Saturday, May 10, 2008

Monsoon trawl ban in Kerala

Monsoon fishing woes

By implementing the annual monsoon trawl ban effectively and fairly, Kerala can show others how to manage fisheries resources and conflicting resource users in a reasonable and healthy manner.

As the southwest monsoon is due to set in over Kerala next month, on its way north, there is one part of the home State that is a mite worried - the fisheries sector and the fishing communities and traders who depend on it for their livelihoods.

There are two principal sources of bother - the annual 45-day monsoon ban on trawling in the State's waters 12 nautical miles from the shoreline, and the issue of safety at sea for the fishermen who venture out to sea braving the rough monsoon conditions.

For almost 20 years now, Kerala has used the annual fishing closure as a fisheries management tool that several other coastal States in India have subsequently followed. The first 45-day trawl ban was imposed in 1988 as a result of a sustained and strategically focused campaign by the traditional fishing sector, led by the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation, and representing around 1.75 lakh fishermen. (An earlier ban in 1981 lasted a mere three days, before it was withdrawn due to pressure from the mechanised sector that operates fishing vessels equipped with high-horsepower inboard engines and large gill-nets.)

The main impetus for the monsoon trawl ban is its resource conservation value - the monsoon is the spawning season for many varieties of fish, including shrimp, especially the highly valued karikadi variety. Besides, the ban has another welcome spin-off - the potential to prevent violent physical conflicts between the artisanal small-scale sector, operating traditional craft such as the catamaran, and the mechanised sector, which comprises inboard-powered vessels.

However, this year, there appears to be an interesting twist to the call for an annual fishing ban. This time around, it is the mechanised sector that wants the ban imposed. The traditional sector, on the other hand, is against a blanket comprehensive fishing closure, claiming that its own fishing techniques are environment-friendly and non-destructive as far as fish resources are concerned. It claims that the mechanised sector's call for a total ban is a cover for allowing cheap imports of fish. The traditional sector wants only trawling to be banned since, from experiences the world over, bottom trawling has been shown to be destructive of both habitat and marine resources.

Yet the traditional sector is not beyond reproach as far as resource conservation is concerned. Last week, for instance, the Fisheries Department launched a major drive against the use of stake nets in Ashtamudi Lake, near the harbour mouth at Shakthikulangara in Kollam, the central launching point for trawlers in the south of the State.

The use of stake nets during high tide has been banned under the Travancore Cochin Fisheries Act 1950. A comprehensive study of the lake by the Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishad has stressed that stake net fishing is a highly destructive mode of fishing. They are allowed to operate only during the low tide.

During the monsoon, over 30 species of commercially valuable marine fish enter the Ashtamudi Lake through the estuary at Shakthikulangara, either for spawning or to find safe nurseries. These include schools of fries (newly hatched or born fish) of different species. The stake nets set at the entry point into the lake trap the fish that come to spawn as well as the fries that come in search of nurseries. Since the fries enjoy no commercial value, they are merely dumped back into the lake. Such capture of fries would lead to the depletion of future resources, say fisheries scientists.

Thus, in order to conserve the State's marine resources, both the traditional and mechanised sectors need to engage in reasonable resource management. This is all the more important since for Kerala, the fisheries sector is a major source of employment, income and food, and small-scale fisheries and aquaculture are important for sustainable development of coastal communities in the State.

Kerala's annual monsoon trawl ban follows international trends in fisheries resource management, where fishing closures are used to revive nearly collapsed fisheries or sustain potentially over-fished fisheries. Honduras, Peru and Indonesia are some of the countries where such annual fishing bans are in position.

It is important to guard against any dilution of the principle of a precautionary approach to fisheries resource management. After all, 75 per cent of the world's fishers' population are in the artisanal and small-scale sub-sector, which accounts for nearly half the global capture fisheries production. Kerala can show them how to manage resources and conflicting resource users in a reasonable and healthy manner.

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