Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime, goes the old saying. Notwithstanding its philosophical insights, the proverb’s literal validity would stand questioned in today’s times. Here’s why. According to the latest report on The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture released by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) this month, almost 90% of world’s marine fish stocks are either over-fished (31.4%) or fully fished (58.1%). As is expected, matters are worsening with time. In the early 1970s, the share of under-fished stocks was around 40% of the total marine stocks in the world.

India is not immune to the problem. A story which was published last week in news website Scroll.in discusses in detail how over-fishing coupled with pollution and climate change has adversely affected fishermen and their catch in Tamil Nadu.

Matters could have been much worse had a large number of fishermen not become “fish-farmers". In 1950, fish production through aquaculture, which is defined as farming of aquatic organisms, including fish, molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic plants, was negligible in comparison to production through capture. In 2014, the latest period for which data is available in the FAO report, aquaculture contributed more to fish for human consumption than capture. Consider this, between 2009 and 2014, 85% of the growth in global fish production came from aquaculture.

Where does India stand in the global fish economy? According to the FAO report, India’s share in total marine capture fish production was 4.2% in 2014. In terms of total farmed aquaculture production, India’s production share is 4.8%. In terms of global rank, India was ranked sixth and third in the respective categories. Data published by the ministry of agriculture shows that there has been a gradual increase in India’s share in production of fish worldwide.

In a country which is vulnerable to inflation in pulses, increase in fish production should be a welcome sign as it can be an important source of protein. However, an analysis of National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data in a May 2016 Economic and Political Weekly paper by Lavanya Ravikanth Annebonia and K.S. Ravi Kumar at the Madras School of Economics shows that per capita fish consumption actually suffered a decline between 2009-10 and 2011-12, after steadily increasing for almost two decades. The trend reflects itself in per capita protein supply from fish for India, which has been declining since 2010. What explains the decline in per capita fish consumption, despite rising production? Anneboina and Kumar say that a rapid increase in fish exports could be one reason for the discrepancy between fish production and exports. FAO data shows that India’s fish and seafood exports as a share of total domestic production have seen a large increase in the post-reform period.

So is Indian fishing already in troubled waters? Declining per capita fish consumption and increasing exports at the cost of over-exploitation of our marine fishery stocks suggest so. However, lack of infrastructure rather than just free trade might be to blame for this precarious situation. The EPW paper by Anneboina and Kumar cites a study, saying that only 5% of marine fish in India travels a distance of more than 200 km from the coast due to lack of infrastructure to allow transportation of what is a highly perishable commodity. Ironically, there is no dearth of infrastructure to export the same catch to places as far off as South-East Asia, EU, US etc. The share of fish consumed fresh in India is almost double in comparison to the global average.

What about use of inland fish to substitute for other sources of protein? Fish is less expensive than other animal protein sources, and is inexpensive in terms of nutrition value in comparison to even vegetables and grains. Food security policies in India are by and large obsessed with cereals, said Dipa Sinha, an assistant professor of economics at Ambedkar University and a right to food campaigner. Even eggs are not being included in schemes such as mid-day meals, so it is difficult to expect focus on sourcing protein through fish, she added.

Given our vulnerability to inflation in pulses, a large part of which is imported, India would do well to seriously think about fishing its way out of protein troubles.

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