Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fishing ban in the monsoons

- by Deepa Krishnan

A few years ago, I clicked this picture of Koli fisherwomen at the Null Bazaar fish market. It was still the monsoon season, but the ban on fishing was over and fresh local catch was coming to the market.
Koli women at their stalls in Null Bazaar
Traditionally the Kolis have a self-imposed ban on fishing in the monsoons; they stop when the rains make the waters too dangerous and rough, and they commence fishing again on Narli Purnima after offering prayers and a coconut (this year Narli Purnima falls on Aug 10). 

But there is also an official government ban in place, primarily for fish stocks to recover. June to September is the spawning season for many species. Also the ban helps fish to grow bigger, thus realising higher value when the fish eventually come to market. 
Larger catch sizes after the monsoons
Now for the complications: In India, marine resources are a State subject, so each state on the West Coast has a different policy in place. There are different periods of the ban, and also differences in the way the ban is implemented. 

Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat, have a complete ban; i.e. all types of boats are banned from going into the water. But Karnataka, Kerala and Daman allow traditional non-motorised boats to fish during the ban, as well as boats with small motors below a certain engine size. 
Non-motorised and motorised boats, Worli Fishing Village, Mahim Bay. They must all be moored during the 2 month ban period in Maharashtra.
Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka this year have fishing bans between June 10 and August 10 (2 months). However, Kerala and Goa have different dates. In Kerala, the ban is from June 1 to July 15, that is roughly 45 days. Fishing this year is banned in Goa between June 1 to July 31 (2 months). As a result of differences in the ban, there are routine complaints from fishermen that boats from neighbouring states are venturing into their waters. There is now a strong demand for a common fishing ban period.

Apart from the seasonal fishing ban, the fisheries departments also have rules restricting the total number of fishing boats, fishing methods and types of gear that can be used in backwaters and shallow inshore waters (some types of gear are particularly damaging to juveniles). Mesh sizes are regulated, and there are also species-wise minimum legal lengths for capture. In some areas, fishing is restricted; and in some other areas, fishing is completely banned as they are declared a Marine Protected Area. 
Fisherman showing me catch using large mesh size, Worli
But many of these other restrictions / rules are not implemented in practice; and it is only the seasonal fishing ban which has been consistently implemented in India since the late 1980's. When the ban was initially implemented, studies of catch size and weight in the post-monsoon season showed the benefit of the bans; catch improved significantly. The introduction of seine fishing in the 80's, and its increasing popularity in the subsequent decade (when the fishing bans also came into effect), also helped increase fishing catch enormously.
Seine fishing, or purse-ring fishing. In this method, the boat quickly circles around a school of fish, drops the net, and then the noose is tightened like a purse-string. I clicked this photo in Bekal, Kerala, it is just near the Karnataka border.
In recent years, the catch has tapered off. The reason is not hard to guess: mechanised 'improved' trawling and seine fishing methods are destroying stocks; and even small motorboats have improved their techniques enough to bring in significant fish catches in the monsoons. I read an article recently in the Times, where someone in Goa complained that small boats were bringing in roe-laden mackerel, in the process of spawning.

The solutions are not very clear - it might help to have a longer ban period; consistently implemented across the West Coast, combined with a common set of rules for what types of vessels, gears, fish size etc are permitted. We need, especially, better rules for managing seine fishing and trawling, and we need better policing of the rules (difficult to implement). Alternative livelihood options for fisherfolk during the ban season is another area that needs attention.

I found a fantastic video made by the South Indian Federation of Fisheries, which shows fishing operations on the west coast (Kerala); I have never seen such a fantastic account of seine fishing. It shows how the catch is done, to the fisherman's cries and songs. But it also shows what is happening due to overfishing, and it suggests sustainable ways to manage ring seining.  Do watch it.