Fish drying at the Visakhapatnam harbour (Photo: Getty Images)
FLINGING A GILLNET from his boat one moonlit night earlier this year during the trawl-ban period, Alphonse Jose landed a surprise—a large catch of oil sardines (mathi in Malayalam) and mackerel (ayala), among other fish. His father, a retired fisherman, told him that the moon had tempted the fish into shallow waters. Jose, a 52-year-old artisanal fisherman from Kannamaly in Ernakulam district, tried to reason with him. “Scientists say the waters were too warm the past few years. The main reason there have been so few fish is that trawlers caught most of the young and spawning fish, depleting their population.” In 2015, the Kerala government banned, for the first time in India, the catch of juveniles of 14 types of fish. This rule was amended in 2017 to include 44 more species. Recently, the state government decided to extend the ban till 2028 to check the indiscriminate exploitation of small fish for feeding fishmeal factories. “Fishermen like us don’t deliberately catch juveniles or spawning fish. But now, the trawlers are also careful. If caught with juvenile catch, they will have to pay lakhs in fines,” Jose says. The Kerala government collected over ₹2.2 crore in fines from trawlers last year. The marine fisheries sector in Kerala recorded the highest catch of the last decade—6.87 lakh tones—in 2022, an increase of 24 per cent over the previous year’s landings. “The recovery of the oil sardine fishery is the major highlight of the year. From a meagre 3,297 tonnes of 2021, the species has returned to top most position with 1.10 lakh tonnes,” says the annual report on fish landings published by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).
India’s marine fish landings in 2022 registered a 15 per cent increase at 3.49 million tonnes compared to the figure in 2021. Tamil Nadu regained the first place in fish landings with 7.22 lakh tonnes accounting for 21 per cent, followed by Karnataka (6.95 lakh tonnes) and Kerala. The annual two-month trawl-fishing ban in maritime states and a slew of fisheries management laws passed by several states, including stipulating a minimum legal size (MLS) for catch, and the introduction of square mesh cordons as the first line of defence to protect juvenile fish have contributed towards increasing fish stocks in Indian waters. As artisanal subsistence fishing declines and commercial activity increasingly exploits the seas, India will have to heed calls to action against unsustainable practices like bottom trawling and conserve culturally and ecologically important species. On the sidelines of the Global Fisheries Conference held in Ahmedabad on November 21-22, Gujarat adopted the blackspotted croaker, or ghol, as its state fish. Perhaps the most expensive fish found in Indian waters, it is of medicinal value and can fetch up to ₹35,000 a kilogram for a full-sized male. Smaller ghol and females fetch anywhere between ₹2,000 and ₹10,000 per kg. “Ghol contributes only 2-3 per cent of the total value of fish landings in Gujarat, but plays a significant role in marine ecology. Conservation and creating awareness about the fish are key to maintaining its population. This was the intent behind adopting it as the state fish,” says Nitin Sangwan, Director of Fisheries, Gujarat, speaking to Open. CMFRI, which has successfully bred several commercially important finfish in cages, is now working on breeding ghol in captivity for the first time in India. CMFRI also recently sequenced the genome of the Indian oil sardine, which is considered a model organism to study climatic and fishing impacts on Indian Ocean resources.
As artisanal subsistence fishing declines and commercial activity exploits the seas, India will have to heed calls to action against unsustainable practices and conserve ecologically important species
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In September, Maharashtra declared the silver pomfret its state fish amidst reports of its declining numbers. Karshan Bhai R Salet, of Salet Seafoods in Porbandar, a prominent exporter from Gujarat, says pomfret stocks are in fact piling up with exporters along the west coast due to a drastic drop in demand. “About 20 per cent of our export bill came from pomfret. Now that China is not importing from us, we don’t know what to do. A good-sized pomfret can fetch ₹2,000 per kg in the international market. If we sell it locally, we get a tenth of the price.” Salet says his turnover from exports has fallen sharply from ₹250 crore before Covid-19 to ₹150 crore now. Earlier this year, China lifted the suspension it had imposed in 2020 on shipments from 99 Indian seafood processing and exporting units, after India extended assurances over source control. Despite the slowdown in China and muted demand from Europe and the US, India achieved an all-time high export of seafood both in terms of volume and value in fiscal 2022-23, shipping 17,35,286 metric tonnes of seafood worth $8.09 billion. In 2021-22, India had exported 13,69,264 metric tonnes of seafood worth $7.7 billion. Frozen shrimp, accounting for nearly $5.5 billion in fiscal 2022-23, remains the major export item in terms of both quantity and value, with the US and China being the major importers of seafood from India. Officials at the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) say they expect seafood exports for the ongoing financial year to touch or breach last year’s record despite the global slowdown and competition from other exporting countries like Ecuador.
The Narendra Modi government, which created a ministry for fisheries four-and-a-half years ago, has billed fisheries as a ‘sunrise sector’, launching a flagship scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY), envisioning an unprecedented ₹20,050 crore outlay over five years from fiscal 2020-21. In the past three years, projects worth ₹14,654.67 crore, of which the Centre’s share was ₹9,407 crore, have been approved under the scheme, which aims to improve fish production, productivity, sustainability, technology infusion and post-harvest infrastructure. While export competitiveness is the mainstay of all government schemes for the fisheries sector, there is a growing emphasis on creating local demand as a hedge against the uncertainties of the global market. According to a survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), India’s per capita yearly consumption of fish has jumped to over 13kg in 2022-23, from just 7kg in 2011-12. Although less than the average international per capita consumption of 20.5kg (2020), India appears hopeful of boosting domestic consumption significantly by stepping up marketing activities, setting up retail kiosks, organising fish food festivals and conducting campaigns to highlight the health benefits of diets rich in fish. Andhra Pradesh, the leading seafood producing state, has set up retail outlets under a scheme called ‘Fish Andhra—Fit Andhra’ to make fish and fish products accessible to households across the state. The state has also constituted an empowered committee to control aqua feed and seed prices. Out of the total aqua zone in the state spread over an area of 4.65 lakh acres, 3.26 lakh acres is eligible for electricity subsidy on account of the small size of holdings, said Botcha Satyanarayana, the state minister for education, who is a member of the committee.
Shrimp farming grew eight times in India in the past decade, thanks to the introduction of a new species, L. vannamei, or the Pacific white shrimp, but it remains riddled with uncertainties and inefficiencies in production. Startups like Aquaconnect, which provides full-stack services to over 60,000 shrimp farmers through ‘aqua partners’, are now stepping in to fill the gaps. Eruvaka, a Vijayawada-based remote pond management and smart-feeding solutions startup, was acquired last year by global animal nutrition company Nutreco, in the first big exit for any agritech company in India. “Technology solutions like Eruvaka’s can help improve farming efficiency by solving problems at the production level— from choosing the right seed to monitoring the dissolved oxygen and mineral content in the ponds and choosing an optimal feeding system,” says Rajamanohar Somasundaram, CEO and founder of Aquaconnect. The company offers end-to-end solutions to shrimp farmers, from consultancy services to financing and market linkages, and is pioneering an innovative satellite remote-sensing project to understand cropping patterns and to predict demand using Artificial Intelligence (AI). “The government’s intentions for the aquaculture sector are in the right place, but there is a pressing need to ease regulations and enable single window licensing for farmers,” he says. More importantly, he says, we have to find ways of ensuring that our farmers get good prices even as they continue to produce more. “Value addition and traceability are key,” he says, adding that the diversification of farmed species of shrimp as well as finfish will help boost the fisheries sector.
About a dozen fisheries from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala are in the process of getting certified as ‘eco-labelled’ fisheries, says K Sunil Mohamed, retired principal scientist, CMFRI, and chair, Sustainable Seafood Network of India (SSNI). Exports by eco-labelled fisheries are expected to fetch higher prices in the global market. “Many of the fisheries management laws made by the states are not properly enforced. Their jurisdiction ends at 12 nautical miles anyway. Beyond that, we have no laws yet to regulate fishing,” Mohamed points out. The Union government’s 2021 draft of the Indian Marine Fisheries Bill was met with stiff objection from fisherfolk as well as some maritime states, with the result that fishing in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone has remained largely unregulated.
The Coastal Aquaculture Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2023, was passed earlier this year to promote ease-of-doing-business and to widen the ambit of coastal aquaculture to include cage culture, bivalve farming, and seaweed and pearl culture. “Cage mariculture is the next frontier for India,” says Shubhadeep Ghosh, assistant director general, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), who was instrumental in breeding the Indian pompano (Trachinotus mookalee) for commercial cage culture.
The farming of fish in cages moored in the open sea is slowly picking up in the maritime states, with Goa becoming the first to notify a mariculture policy to augment fish production. “There are about 3,000 cages installed across India now. We estimate that a total of 10 lakh cages can be installed along the coastline, generating an annual production of 3 tonnes per cage—that is, 3 million tonnes in all. Seeds of commercially important species like sea bass, grouper and pompano are being distributed and the capital cost of the cages subsidised under PMMSY,” Ghosh says. Shrimp, which have non-specific immune systems, are prone to viral diseases, while finfish culture is considered less risky. For fisheries and aqua farmers who have thus far surfed the big waves of global demand and supply, the promise of calmer waters is certainly inviting.