Broadening the nets
As Indians increase in aspiration and wealth, it is inevitably reflected in their diet. Eggs, of course, and milk products. But the increase in demand is perhaps most visible for protein-rich foods like meat and poultry. While the supply response to the increase in demand for meat and poultry hasn’t been enough to control a steep rise in their prices, at least a ramp-up in supply capability can be imagined and planned. When it comes to seafood, however, little of the same vision comes into play. After all, is not India surrounded by sea, rich in rivers? Will not the ocean provide? Alas, no. The output from marine fisheries is undergoing a prolonged stagnation. The total availability of seafood has remained static at around 3 million tonnes since the 1990s — though, thankfully, fish supplies from inland waters have maintained a steady uptrend. Clearly, a sizeable proportion of the sustainable fish production potential of India’s fisheries sector remains untapped.
The key problem with India’s marine fishery sector is a hopelessly lopsided exploitation of the available resources — thanks to its lack of modernisation. While coastal waters up to around 50 metres in depth are over-exploited by traditional fishermen, the deeper depths remain under-tapped. As a result, the average fish catch in the coastal zone is dwindling, while the resources of the rest of the vast 2.02 million square kilometres exclusive economic zone (EEZ) along India’s 8,129 kilometres long coastline remains poorly utilised. Deep-sea fishing is in any case oriented chiefly to catching seafood highly in demand for exports, such as shrimp, totally ignoring the domestic market. Of course, deep-sea fishing is inherently capital-intensive; it simply does not attract, under the present policy framework, the sort of investment it needs to expand. And the participation of local fisherpeople and fishing communities is completely missing. Meanwhile, India’s overstretched Coast Guard finds itself unable to monitor the EEZ properly. Naturally, foreign vessels can openly poach India’s fisheries resources.
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Local fisherpeople, their cooperative societies and prospective big investors need to be incentivised to go beyond shallow water. And an indigenous research and development effort is needed, to design medium-sized fishing vessels that can operate in deeper waters — and which can be built at home, at a price point suitable for purchase by co-operatives. Further, foreign collaboration must not be shunned; policy inducements for joint deep-sea fishing projects need to be put in place to increase the fleet of large fishing vessels carrying Indian flags fishing in the EEZ and in international waters. Naturally, as with land-based food processing, infrastructure for landing, processing and transportation of seafood needs similar investment, possibly through collaboration.
Can inland fisheries make up for the problems of coastal fishing forever? So far, growth has come almost exclusively from aquaculture (fish farming), while catches from rivers and other open waters are on the decline. The potential of large water bodies — like India’s numerous reservoirs — is almost ignored. Luckily, considerable headway has been made in the development of indigenous technologies for high-yielding fish cultures in confined waters — both fresh and brackish. But this technology is being deployed largely for rearing Indian varieties of carp (catla, rui and mrigal) in inland bodies and shrimp in the fresh and brackish waters near the sea. Man-made small, medium and large reservoirs can be stocked with fingerlings using this technology, as well, which will help boost output. Finally, there’s the question of flowing water — where water quality has not been preserved and fish habitats have been destroyed. Better regulation is needed to sustain the irreplaceable homes of much-beloved fish like the hilsa.