Monsoon in Kerala is not a happy season for those who love their fish curry and rice. Fish costs two or three times higher due to the annual trawling ban in the state, as fish landings are reduced in the season. For traditional fisherfolk, who catch fish within 50 nautical miles from the shore and are not under the ban, it is time to rejoice.

In the absence of the ban, traditional fishers land up struggling to find enough fish for their livelihood as they catch fish from the surface level, where the availability comes down due to bottom and deep-sea fishing by trawling boats.

Trawling is a method of fishing that involves pulling a fishing net tied to one or two boats, called trawlers, through the water. The annual trawling ban, which started from June 10 this year, grounds around 3,800 fishing boats operating across Kerala. The ban is not applicable to traditional fisherfolk operating motorised country boats.

According to the Kerala Government Fisheries Department data, Kerala’s share in the national marine fish production is 13%. India is the 6th largest producer of marine products in the world, with an output of about 35,99,693 tonnes in 2016. The country exports fish and fish products worth around Rs 380 billion

Kerala exports fish products worth around Rs 50 billion, which is about 3% of the state revenue. In 2016-’17 alone, Kerala produced 676,000 tonnes of fish and prawns. Nearly 800,000 people earn their livelihood from capture and allied works in marine fisheries.

A fisherman at Vizhinjam harbour. Credit: Shameem Kunnumathige/Mongabay

Trawling has evoked major concerns over marine ecology conservation. And the trawling ban, in place for three decades now, has drawn mixed reactions from various fronts. While traditional fisherfolk, the scientific community and activists support the ban, trawler owners and allied labourers like fish sellers, harbour labourers, workers in peeling sheds, workers at processing units and exporters have opposed it.

Environmentalists highlight damage done by trawling nets, juvenile fishing, over-fishing and so on in their demand for a longer period for the ban.

Arguments and counters

The trawling ban was introduced in Kerala in 1988 to protect marine life during monsoon – the spawning season. But trawler owners claim that they get their best catch this time of the year and their labourers have no other means of livelihood during this season. If the intention is to protect fish in the season of spawning, fishing using motorised country boats should also be banned, they argue.

However, country boats that fish within 50 nautical miles cannot be compared to trawlers as they catch only surface fish, said Charles George, president of the Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi, an all-Kerala fish-worker organisation.

“Trawling is the most destructive form of fishing in the world,” he said. “It causes large-scale destruction of the marine habitat as it sweeps the entire sea bed including microorganisms, seaweed and coral that are essential to marine life. Many countries have totally banned this type of fishing.”

Fishermen who still use country boats have always been against the trawling, having observed that surface fish catch has reduced considerably over the years. Trawling nets sweep away the bottom of the ocean, and causes overfishing and juvenile fishing. Moreover, whole habitats are destroyed, which according to them causes fish reduction at surface level.

According to George, trawling is not only an environmental concern but also a socio-economic issue. “Most of the people who work in trawling boats are not traditional fishermen – they are migrant labourers,” he said. “Local fishermen here still depend on small boats and traditional fishing techniques and return empty-handed from the sea, when trawling is rampant. Only during the ban they are able to earn well. Over-fishing has badly affected those who traditionally depend on the sea for livelihood.” George added that the trawling ban can also be beneficial to trawler owners because it would mean better catch throughout the rest of the year.

A fleet of fishing boats at Vizhinjam harbour. Credit: Shameem Kunnumathige/Mongaybay

Expressing support for demands to extend the trawling ban to at least 90 days in two different seasons, George said, “not all fish breed during monsoon. Cuttlefish and squid, which are common in Kerala markets, breed and spawn during October, so there is a need for a trawling ban during that time as well.”

Earlier attempts by the government to impose a longer ban in the state were vehemently opposed by fishermen who depend on trawling. The N Balakrishnan Nair Commission, appointed to look into the impacts of trawling by the state government in 1988, had suggested a three-month trawling ban to save coastal resources.

Mayuresh Gangal, a researcher from the oceans and coasts programme of the Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation and co-founder of Know Your Fish, an initiative that promotes responsible consuming of seafood by sparing fish species during breeding seasons and early stage of life, said that although the monsoon fishing ban is not an ideal scenario, it is taking off substantial fishing pressure for a couple of months for at least a few species that breed during monsoon.

“In an ideal scenario, we should have had a whole set of fishing regulations that take into account factors such as how different gear is used to catch fish, what kind of fish gets caught and what is their breeding time or critical habitat,” he added. “Our current fishing regulations do touch upon these factors but fall short of capturing all the complexities in detail.”

Even as Gangal affirmed that trawling is a destructive form of fishing, he acknowledged that reducing the impact of trawling is not easy. “We can’t afford to ignore the harm done by trawling or not think about other less harmful ways to catch fish,” he said. “Going back to artisanal or non-mechanised ways of fishing will only be possible in a scenario where demand for fish comes down to how it was 50 years to 70 years ago.”

Robert Pani Pilla, activist and founder of Thiruvananthapuram-based Friends of Marine Life said that Kerala has very few studies on marine ecosystems and their protection. He felt that that, along with trawling, other mechanisms that harm the seabed should be banned. “Fish are only about 15% of the marine ecosystem, there are other organisms that are harmed as well,” he said. “All destructive technologies including trawling should be banned.”

Trawler owners and workers, of course, are strongly opposed to any extension on the ban. National Fishworkers Forum state secretary T Peter sees no reason why the ban should stretch beyond the spawning season. He went on to add that since the ban is to protect fish in its breeding season, “authorities should ensure that fishermen using motorised country boats also avoid catching juvenile fish during this time.”

Joseph, a boat owner from Thiruvananthapuram, alleged that while the ban makes life difficult for the economically-disadvantaged fishermen, fishing harbour and ice plant workers, head-load workers and other vendors connected to this industry, “foreign ships [Chinese, Japanese fishing vessels] and country boats continue to fish during this time without any restriction. This is clear injustice.”

Pitfalls of trawling

Explaining the pitfalls of trawling, Pani Pilla pointed out that because trawling nets get plenty of fish, including juvenile fish, in one go, they can cause largescale damage to particular species by depleting their young. “Authorities should make sure that only adult fish are caught,” he suggested. “Size of the fishing net holes should be increased so that juvenile fish can escape.”

A study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in 2017 revealed that juvenile landings are very high in Kerala. “Even after the implementation of minimum legal size regulations in the state, considerable landing of juveniles [60% to 80%] of certain commercially important species such as Nemipterus randalli or Randall’s threadfin bream, Epinephelus diacanthus or Spinycheek grouper and Saurida undosquamis or the brushtooth lizardfish by mechanised trawlers were observed during the post-ban period in 2017,” the study reported.

It is also mentioned in the study that economic loss due to juvenile fishing was estimated at Rs 2.21 billion in 2017.

Another Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute report stated, “If the young fish are not caught during this short period of rapid growth and allowed to grow, it ensures much larger sized fish commanding higher prices for the fishermen.” The report suggested using square meshed trawl nets with 35 mm net hole size which minimises juvenile­ fish catch. “Use only >22 mm mesh seine nets for pelagic fishes like oil sardine and mackerel. Voluntarily avoid catching of juvenile fish shoals during ­ fishing activity using seine nets,” it said.

The state fisheries department’s 2016 report records a gradual decline in marine fish production over the years. In 2011-2012 the total marine fish production in the state was 553,000 metric tonnes, while in 2015-2016 it reduced to 517,000 metric tonnes.

The fish market at Palayam, Thiruvananthapuram. Credit: Shameem Kunnumathige/Mongabay

Pani Pilla was critical of research and government organisations, including the fisheries department, that reveal the exact location of fish breeding and migration through their studies, which help people in mass catch and over-fishing. “Fish are generally caught while they migrate in mass numbers,” he said. “When certain organisations reveal the exact location of their journey, it leads to over-fishing.”

Need of the hour

Gangal pointed out that both the method and scale of fishing currently makes fisheries unsustainable. “To promote conservation or to have sustainable fisheries in future, the mechanised sector of fisheries has to sacrifice its growth and profits for at least a few years,” he opined, adding that continuing with present fishing practices might cause ecological extinction of some species and economic inevitability of fisheries [economic gains of fisheries] in many regions. That can result in more conflict over fish resources and greater injustice. We need more dialogue between coastal states when it comes to incentives or disincentives in fisheries or forming regulations or subsidies. We certainly need our fishing management to be biologically informed.”

The situation is already getting alarming. According to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute’s 2017-2018 Annual Report, the stock status of almost 10 fish species, including oil sardine, Indian mackerel, ribbon fish, Stolephorus sp, threadfin breams, rock cods and croakers, have declined over the years in Kerala. The report also says that Penaeid shrimps, crabs, squids, cuttlefish and Indian scad – a type of mackerel – are less abundant.

Bijoy Nandan, professor, department of Marine Biology, Cochin University of Science and Technology, said, “Apart from seabed destruction, juvenile catch is the main issue with trawling. If the present practice of fishing continues, fish stock will come down tremendously.” He explained the necessity of proper surveillance in the fisheries sector to protect the marine ecosystem.

“Even some of the traditional fisherfolk use mechanised boats for deep-sea fishing,” he added. “There is no regular system to keep surveillance. Apart from that foreign ships are also found fishing in our territories.” Nandan also called for in-depth studies that can help fisheries sector understand and keep a watch on marine ecology conservation.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.