What the 45-Day Annual Fishing Ban in Tamil Nadu Means for Fisheries Conservation

The 45-day fishing ban provides a false impression of conservation: the benefits are short-lived and the fishing can happen unhindered for the remaining 320 days of the year.

Fishing boats at Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu. Credit: mikeprince/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Fishing boats at Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu. Credit: mikeprince/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

It is April 15.

Coastal Tamil Nadu will be abuzz with news reports announcing the start of the annual 45-day fishing ban for mechanised boats commonly called trawlers. The reports will also tell us that fish prices may soar due to falling fish supplies. Vindicated as a means to reduce fishing effort and aid conservation, the annual 45-day fishing ban between April 15 and May 31 was ordained in Tamil Nadu in 2001. This restricted fishing period – implemented by the state – was a result of protests and agitations held by small-scale fishers to curb near-shore trawling that had been going on for several decades. What does this ban mean for fisheries conservation?

The story begins in 1949, after the Second World War, when fisheries around the world were to be regulated and managed using the concept of the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). MSY is the maximum level at which fish can be harvested without causing long-term depletion of the fish stock. In one of her books, Carmel Finely has chronicled the history of MSY, and as a historian of fisheries science, her central argument is that fisheries management is politics masked as science.

At the heart of this science, according to her, is the idea that removing fish frees up food and other resources for the faster-growing smaller fish. In other words, fishing produced a surplus of fish because the populations responded by reproducing more – and this surplus could be harvested sustainably every year. The optimum point at which fish could be harvested was when the rate of mortality due to fishing equaled the fishing effort. If our ability to harvest was low, then the fish would perish – which was a waste of food. If we were to harvest a lot more/faster than the fish could reproduce, then we would be overfishing, forcing fish stocks to become depleted. So between them, MSY was an idea, a set of mathematical calculations, that was not grounded in reality.

There was a time when the seas were open. Japan and the US were sending their boats to more countries than any other nation. For any country, it was only the first three nautical miles off their shores that was reserved (as being within its maritime boundary). Beyond it lay international waters. And Japan was fishing in the waters of China, Russia, Philippines and Australia. American boats was fishing off the coasts of Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. The fish were a means to achieve political, economic and strategic objectives for both nations.

As a result, fisheries management was effectively a war of knowledge between Japanese and American fisheries, waged with the science. In 1935, as the world’s dominant fishing nation, the Japanese fisheries science was considered one of the best. Their boats would go all the way to Bristol Bay in the Pacific to catch salmon. Since the seas were open to all, the US could not keep the Japanese boats from closing in on their territory. So soon enough, the Americans devised a plan to thwart the Japanese boats. Keeping in mind that fishing could not be restricted until there was scientific proof that stocks were being depleted, scientists from the US argued that they were already fishing at MSY, and that the Japanese boats would overfish.

At the same time, American boats continued to fish in distant waters – despite reciprocal concerns of overfishing off of the coasts of smaller and poorer nations, especially in Latin American. Thus, in 1949, the US overtook Japan to become the largest distant-water fishing nation in the word. And despite the fact that MSY was a loose formulation conceived for managing fisheries, the US successfully pushed MSY as the basis of international policy for fisheries management during the International Technical Conference on the Conservation of Living Resource of the Sea – also known as Rome Conference – in 1955.

MSY has been heavily criticised over the years. It did not have a mechanism with which to differentiate between the mortality caused by fishing and that by other environmental factors. Second, it assumed that fish populations are isolated from one another and that it was possible to estimate MSY for a single species. Third, it did not consider other input factors such as engine power, the number of boats and fishing gears in its calculations. The assumption was that when fishing became unprofitable, fishers would stop fishing.

What MSY failed to account for was the fact the governments were subsidising fisheries, which neutralised fishers from existing fisheries when the catch was bad. It all came down to one single, simple assumption: fish populations could safely withstand harvest.

Deconstructing the 45-day ban

By the late 1950s, mechanised bottom trawling had been introduced in Tamil Nadu to harvest shrimp for exports, the dawn of a period known as the ‘pink gold rush’. Shrimp are mostly found in near-shore areas, where the bottom trawlers ploughed the seabed to catch them. India borrowed technologies from developed countries to exploit and destroy local resources and serve export markets of the countries that supplied these trawlers. But there was a problem: small-scale fishers worked the same grounds as the mechanised trawlers, and the latter threatened both their catch and their fishing gear. In about two decades, disagreements between the two groups had devolved into violent conflicts: small-scale, artisanal fishers on one side and fishermen operating mechanised trawlers on the other.

When these conflicts peaked, the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (TNMFRA), a multi-purpose blanket regulation, was installed in 1983. Apart from restricting the use of certain fishing instruments and capping engine power, the TNMFRA also reserved the first three nautical miles offshore as the demesne of small-scale, artisanal fisheries. The distance was established assuming that small-scale fishers don’t usually go farther than that.

As it happens, the TNMFRA has hardly ever been followed or enforced in Tamil Nadu’s near-shore waters. Other state governments along India’s west coast have also started implementing closed fishing seasons for mechanised fishing boats over worries about the fish-stock condition as well as escalating conflicts. But the dates of these closed seasons did not overlap, resulting in further conflicts.

By the late 1990s, the Government of India stepped in with a mandate to ensure proper fisheries governance and to improve sustainability. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) was requested to provide scientific advice on the basis of breeding patterns of fish for instituting the ban. But the CMFRI report was inconclusive: it stated that fish breed during different times of the year as well as multiple times, so it wouldn’t be feasible to impose a blanket ban across states for any given period of the year. However, states on the eastern coast agreed to a closed fishing season for 45 days, between April 15 and May 3. Even if the solution was not biologically sound, it was politically feasible.

Bottom trawling is considered to be one of the most destructive fishing practices because of its by-catch, which is the accidental capture of any non-target species. These are mostly discarded at sea. In 2010, a study conducted by Aaron Lobo, a marine conservationist, showed that Tamil Nadu’s trawling industry was able to survive because of the commercialisation of its by-catch. What was once being discarded as waste was now finding buyers. Trawlers brought in by-catch in the form of trash fish – dead, decaying creatures that were dried, grounded and sold as poultry-feed for Rs 7-10 per tonne. What was supposed to have been fish for human consumption had been reduced to trash, thanks to trawling.

To contain this practice and reduce the fishing pressure, there is a need to produce evidence that fish are already being harvested at MSY. And to produce such evidence, there needs to be a more robust data-collection process. For example: how does fisheries data collection occur in Tamil Nadu? And how is the catch estimated? The records only take a guess at how much fish has been caught – not how much is discarded. And even if MSY is calculated for each species of fish, how will resources be regulated and allocated to different resource users? The bottomline is that the 45-day fishing ban provides a false impression of conservation. The benefits are short-lived and the fishing can happen unhindered for the remaining 320 days of the year.

Beyond the ban

Most of the world’s oceans are overfished, so where do we go from here? The picture is not all gloomy yet. Studies tell us that tropical fish stocks are resilient and could bounce back provided we give them enough space and time. Conversations with many small-scale fishermen about their dreams for the future have almost always touched on the same things: “stop trawling and our oceans will bounce back”. On the one hand, they recognise the fact that trawling has become a part of the life of fishing communities in Tamil Nadu. Here’s an interesting anecdote from a 70-year-old fishermen in south Tamil Nadu (provided during an August 2016 interview):

If [trawling] is regulated, it will be good. But hereafter it will be difficult to regulate. How many ever cooperatives, changes and governments come – when one thing begins… When we used to fish in trawlers, there were engines like Buck, Kirloskar, Merna and Ruston. These were all small engines. Today they say China engine, Japan engine, Leyland, four-wheel and six-wheel – all these are modern technologies. And if all this needs to be stopped, then how many companies have to be shut down? How many fishers have to go jobless?

For example, if a boat goes fishing on a particular day, 20 families make a living. I go in a small boat so only me and my family earns a livelihood. But when a trawl-boat goes into the sea, the ice factory, the shrimp factory, the companies that purchase sting-rays and crabs, the people who mend the nets, the diesel-carrying tricycle, the spare-parts shops, the mechanics, labourers, carpenters, tea-shops and grocery shops all look forward to the trawlers to make a living. How much ever efforts are taken – once begun, it is difficult to stop. This is like a drug. Like how they say if a person starts drinking, then it is difficult to correct him.

But on the other, they are also reflexive about their own practice. Many fishers who were interviewed about the fisheries situation spoke about the transparent plastic monofilament nets replete along Tamil Nadu’s coast. They said that the transparency made the nets invisible underwater, resulting in a bountiful catch. Some fishers said that the fish catch occurred only with monofilament nets – not with the cotton or nylon nets because they visible and the fish evade them. Although this information is anecdotal, it is worth following up on. Anyway, small-scale fishers say they have been left with no choice but to use the monofilament nets, despite knowing the long-term consequences.

Unlike cotton and nylon, fishing gear made of plastic monofilament nets can be soaked for a longer time as they don’t absorb water. As a result, the nets don’t get heavy, and fishers are able to carry multiple units on a single trip. They are also cheaper and easier to maintain, which is good for the labour-intensive small-scale, artisanal fishing. On the flipside, fishers also complain that monofilament nets are stiff underwater, resembling ‘iron strings’ sometimes cut fish and leave them bleeding to death. The resulting odours drive other fish away. Further, monofilament nets catch almost all the fish that pass through them, so fishers up and down the coast are affected. And in the longterm, these two negative effects far overwhelm the benefits of using them.

While regulating fisheries is difficult thanks to the complex social, political, economic and ecological constraints, governments often tell us that there is always potential to increase fish-catch. And while the fish-catch has been declining globally, it is on the rise in India because rise in fishing efforts. So instead of the government washing their hands off of the fisheries crisis as a problem created by ruthless, selfish fishers, it needs to be recognised as a problem of governmental policy and scientific management. More importantly, the TNMFRA regulations can’t remain on paper as policy. They need to be practiced, which requires political will.

Treading on the fine line between the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen while addressing the demands of the export market – and simultaneously conserving fish stocks for long-term subsistence – is evidently challenging. These are also the current goals of fisheries management. It remains imperative that we forego politics and secure the future of our fishers.

Rahul Muralidharan is a PhD candidate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.