Marine feuds are festering sores in Kerala

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KERALA'S coastal waters have become a battleground, putting traditional fisherfolk, who don't have an alternative vocation, against operators of mechanical monsters looking for quick profits from the sea. Linked closely with the dispute is the fate of the marine ecosystem.

Conflicts between traditional and mechanised fisherfolk take place all along the Indian coast and elsewhere in Asia. But rarely has it reached the level of hostage-taking, as has happened recently in Kerala (Down To Earth, January 31, 1993). Says V Vivekanandan, chief executive of the South Indian Federation of Fishermen's Societies: "There is a virtual war at sea between artisanal (traditional) fisherfolk and the mechanised fishing lobby."

Kerala's 590-km coastline is only 10 per cent of the national total, but its traditional fisherfolk contribute about one-third of its marine catch. They have been hit badly by the recent rapid, uncontrolled increase in commercial fishing, which is also eating into the offshore resource itself.

The first attempt to modernise fisheries in Kerala was an Indo-Norwegian project in 1953, but Vivekanandan contends the government failed in its attempts to supply trawlers to the fisherfolk. About 1,000 trawlers meant for distribution through cooperatives fell, instead, into the hands of traders and outsiders, creating a class of absentee owners interested only in short-term profits. The lucrative international market for prawns and the government's need for foreign exchange led to the promotion of trawling and a rush in the 1970s to own trawlers, which enabled outside investors move in and reap the profits.

Initially, the problem was negligible, but as the trawler fleets increased, so did competition with traditional small fisherfolk. A confrontation was inevitable because prawns, sought out by the trawlers, are found mostly in inshore waters in which thousands of artisanal fisherfolk work. In a UN Research Institute for Social Development publication, John Kurien of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, notes the harvests of nearly all important demersal (bottom-dwelling) species declined sharply between 1971-75 and 1981-85, largely because of "excessive or destructive fishing -- particularly the use of trawlers".

The second half of the 1970s witnessed regular conflicts at sea, resulting in more than 100 deaths, the destruction of small boats and the burning of trawlers. Sporadic flare-ups continued through the 1980s and in 1982, a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Philomine Mary, staged a 37-day hunger strike to highlight the problems of traditional fisherfolk. The conflict heightened, and in October Hostage-talking incident took place.

Conflict causes
The root cause of the fishery conflict is that development plans are production-oriented and ignore the needs of the fisherfolk or depend on the sustainability of the resource. "The issue all along for the last 10 to 12 years," says Kurien, "has been that there exists two groups of people with distinct perspectives." Kurien defines the groups as those who depend on the resource for their livelihood and those who are capitalists involved in fishing solely for profit.

Until the early 1970s, there was room for both, but today, the resource is scarce, the competition more intense and access to the resource is determined by technology. The result is that the artisanal sector with its traditional fishing gear is losing out to trawlers; and, with their livelihood threatened, the traditional fisherfolk are retaliating.

John Fernandez, coordinator of the Programme for Community Organisation, which has been working long in behalf of traditional fisherfolk, describes the fight as being "between a group of people who would like to protect the sea, its wealth and diversity, and those who would make maximum profit in the shortest span, damaging and destroying the whole marine ecosystem and then getting out of the fishery sector."

Kurien attributes overfishing to several factors:
• The "open access" nature of fishery, which led to an influx of trawlers owned by non-fisherfolk. Between 1966 and 1985, trawlers increased from 200 to about 3,000.
• Use of inappropriate technology. Trawling involves scraping the sea-bed with a bell-shaped net to catch demersal fish, purse-seining involves quickly encircling whole shoals of pelagic (surface-dwelling) fish. Both methods were introduced after the 1960s and have contributed significantly to overfishing.
• Population pressure on inshore waters. The average area per coastal fishworker in Kerala is 9 ha, compared with the national average of 30 ha. There is tremendous pressure on fish resources from the increasing number of traditional fisherfolk as well as from the swelling mechanised sector.
• Booming demand. The introduction of trawlers in Kerala coincided with the rise in demand for prawns in the international market. Prawns, once a commodity used as manure for coconut palms, have since become a major export item and India's "pink gold".

Fisherfolk's response
The response of artisanal fisherfolk to the threat of their livelihood was to unite, to motorise their craft and to acquire better fishing gear. Their retaliation also involved seizing and burning trawlers. In the early 1970s, violence occurred mostly in Kanniyakumari district, after some catamarans were damaged by trawlers. The flare-ups increased in frequency and intensity as trawler operations depleted the resource and the catch of the traditional fisherfolk dwindled. The decline was most marked in terms of loss of species, with the fisherfolk listing a number of species that they had not seen in five years.

In 1978, the Kerala Swatantra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation), was formed to spearhead the struggle of traditional fisherfolk. One of its major demands was for a complete ban on trawler fishing during the monsoon months of June, July and August, when major fish species spawn in coastal waters. The union has been pressing for legislation since 1981 and though several commissions were set up, their recommendations, union officials say were tossed into the sea by the government. Says Tom Kocherry, chairperson of the National Fishermen's Forum, "No government -- right, left or centre -- will implement them."

State officials, however, argue several measures have been introduced, including a ban on night fishing and prohibiting trawlers in waters less than 30 metres deep. The minimum mesh size of nets has been fixed at 30 mm and, new trawlers are not being licensed and expired licenses are not being renewed.

But observers say none of these measures work. To get around the ban on night trawling, the mechanised sector took the matter to court, arguing the state government's jurisdiction extended only to 22 km offshore, beyond which the central government has control. The court ruled trawlers could pass through the 22-km zone at any time so as to fish beyond it. And to this, Kocherry comments: "We know that they fish within 22 km because we all know they are after prawn and cuttlefish, 80 per cent of which are found within 22 km. Because the government cannot stop trawlers from heading out to sea, the trawlers break the night ban and fish in the restricted zone."

A clampdown on trawler licences in 1986 also proved futile. In fact, Vivekanandan points the number of trawlers has doubled in the past seven years and there is a boom in trawler manufacturing. Of the 3,000-plus trawlers at Needakara, in Kollam district, more than half are unlicensed. But Marshal Frank, president of the All-Kerala Federation of Mechanised Fishing Boat Owners' Association, laughs this off saying: "The government has asked us to go ahead and fish. They (the government) want foreign exchange and we give them that. We are not bothered about licences and so on."

Monsoon ban
In 1988, after fishing unions threatened a pre-monsoon agitation, the state government accepted a recommendation to ban trawling from mid-July to August. Kurien describes this as the most important fishery management decision since Independence.

The ban had three objectives: to facilitate better resource management, to prevent open conflicts and to placate the traditional sector, who constitute a major vote bank. But the mechanised fisherfolk also wield political clout because its members are wealthy, and under their pressure, the government relaxed the ban: In 1989, it was enforced for 40 days; in 1990, 21 days; in 1991, 30 days, and in 1992, 23 days.

The monsoon ban, though turned into a farce, is opposed by trawler operators because karikkadi prawn (Penaeus stylifera) is abundant during June, July and August. Frank argues a monsoon ban would prevent trawlers from harvesting karikkadi and India would lose foreign exchange.

But the monsoon months are also when most fish spawn and if the ocean floor is trawled for prawns, it also kills fish-eggs and small fish. In the first two years that the monsoon ban was enforced,, fish landings increased -- strengthening the argument of traditional fisherfolk for tight controls. But Kocherry contends though trawler violations increase each year, the number of violators caught is decreasing. He says trawlers caught by fisherfolk in a restricted zone or fishing at night are handed over to the Maritime Enforcement Department. Violators face a fine of Rs 25,000, but often they get off with a bribe or are freed ostensibly because of lack of proof. Leon Anthony, a fishworker adds, "We note down the registration numbers of trawlers that damage our nets. But no case is ever recorded and we get a miserly compensation of Rs 2,000."

Another fishworker, James Whitas, notes only three of four trawlers caught recently were unlicensed. All four had broken the night trawling ban and were in the restricted area. "There is no enforcement structure. We have to take the law into our hands," he says.

However, more than the decline in fish catches, the immediate reason for tension is the damage caused by trawlers to the nets and boats of traditional fisherfolk. A net costs Rs 10,000-12,000 and its loss is a major blow to subsistence fisherfolk. Laurence, a fishworker from Anchuthengu, a fishing village near Kollam, said his new net was ripped by trawlers late last year. "If my net is gone, how can I go fishing? I cannot catch fish by hand," he complains. He said he would have to borrow to buy a new net.

Asked about the Anchuthengu incident, Frank dismissed it as the work of "goonda elements". But, retorted Kocherry, "What do you mean by goonda elements? They (trawler owners) openly admit having broken all regulations. They are the ones who are doing illegal activities. The actions of the traditional fisherfolk are in self-defence. The mechanised sector is stealing their fish."

Kurien stresses there is an urgent need to defuse the rivalry between the two sectors to prevent it getting out of hand. He says it is a question of managing resources: "Here is a natural resource which is there for perpetuity if only it could be managed in a sustainable manner." With more than 3,000 large trawlers now operating, it is a question of survival for traditional fishermen who have no other job opportunities. So, says Kocherry, restrictions are necessary and any solution will require mutual agreement. But Fernandez predicts believes conflicts will increase as trawler operators search frantically for squid and cuttlefish, encroach into territorial waters and do all kinds of mischief. The solution, he stresses, has to be political, but the will for this is lacking.

Most fishery experts are convinced of the need for a complete ban on trawler during the monsoon, saying it is important to ensure the rejuvenative processes in the inshore waters take course without disturbance. They note the resource cannot be left unmanaged because there is so much at stake: marine exports rose from 15,000 tonnes worth Rs 3.9 crore in 1961-62 to 172,800 tonnes worth Rs 1,375 crore in 1991-92. But, they add, resource management requires cooperation and cannot be done by the state alone. But with warnings from frank of retaliation, and a traditional sector owning to protect its livelihood, conflict looks certain.