that ends up in the netâ
Tropical waters are rich in multiple species, and for the boats that go out, catch may vary from year to year. Shrimp boats in Kerala target karikkadi chemmeen (Arabian red shrimp) during the season. Other trawl boats typically target threadfin breams (kilimeen) and squid (kanava).
However due to dwindling catches, a section of boats now target the Low-value Bycatch (LVB), which acts as a strong economic incentive for workers â creating whatever value they can from fishing trips.
"The amount of 'podi charakku,' (Kochi parlance for small-sized bycatch) has gone up over the years," said Suresh NS, a boat owner, who doubles as a traditional fisher.
At Sakthikulangara harbour in Kollam, crates of Odonus niger (red-toothed trigger fish or klathi in Malayalam) were found along with juveniles of the Threadfin bream. As per the 2019 annual report of CMFRI, klathi is being fished indiscriminately for supply to fish meal units. The total harvest in 2019 was 62,781 tonnes, which is 125% higher than that of the previous year. (Photo credit: Nevin Thomas)
Studies have shown that LVB volume has indeed been steadily increasing. In Kozhikode district where Beypore lies, the LVB landed in 2011 constituted 26% of the total landings. The official figure for Kochi, where Munambam harbour is located, for that year was only 7.2%.
"Now, nearly half the catch that we get to sort is bycatch, which goes to fish meal factories. Everyone knows it's harmful and would affect our future. But it has come to a point where the industry cannot survive unless they monetise anything that ends up in the net," said Prakasan Vennakkattu, a member of the Harbour Management Society, Beypore.
The spurt in commercial utilisation of LVB by fish meal units, mostly as feed for aquaculture, adversely impacts the sustainability of fish stocks, the marine ecosystem, and protein availability of the rural poor.
It's a sentiment shared by Joseph Joseph, secretary of Swathanthra Lela Thozhilali Union, an organisation of auctioneers at Sakthikulangara in Kollam, a major fishing port in the south of Kerala. "Targeting of juveniles and bycatch will ring the death knell for the sector. But what's the choice? It's not just the fuel cost that has gone up. Look at the investment and the number of people the sector supports," said Joseph, who also attests that bycatch sold as fish meal comprises around 50% of the catch. Auction agents like Joseph act as intermediaries to both exporters and fish meal units.
Still, Kerala has only a handful of fish meal units when compared to neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It's been six years since the state legislated minimum legal size (MLS) of fishes in an attempt to reduce juvenile fishing (with 14 species listed initially in 2015 and 44 later in 2017). In 2017, the state banned the use of illegal nets and mandated mesh sizes by amending its Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, to prevent overfishing and ensure sustainability. Scientifically, juvenile fish are those yet to reach sexual maturity.
Although the 2019 annual report of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), recorded a considerable reduction in the juvenile harvest of MLS-listed species along the Kerala coast in 2019 compared to 2018, the problem persists. Juvenile harvest of just two species -- Randall's threadfin bream and Brushtooth Lizardfish -- resulted in an estimated economic loss of Rs 38 crore and Rs 32 crore respectively. Economic costs aside, the National Policy on Marine Fisheries, 2017, has acknowledged the practice of LVB could undermine the integrity of the marine ecosystem.
The fisheries department enforces a fine of Rs 2.5 lakh (around US$3380) if it intercepts juvenile fish on board a trawl boat. The catch is then impounded and auctioned off, the revenue going to state coffers. Failure to remit the imposed fine can also result in seizure and sale of craft.
Joseph Xavier Kalappurakkal, secretary, All Kerala Fishing Boat Operators Association (AKFBOA), alleges that in the last 3.5 years, since the new amendments came into force, there were 123 instances in which fines were imposed on boats for alleged juvenile fishing, but this could not be verified.
Data provided by the state fisheries department shows that they registered a total of 453 cases for various violations under the Kerala Marine Fisheries Regulation (KMFR) Act, ever since the rules formulated under it came into force in 2018.
The department has raised a total of Rs 4.89 crore (around $6.5 lakh) as fines and through auction of fish from violators. The year 2018-19 witnessed 150 violations raising Rs 1.44 crore, 2019-20 (Rs 2.66 crore) and 2020-21 (Rs 78.8 lakh). The number of patrolling trips increased in 2019-20 (an average of 182 per month) compared to 2018-19 (156 trips).
Aneesh P, Assistant Director, Fisheries, Vypeen, said the boat ownersâ associationâs claim could not be verified as the department did not have a breakup of KMFR violations with respect to juvenile fishing, but it is nonetheless indicative of how pervasive juvenile fishing is.
"We operate with very little manpower. If we start registering cases for violations, none of these boats would be able to go out to sea," he said. The state has jurisdiction only up to 12 nautical miles and technically they cannot act against a fishing vessel who fishes outside the limit but the KMFR Act (Amended 2017) has provisions that make possession, transportation and sale of fishes below MLS an illegal act.
Keralaâs fishers critical of Act
The AKFBOA, which represents the nearly 5,000 trawl boat owners in the state, is critical of the penal provisions of the Act. They argue that zero tolerance on juvenile fish, as mandated, is unfair and impossible to comply with. "We fish in a multi-species environment. It is impossible for a trawl boat to exclude juveniles anytime of the year. If they want to end juvenile fishing, they would have to end bottom trawling first, but it would come at a terrible cost to our economy," said Joseph Xavier.
Scientists engaged in fisheries conservation consider this a valid argument. The CMFRI had originally recommended action against boats only if the juvenile content was more than 50% of the total catch, indicating that fishers wilfully engaged in an unsustainable practice. "It's true that trawl boat operators have no idea of what lies beneath as they draw their nets. Our idea was to create awareness regarding unsustainable fishing, which is detrimental to their future; never to penalise them," said Dr Sunil K Mohamed, a former principal scientist with CMFRI and chairperson of Sustainable Seafood Network of India (SSNI).
According to Mohamed, for close to three decades, since the 60s, CIFT scientists spent their energy designing fishing gear that would bring in more catch. A paradigm shift in thinking happened in the 90s, when wild-caught fish catch began to dwindle. The total marine fish landings in Kerala during 2019 stood at 5,43,836 tonnes, 15.3% lower than that of the previous year (2018).
Mesh sizes and codends
Trawl boats in Kerala are also bound by law to use two types of square mesh codends (the narrowed end of a trawl net: one for shrimp (25mm) and another for fish and cephalopods (34mm) developed by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technologies (CIFT).
Figure courtesy: Biju Kumar, Kerala University (Trawling and bycatch: Implications on marine ecosystem)
Square mesh codends ensure a catch of uniform size, eligible for a higher unit rate. The drag on the net while hauling is also less, which means boats can save on precious fuel. This is the message Network for Fish Quality Management and Sustainable Fishing (NETFISH), an agency under the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) had been trying to impart to fishers for the past few years.
"We optimised the mesh size for square mesh codends based on the mean length of mature fishes and some mathematical modelling. It's the best bycatch reduction device we have and the making is based on a simple concept that the fishers can easily adopt," said V R Madhu, principal scientist, Fishing Technology Division, CIFT. In a multi-species environment, the minimum legal sizes would differ from coast to coast; the mesh size of codends would have to be optimised for different states, said Madhu.
"Our 2019 experiment with CIFT and TN fisheries department showed that when the diamond mesh codend was used, the volume of juvenile fish that got caught was around 12 to 15 kg for every hour. This reduced to 3 to 4 kg when square mesh codend was used," said Dr S Velvizhi, co-ordinator, M S Swaminathan Research Foundationâs (MSSRF) 'Fish for All' Centre. The foundation develops and promotes strategies for economic growth of rural communities.
The fisheries department, through Matsyafed, a state-run cooperative. is offering a 50% subsidy for two square mesh codends for each boat with a unit cost of Rs 15,000, but the adoption has been negligible so far.
In February this year, the AKFBOA cooperated with a square mesh codend demonstration held at Kollam, but even though the cod-ends are subsidised and have been shown to be effective, members are apprehensive about whether they would be feasible in practice. Trawl boats carry around six types of nets in duplicates and even triplicates. If a codend gets damaged, it would need to be replaced. "Trawl nets scrape the bottom of the sea-bed and it can get filled with dirt in no-time,â said Mathias. Fishers also arenât convinced that the mortality rate of fishes that escape would be low. âThe subsidy offered by the government does not seem attractive,â he added.
No uniform regulations yet
Differences between state policies are also a point of contention. Smitha Nair, Joint Director, state fisheries department, emphasised the need for uniform regulatory environment and coordination between coastal states.
States like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu provide diesel subsidies to fishers, which gives them an unfair advantage. While Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have MLS for select species, there are no penal provisions in case of violation in the case of the former.
"There are 9 coastal states in India, 5 in the west and 4 in the east. We all fish from the same waters. Boats from our neighbouring state can come to Keralaâs coast, catch fish and go back to sell them with less legal hassles. There needs to be a uniform law," said Peter Mathias, president, AKFBOA, based in Kollam.
Alex Ninan, president, Kerala chapter, Seafood Exporters Association of India (SEAI), said that while Kerala has shown leadership by legislating for sustainability, the failure of other states to follow the model is a curse for the entire industry. "We don't have a national fishing policy yet. If all states adhere to laws with regard to juvenile fishing and use of Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs), such as cod-ends, everything will fall into place," he said.
But until that happens, Keralaâs fishers continue to feel they are at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in other states.
Effect of cyclones
In 2017, when cyclone Ockhi struck, Michael Raja, was the syrang of a boat called âLeaderâ. For more than 10 hours, Raja and crew felt they were never going to make it out alive. Originally from Kodimunai, near Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, Raja says the sea does not feel the same any more. âI saw many men in small boats crying out for help. We couldnât save any one of them,â says Raja, who now works as chief skipper of another boat that operates from Munambam. The frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea has increased by 52% in and the last two decades (2001-2019) and that of very severe cyclones by 150%, a constant worry for workers like him and the industry. (Photo credit: Shaji N Jaleel)
K T Shamsuddeen (R) and Cherakkott Koyamon (L), owners of âAjmeer Shahâ a trawl boat that went missing with 15 crew members â 11 from Tamil Nadu and 4 from West Bengal â in May this year. The tuna boat had sailed out on May 5 and was last spotted on May 16. The boat could not be traced despite several days of search. The boat is suspected to have been caught in Tauktae, an extremely severe cyclonic storm formed on May 14 that dissipated five days later. While the Tamil Nadu government offered compensation to families of those from their state, Kerala is yet to compensate the boat owners. (Photo credit: Prakash Karimba)
(This story was produced with support from Internewsâ Earth Journalism Network.)