By Divya Karnad

In a sea of a thousand fishing nets, hope floats. It is what helps the gill netters and trawl fishermen sail out day after day. While competition is intense, there are a few factors that skew the balance in favour of the larger, more technologically savvy boats. From SONAR fish finders to larger fish storage capacity, industrial fisheries are gradually pushing small-scale, artisanal fishermen to the edge. The larger the vessels, the higher their impact on the social and ecological fabric of the coast. While artisanal fishermen have long been at loggerheads with trawl and purse-net fishermen, another type of fisherman has insidiously expanded into Indian waters without detection.

 Foreign vessels have been illegally fishing in Indian seas for several years. There have been reports of small artisanal vessels originating in Myanmar or Thailand “poaching” fish from near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While these random acts of desperation by poor fishermen from neighbouring countries do not constitute a serious threat, the entry of huge, factory-styled foreign fish processing ships certainly deserve attention. These ships stay far from the maddening crowd, away from the watchful eyes of Indian fishermen who prefer to fish close to shore. Recently some Kerala based fishermen voiced their concern about the entry of foreign fishing vessels into Indian waters. They claim that 91 foreign fishing vessels have been permitted entry. This is not a new phenomenon, rather this jack-in-the-box is simply a resurgence of an old problem.

Deep sea fishing by foreign vessels became notorious in India in the late 1980s and early 90s when Father Thomas Kocherry famously led a crusade against this plundering. Chronicled in a documentary by Anand Patwardhan, fisherfolk from across India, both artisanal and trawl workers, came together to protest the foreign extraction of fish. The economics and the ecology of allowing foreign vessels are immersed in shadow, with financiers who support deep-sea fishing admitting that the advantages to the foreign vessel outweigh benefits to India. The Indian government was eventually  forced to accept the Murari committee’s recommendation against foreign fishing vessels within the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 2002, the government finally regulated deep-sea fishing. They required that vessels over 20 meters in length plying over 12 nautical miles from the shore, have a Letter of Permit (LoP) from the Ministry of Agriculture. In an attempt to correct the errors of  1990’s, only vessels owned totally or in partnership with Indian nationals were allowed to harvest Indian waters.

Presently, the UPA government has made a silent reversal of that nearly twenty year-old decision by turning a blind eye to fake registration papers. While the National Fishworkers Forum has raised this issue repeatedly, naught has come of it except the sum of Rs 8,00,000 in the form of a one-time fishing license fee to the government. When fishermen are already talking of severe fish declines, and science is showing that fishing in Indian waters is already exceeding capacity any expectation of future seafood can only arise from our deep seas. That the government is willing to endanger the country’s future food security for such a paltry sum should be the concern not only of the fishermen, but of everyone. If, as Emily Dickinson put it, hope is the thing with feathers, the bird of the sea is almost well plucked.