Healthy fisheries, sustainable trade

Last Updated 06 January 2021, 07:04 IST

This month the World Trade Organisation (WTO) deferred a crucial decision that would help in making fisheries around the world more sustainable. This decision has to do with certain subsidies, which many governments provide, that support unsustainable fishing methods. As a member of the WTO, India was a party to these negotiations. Yet, India was one of the countries that contributed to the failure of these negotiations, because it insisted that certain developing countries, like itself, should be exempted from stopping these subsidies.

Marine organisms are among the last wild foods that the civilised world eats. The demand for seafood is on the rise, and supply is struggling to keep up. Governments as well as international organisations like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Bank, have recognised that changes need to be made to sustain seafood supplies into the future. India’s fisheries, which supply domestic and international markets, need better management. India’s Draft National Fisheries Policy was touted as a policy that would address this issue. But this and other Indian government policies on marine fisheries miss out on one of the most key aspects of creating more sustainable fisheries, subsidies to unsustainable fishing methods.

Impacts of overfishing

The central issue that governments and international organisations seek to address is that of overfishing. Though fish are a renewable resource, multiplication, and replenishment of fish populations requires time. With human population exploding and increasing use of unregulated, illegal and destructive fishing methods, fisheries resources have been overexploited. Overfishing occurs when the fish populations are harvested at much higher rates than what can be naturally replenished. As a result, India’s seafood supplies are in decline. Assessments by scientists from the University of British Columbia, as well as India’s own ICAR- Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute demonstrate that India’s fisheries show a number of signs of overfishing, such as having too many boats, causing the near extinction of some species and so on.

The government has sought to address this issue through several interventions. For instance, Tamil Nadu’s government has recognised that there are too many mechanised bottom trawl vessels (a particular type of fishing vessel typically used to catch prawn, shrimp, and other bottom-dwelling marine animals) in the water between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. This was causing excessive competition between fishermen in the two countries, leading to international conflict over fish depletion. The state government, therefore, implemented a policy to subsidise and incentivise fishermen to switch to deep-sea fishing. These are the kinds of subsidies that India seeks to protect in the WTO negotiations. But the language used in its submission to the WTO allows not only these but also other harmful subsidies in India, and other countries, like China, to continue.

Understanding fishing subsidies in India

Fuel subsidies, gear subsidies, and mechanized vessel subsidies are understood by the
OECD (The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), to be the worst kinds of subsidies from the perspective of ecological sustainability. India provides such subsidies to promote export production of capture fisheries, export production of culture fisheries and induction of new technology, modernisation of processing facilities, and development of infrastructure facilities. Of these, India spent nearly double the amount on harmful subsidies, such as fuel subsidies for mechanised fishing, than it did on beneficial subsidies for fisheries management and marine protected areas. For instance, in a single financial year (2010- 2011), Rs 4.98 crore were spent on subsiding the motorisation of traditional crafts, Rs 9.36 crore were spent to rebate on High-Speed Diesel (HSD) and Rs 52.82 crore were spent for establishment of fishing harbors and other infrastructure. The question remains about whether these subsidies are needed.

Small-scale fishing does not receive much in the way of subsidies in India. Studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations demonstrate that even without subsidies, small-scale fishing is a highly profitable form of fishing in Kerala.

Small scale fishing continues to be profitable in Goa, according to research by scientists from the Central Coastal Agriculture Institute and the Central Institute of Fisheries Education. Yet most of the subsidies provided by the government are oriented towards promoting mechanised fishing. Bottom trawl fishing, a form of mechanised fishing, is unprofitable in many places, such as along the Coromandel Coast, as per a study from the University of Cambridge and Nature Conservation Foundation, India. The only way to maintain some economic benefit through bottom trawl fishing, is to be completely unscrupulous and dredge out every last marine organism so that they can be sold to low value supply chains for pet-food and other animal feed.

Despite clear evidence of the profitability of small-scale fishing, the Indian government is not subsiding a shift into such fisheries. Instead it has directed more subsidies at mechanised fishing, particularly to shift fishermen towards deep sea fishing. A revised document of National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB) guidelines for Blue Revolution (2015), notifies that government provides 100 percent of financial assistance to government institutions/ agencies having expertise for training on deep-sea fishing and tuna processing. NFDB Fisheries Infrastructure Development Fund invests 80 lakh rupees for deep-sea fishing. In the absence of these subsidies, both the marine environment and our fisher-people would be in a much better ecological and financial state.

The future of fisheries

The WTO and World Bank have published reports and made statements suggesting that the removal of harmful fishing subsidies would be the single event that could transform marine fisheries. Yet, India has used its small-scale fisher-people (who receive the smallest proportion of fishing subsidies) as the reason that it chooses not to agree with the removal of these subsidies. If India really wanted to help her small-scale fisheries, there are many other subsidies that could substitute the existing ones.

OECD research suggests that subsidising fishing communities access to trade and business can provide the greatest benefits, without the ecological costs. Implementing this concept is quite practical as it only involves the diversion of harmful subsidies to beneficial subsidies and it could be a win-win situation for both fishing communities and marine ecosystems at the same time. Moreover, the Draft National Fisheries Policy in India promotes fishers and fish farmers to prefer e-trade and e-marketing along with appropriate IT-enabled tracing and labeling system to ensure tracking of fish and fish products throughout the supply chain from ‘bait to plate’. The policy also aims to upgrade the post-harvest skill set of fishers through the Skill India Initiative which could be a great platform for the fishers to learn e- trade.

While this is laudable, it needs to be followed up with the withdrawal of subsidies on inputs. A clear message from the government that it is changing strategy from input subsidies to business subsidies will help reduce resistance from the fishing community. It will also give fishing communities space and freedom to choose appropriate fishing methods to the particular ecosystem and context in which they fish, rather than being pushed into using ecologically destructive methods.

(Divya is co-founder, InSeason Fish and Assistant Professor, Ashoka University and Meghana is a master’s student at Amity University)

(Published 23 December 2020, 15:42 IST)

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