Kochi/ Bangalore: This monsoon, 55-year-old Shashi Kumar’s savings will be stretched to the limit. The two trawlers of Kumar, a fisherman from Karnataka’s biggest port, Mangalore, will be grounded for 47 days during a countrywide ban on trawlers, and he will have to ensure that his family and those of his crew have enough to sustain themselves.
“It’s a hard time, but we make them (the crew) save and also give them some amount from our savings,” says Kumar, who has been fishing in the Arabian Sea for nearly 34 years.
India’s fish production was 6.57 million tonnes (mt) in March 2007 and its annual sea catch was around 2.88mt, making it one of the largest fish producers in the world, according to the department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries under the ministry of agriculture.
China came first with a marine fish production of 19mt, followed by Peru, Japan and Chile, according to the 2004 statistics of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
India exported marine products valued at Rs8,363.53 crore in 2006-07, says the Marine Products Export Development Authority.
The ban that the Union government will impose from 15 June to 31 July on the west coast and 15 April to 15 June on the east coast is an annual affair aimed at allowing fish stock to regenerate.
But for nearly 300,000 people working in some 40,000 trawlers across the country, and their dependents, it’s a period of forced idleness because an alternative source of income is hard to come by. Often, it means increased borrowing, hardship and a sense of desperation.
“Fishermen welcome the ban as it helps sustain the fish wealth,” says Peter T., Kerala-based secretary of the National Fish Workers Forum, but admits it causes social tension.
Most are forced to do menial or construction work to sustain their families, he says. “Governments must take more steps to help them during this period.”
The trawler ban was first imposed in Kerala some 20 years ago. Since coastal states can regulate fishing in their jurisdictions (territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles, or 21.6km), some, such as Karnataka and Kerala, permit traditional fishermen using boats fitted with low-power outboard motors or encircling nets to fish during the ban.
Trawlers venture deep into the sea and use bag-shaped nets that are dragged along the sea bottom, gathering not just all types of fish, including juveniles, but also tonnes of marine organisms. Besides, they can also damage the seabed.
Xavier Kalappurakkal, president of the Kerala State Fishing Boat Operators’ Association which has around 2,250 trawler owners as members, says it is not proper to target trawlers alone. After a near-total ban along the Kerala coast in 2006, the fish catch had gone up substantially, he says.
The West Bengal government, too, made a similar move recently. The state’s fisheries department says production grew as much as 50% since it first imposed a total fishing ban in 2007. However, it was mainly due to a ban on nets with meshes smaller than 90mm, which bring in the juveniles as well.
“Most importantly for us, it boosted the production of hilsa,” says Barun Maiti, secretary of Digha Fishermen and Fish Traders’ Association, a fishermen’s cooperative. The hilsa fish is a favourite in West Bengal.
N.G.K. Pillai, director of the Kochi-based Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), which has studied the impact of the trawling ban, says that a total ban on fishing operations is necessary.
Traditional fishermen disagree. They blame trawlers for destroying marine life. “Besides, this is the only time we don’t have competition from trawlers,” says Vasant Gujaran, president of the Dakshina Kannada Association of Traditional Fishermen.
According to CMFRI estimates, the contribution of traditional fishermen is just 8% of the country’s total sea catch.
While a complete ban during these two months will contribute to conservation of and addition to fish wealth, there are socio-economic aspects that need to be addressed, says Pillai.
A census conducted by the fisheries ministry in 2005 reported that the total population of marine fishermen in India was about 3.5 million spread over 3,322 villages.
Most fishermen utilize the forced holiday to mend nets and repair boats or engage in shore fishing or river fishing.
“But the frustration levels are high, mainly because they do not have money for alcohol,” says S.M. Prithviraj, convenor of Voices from the Marginalised, a network of marginalized communities in Tamil Nadu. “Some will take up any job that comes their way to keep their hearths burning,” says Peter of the National Fish Workers Forum.
Many fishermen register for a government-sponsored sch-eme through which they save Rs75 each month for eight months. Along with matching contributions from the Union and state governments, this fetches them about Rs1,200 to tide over the four off-season months.
“It’s a meagre amount,” admits Suresh Kumar, a Karnataka fisheries department deputy director, adding that the demand from fishermen to revise the amount is being looked into.
In the fishing season, each trawler spends around 10 days at sea on each trip, and does three such trips a month, fisherman Shashi Kumar says. “We make some profit only if the catch is worth more than Rs1 lakh.”
The crew of eight or 10 has to share among themselves a percentage of the returns, usually one-fourth. If a catch is worth Rs1 lakh, each fisherman in a crew of 10 could earn Rs2,500. Fishermen in South 24 Parganas and East Midnapore districts of West Bengal earn Rs4,000-5,000 a month during the peak season, according to Maiti.
“The fisherfolk want the government to contribute more so that they get at least Rs750 per month during the lean months,” says Prithviraj.
The Andhra Pradesh government is planning to provide 100kg of rice and Rs500 to each affected family for the ban period, says Arvind Kumar, the state’s commissioner of fisheries. The state estimates that it would need 43,400 tonnes of rice and Rs2.17 crore in cash to cover the 43,400 fishermen families.
State governments should take an initiative in providing alternative jobs during this period, says Pillai of CMFRI. “Workers can be trained in farming of mussels, edible oysters or seaweed. This will not only contribute to their income, but also help them in staying engaged during the ban period.”
He added that it is necessary to develop fishermen cooperatives because they are generally weak on savings.
With global warming contributing to rising sea levels, governments have to take up sea-friendly fishing and support fishermen during fishing holidays, says Josey Palliparambil, coordinator of the Centre for Fisheries Study and Manpower Development, a Kochi-based organization of fishermen. “Even the fishing community has to look at self-regulation.”
However, for fishermen, the immediate issue is to tide over the next two months when the ban would be in force.
Vidhya Sivaramakrishnan in Chennai, Santanu Chakraborty in Kolkata and C.R. Sukumar in Hyderabad contributed to this story