Purse Seines And Migrant Labour – Managing Fisheries In Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg District
As our oceans are filled with plastic and emptied of marine life, and climate change moves into higher gear, it becomes ever more vital that the contentious issue of marine fishing takes centre stage in national and international debates on the future of both fish and fisherfolk.
Photo: Sandeep Wairkar/Public Domain.
The sun was sinking into the sea. Wafting on the sea breeze came a song, the words of which were neither Marathi nor Malvani. The song was being sung by a group of Telugu-speaking fishermen from the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh. The beautiful folk music of these fishermen from the east coast seemed strangely out of place amidst the bays and lateritic hills of the west coast. Still, I didn’t think much of it until I found this group of east coast fishermen operating a local mini purse seine vessel, the next morning. My research on fisheries management by fishing communities in Sindhudurg had revealed that purse seine operations in the region were very contentious. Therefore, finding migrant fishermen purse seining in Sindhudurg was quite surprising. The entry of migrants into a livelihood occupation such as fishing could have several undesirable socio-ecological outcomes.
Although introduced several decades earlier, purse seines became popular along the Maharashtra coast in the late 1980s. Purse seining is a mechanised form of fishing wherein the fishing vessels use large inboard engines, as well as hydraulic winches to haul in the net. This contrasts with methods like gill-netting or cast netting, where the vessel may have an outboard motor, but the net is laid and hauled by hand. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) reports that until the 1980s, there were almost no mechanised vessels in Maharashtra, but with their introduction, fish catch increased three-fold. Simultaneously, non-mechanized fishermen experienced severe decline in fish catch. Fishermen began to connect the two most common types of mechanised fishing – that is trawl and purse seine operations – with the falling abundance of fi sh. The backlash was immediate. Sporadic conflict between non-mechanised and mechanised fishermen soon spread across the coast. Trawl fishing was the main target of most of these protests since it was the most widespread form of mechanised fishing in the early 1990s. However, when the government stepped in to declare exclusive artisanal fishing zones, in which trawl fishing was banned within a certain distance from shore in all coastal states, some trawl fishermen began to switch to purse seining.
Purse seining is a difficult technology to adopt. The net is almost as expensive as the boat, and the engine is much more expensive than a trawl boat engine because it must be faster. Even small versions of the purse seine that are not fitted with hydraulic winches require a large crew to physically haul the catch on board. A large crew means more wages to pay. The government’s vessel construction subsidies and loans do not help to cover all these expenses. Consequently, such vessels are often owned by people outside the fishing community, who have the capital to invest. They can simply employ labour, never having to step on board the vessel themselves. Perhaps for this reason, despite scientific evidence from CMFRI that bottom trawl fishing is more detrimental to fish populations, fisherfolk blame the purse seine for their declining fortunes. As a result, fishermen in Sindhudurg have put up a united front to prevent purse seining in nearshore waters. Given the large scale of purse seining operations, though, such regulations have the potential to positively impact fish populations in that region.
Proponents of the purse seine claim that it is one of the most eco-friendly fishing gears because it can be very selective. The argument is that when a school of fish is identified, fishermen can encircle it with a purse seine, catching only that school and nothing else. Despite its selective capacity, most purse seines have a very small mesh size that entraps unusable animals or by-catch in the form of juvenile fi sh. These fish are usually a part of the larger school but are too small to fetch a good price in the seafood market. Further, removing entire schools of fish could have disastrous consequences for the genetics of species and the marine food webs in which those fish participate.
Photo: Lauren Packard/Public Domain.
PURSE SEINING PERSISTS
Non-mechanised fi shermen made representations to the government based on these ecological and economic arguments. The Maharashtra government responded by notifying two orders under the Maharashtra Marine Fishing Regulations Act (1981) that prohibit purse seining within territorial waters (12 nautical miles). Nevertheless, purse seining could not be stopped. These orders were challenged in court. While the case was being deliberated, fishermen adapted the purse seine. They began using smaller purse seines on smaller boats, hiring labour instead of installing hydraulic equipment and calling this the mini-purse seine. Since there was technically no restriction on the mini-purse seine, this form of fishing began to increase exponentially in Sindhudurg.
Many fishing villages in Sindhudurg had organised meetings where they debated using purse seine and minipurseseine technology and most decided against it. The feeling was that only a few people would catch the amount of fish that would normally be distributed amongst many fishermen. Profiting by putting each other out of business was not considered the best way to progress in a fishing society. Fishermen from these villages would not even be labour on purse seine vessels from elsewhere. This should have spelt the death knell for purse seines in the district. However, labour laws that permit migration for work have meant that purse seine owners had the option of bringing in migrant labour. A fundamental right, a socially-just concept, i.e., migration for work, allows the perpetuation of a contentious and ecological-harmful fishing practice.
Photo: Divya Karnad.
FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE?
Fisheries management, as with all kinds of resource conservation, depends on two things. First, effective rules based on detailed knowledge of the resource and resource-use practices. In this case, these could be created by local fishermen’s traditional ecological knowledge and awareness of how fishing is conducted. Second, effective enforcement of and compliance with these rules. This is achieved by creating legitimacy for fishing rules, such that most people tend to follow rules without the need for punishment. Migrant workers lack the ability to manage fisheries because they do not have local knowledge, nor the cultural context to understand the legitimacy of fishing rules. While local fishermen have largely united against purse seine fishing, their arguments do not seem to resonate with migrants. Fishermen from Andhra Pradesh, with their knowledge of how to use purse seines, are increasing its use by being willing to be employed as labour. These groups of fishermen are vulnerable to exploitation since they do not speak the local language and depend on an agent to negotiate the terms of their employment. Thus, they are not aware of things like the extent of the exclusive artisanal zone, and are often pressed by the boat owners into fishing in areas where purse seines are banned. Fishing in shallow waters and removing entire schools of fish has a detrimental impact on marine ecology. It is a lose-lose situation.
While many factors have been blamed for overfishing and the destruction of marine life, the issue of migrant labour has rarely been brought up. While the will to exploit may be the root of marine conservation problems, migrant labour certainly facilitates unbridled fishing. Regulating this labour force, providing them training and education about the area into which they immigrate to work, will prevent them from being exploited. They would then be better prepared to negotiate for decent working conditions and wages, as well as be better informed about local regulations regarding fisheries management. Such an initiative could go a long way in promoting marine conservation along Maharashtra’s coast.
Author: Divya Karnad, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 4, April 2017.