In December 2014, Divya Karnad, a PhD student at Rutgers University in the United States, witnessed a fishermen’s meeting in Sindhudurg district in South Maharashtra. The artisanal fisherfolk, belonging to the Brahmeshwar community, had taken the day off work and gathered at the village temple to discuss the presence of a purse-seine in their waters two days ago.

A purse-seine is a large net that can stretch up to a kilometre and is used to capture a shoal of fish, usually sardines or tuna. It is made of a fine mesh that also traps fish eggs, thereby hampering fish multiplication.

The customary laws of the Brahmeshwar community do not allow the use of purse-seines.

At the meeting, villagers asked the owners of the purse-seine why they had used it in their waters despite knowing it was banned, Karnad wrote in a study published in the journal Marine Policy in October. The owners of the net argued that purse-seining was a legal way to fish under the state’s laws, but the villagers dismissed this argument. They said every group had exclusive rights to the waters adjacent to their villages, so the purse-seiners should not have drifted into their waters. Ultimately, the purse-seiners were fined an amount deemed as equivalent to the catch lost by the community. The money was put into the temple fund.

“As traditional fishermen, we have a unique understanding of how best to care for the sea,” one of the facilitators at the meeting told Karnad. “We know which fish are declining and why. We have even made representations to the government about the disappearance of hilsa and some catfish but they did not pay attention.”

For years now, fishing communities in India have used customary laws to regulate fishing in the face of a decline in stocks and species, caused by the use of trawlers – boats that drag large nets called trawls, sometimes along the seabed, to catch fish – and other exploitative fishing practices. These rules have often proved more effective in conserving fishing resources than any government intervention. This formed the crux of Karnad’s study.

Cast net fishermen in Kovalam, a fishing village in Chennai.

Customary laws and sustainable fishing

Karnad based her study in the districts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg in Maharashtra where over-fishing has become a problem in the last two decades. As state laws have failed to stem the decline, fishing communities have come together to take management decisions.

“They have developed a system of rules to prevent the use of large-scale, exploitative fishing gear,” she said. “These rules are made as much from a sense of social responsibility to maintain the livelihoods of fellow fisherfolk as they are from a sense of ecological sustainability.”

The study points out that fishermen are often ahead of the state fisheries department in ensuring sustainable fishing.

In February 2016, the Maharashtra government finally placed restrictions on the use of purse-seine nets. Since then, fish stocks have gone up along the coast, according to Ravikiran Toraskar of the National Fisherworkers’ Forum from Maharashtra. “Fisherfolk in these areas are getting good enough catch now,” he said.

The case of Tamil Nadu

According to Karnad, new fishing technology came to Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri relatively recently and the change was driven by the fishing communities themselves. Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, witnessed the introduction of trawl boats on a large scale in the 1970s as part of state policy. “As a result of that, the whole way they think about fisheries is different,” she said.

Like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu too has customary laws governing fishing, said Maarten Bavinck, a professor of coastal resource governance at the University of Amsterdam who has been studying fishing communities on India’s east coast for three decades.

Village councils monitor stretches of land and sea that traditionally belong to a village, and take action to regulate certain kinds of gear. Bavinck said these decisions are based on two kinds of logic. One is ecological logic, or concern that using certain gear might deplete fishing stock. “This may not necessarily be identical to scientific logic,” he said. “Scientists are generally reluctant to reflect on the logic of fishermen. That is a pity, as fisher logic is not necessarily wrong.”

The other is the social logic of fairness, to ensure equality within the community and that some people do not benefit at the expense of weaker sections.

However, since the advent of the trawlers close to five decades ago, fishermen are gradually losing control over their natural resources. Government law restricts trawlers from fishing within five nautical miles of the coast, but this law is generally ignored. Fishermen have not been able to stop trawlers from entering their traditional waters.

“Technology was introduced in a social setting in which it created a lot of conflict,” said Bavinck. “We can generally see that fishermen would like more control over fishing activity. But they are facing obstacles and are not able to manage the trawl fisheries, also because the trawl fisheries have political support.”

Fishermen sort the day's catch in Panayaur Kuppam, near Chennai.

Conflict on the seas

With technological advancement has come conflict as large fleets of boats routinely stray into the waters of other states. Mechanised boats from Karnataka and Goa enter Maharashtra’s waters, which still have abundant catch. Several motorboats and trawlers from Tamil Nadu travel up the coast to Andhra Pradesh every day. Fishing communities in Andhra Pradesh capture these boats and use them to seek compensation, said Bavinck.

It has, therefore, become increasingly difficult for artisanal fishermen to exercise exclusive rights over their waters.

Rahul Muralidharan, a PhD candidate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bengaluru, said community institutions of the kind seen in Sindhudurg have weakened over time in Tamil Nadu, in the absence of state regulations covering coastal fisheries. He said several fishing villages along the Tamil Nadu coast operate purse-seines, which are owned either by rich villagers or politicians. “They are so powerful that community institutions cannot really ban them [purse-seines] despite occasional conflicts arising within the village and with nearby villages,” said Muralidharan.

Similarly, artisanal fishermen have been protesting against trawlers for a long time but their demands have largely gone unheard, he added.

Muralidharan said there were two reasons why community institutions in the state have weakened. First, as the fisheries resource declines, profits are also falling. “Fishers have told me that their life is going to be tough in the next five years, that they are on the verge of quitting fisheries and finding other jobs,” he said. “They are already weaning their children away from fishing as they think there is no future in artisanal fisheries, given the dire state of fish stocks. It is a do or die situation.”

Second, the seafood market itself is undergoing a slow transformation and is “pushing fishermen to use certain technology to target particular species of interest of demand in both local and export markets”, he added.

Working together

In such a situation, experts agree that fishermen’s initiatives alone are not enough and state intervention is the need of the hour.

Bavinck said the challenges “are far bigger than the fishing population on its own can actually handle”. Karnad pointed out that while community laws work well locally, they are “difficult to scale up”.

Many commentators cite the annual 45-day fishing ban for mechanised trawlers in Tamil Nadu in April and May, which is fish-breeding season, as a successful case of a state law taking customary law into consideration.

“These two systems can actually work well together by operating at different scales,” said Karnad, adding that legislation crafted and enforced by the state operates on a larger scale and can back up fishermen’s initiatives at the local level.

Ravikiran agreed, saying that if the state government exerts more control, the results would be positive. “We really need to strengthen local community power to regulate fishing activities,” he said. “That is the only way to increase fish production.”

Fishermen dry their cotton nets in preparation for the next day's fishing in Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu.

All photographs by Rahul Muralidharan