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Fishers on strike. Demand changes in the draft marine fisheries bill

An additional permit from the Centre for fishing beyond 12 nautical miles and lack of safeguard for traditional fishers' livelihoods are some concerns flagged by the National Fishworkers' Forum, which is spearheading a nation-wide stir of marine fishers against the marine fisheries bill.

Nidhi JamwalNidhi Jamwal   15 Oct 2019 5:30 AM GMT

Fishers on strike. Demand changes in the draft marine fisheries bill

Today marine fishers along the country's coastline, spread over nine states from Gujarat to West Bengal, are on a strike. They are protesting against the Central government's Marine Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill, 2019, which, they allege, is against the livelihood of traditional fishers and, if enacted, may wipe them out completely.

Spearheading the strike is the National Fishworkers' Forum, a national federation of trade unions and organisations of fishworkers in India, which has called for modifications in the bill taking into account the traditional and customary rights of the fishers.

"As per the bill, fisherfolk, including those owning country crafts [small-scale fishers], have to take a licence from the Centre and are proposed to be levied a fee for fishing beyond 12 nautical miles in the sea. These fishers are already in penury. Any further pressure on them to get an additional licence and fee will be catastrophic," T Peter, general secretary of National Fishworkers' Forum based in Thiruvanthapuram told Gaon Connection.

"Big boat owners and trawlers can be levied an additional fee. But, country crafts must be kept out of this provision. Their livelihood is already under a threat due to the changing climate and opening up of coasts for large infrastructure and tourism projects," he added.

In its opposition to certain clauses of the marine fisheries bill, the National Fishworkers' Forum has received support from the Akhil Maharashtra Macchimar Kriti Samiti.

"We partly support the marine fisheries bill as far as regulating illegal fishing in the country's exclusive economic zone is concerned. Large players are involved in the banned LED light fishing and purse seine fishing [in which a single fishing net spreads across three kilometer in the sea takes away all fishes], which must be checked," said Damodar Tandel, president of Akhil Maharashtra Macchimar Kriti Samiti.

But, we oppose the proposal of another licence from the Centre for our traditional fishers. "Cities like Mumbai use the sea as a dumping ground to release their waste and sewage. We fishers are forced to go beyond 12 nautical miles to find fish and we do not indulge in any harmful fishing practices," he added.

According to Tandel, traditional fishers already have a licence from the state authorities to fish within 12 nautical miles from the shoreline. They should not be made to get another licence from the Centre to venture between 12 nautical miles and 200 nautical miles zone.

National Fishworkers' Forum is opposing the proposal of an additional fishing permit and a fee for small-scale fishers. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement ratified by India, classifies the sea and resources in the water and the seabed into three zones — the internal waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone. The internal waters include gulfs and small bays. The territorial sea extends to 12 nautical miles from the shoreline. The exclusive economic zone, commonly known as EEZ, extends to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline.

Since fisheries is a state subject, fishing in the internal waters and territorial sea (up to 12 nautical miles) comes within the purview of the concerned state governments. However, activities in the exclusive economic zone are governed by the Centre.

At present, there is no comprehensive central law to govern fishing and other activities in the country's exclusive economic zone. The Marine Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill, 2019 aims to plug that gap.

Indian Fisheries

Indian fisheries and aquaculture is an important sector of food production employing 14 million people. In 2017-18, the total fish production in the country was 12.60 tonnes, which is about 6.3 per cent of the global fish production.

India exports more than 50 different types of fish and shellfish products to 75 countries around the world. According to the National Fisheries Development Board under the Union ministry of fisheries, animal husbandry and Dairying, "fish and fish products have emerged as the largest group in agricultural exports with 13.77 lakh tonnes in terms of quantity and Rs 45,106.89 crore in value". This accounts for around 10 per cent of the total exports and nearly 20 per cent of the agricultural exports, and contribute to about 0.91 per cent of the GDP.

India exports more than 50 different types of fish and shellfish products to 75 countries. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

As a part of the Indian government's Blue Revolution project, which focuses on increasing fisheries production and productivity from aquaculture and fisheries resources, the Centre has planned to invest Rs 25,000 crore in different segments of the fisheries sector in the next three to five years.

India also has obligations to frame suitable laws under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the various agreements under the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Marine Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill, 2019 is one such piece of legislation to regulate the exclusive economic zone of the country.

Marine fisheries bill

The marine fisheries bill aims to "provide for regulation and management of fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone of India and the high seas and for conservation and sustainable use of marine fisheries resources… supporting the social security, livelihoods and safety at sea of fishers and fish-workers, in particular, the traditional and small-scale fishers…"

Some key clauses of the bill include a prohibition of fishing without a permit: "No Indian fishing vessel shall engage in any fishing or fishing related activity within the exclusive economic zone of India or the high seas, except with a permit issued by the Central Government or any authority notified under this Act for fishing…".

It also proposes to levy a fee on fishers: "Permit issued under this Act shall be subject to levy of fee and charges for fishing and fishing-related activities…"

The bill also bans issuing of permit "unless the fishing vessel is registered under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958". It bans issuing of permit "to a foreign fishing vessel for fishing and fishing-related activities within the exclusive economic zone of India".

If any Indian fishing vessel is fishing in the exclusive economic zone of India or the high seas without obtaining a permit, such a vessel shall be impounded and the owner or master of such vessel shall be punished with a fine, reads the bill. It also has provisions for the fisheries management plan.

The marine fisheries bill 2019 bans fishing and fishing related activities in the exclusive economic zone without a permit. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

At present, the country's exclusive economic zone remains largely unregulated. "There is no control over illegal fishing and local authorities are hand-in-glove in such activities. We do need a legislation to check illegal activities as such practices kill the livelihood of small-scale fishers," said Tandel.

He informed that last year over 2,000 vessels were caught in Maharashtra for engaging in illegal fishing using LED lights and purse seine fishing nets. A February 2016 notification of the state government bans such fishing practices. Also, 10 Chinese fishing vessels, which sought "emergency shelter" in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra during Cyclone Vayu in June this year, are under the Centre's scanner for allegedly fishing illegally in the Indian waters .

Traditional fishers at stake

According to Tandel, the marine fishers bill should regulate illegal fishing practices, mostly carried out by large mechanised boats and trawlers, than make a scapegoat of traditional fishers. "There are small-scale fishers in Uttan and Vasai near Mumbai who go till 30 nautical miles in the sea to catch fish using their traditional fishing nets. Why should they be forced to get another licence from the central government?" he questioned.

Meanwhile fishers in South India are also vehemently opposing the marine fisheries bill. "We strongly oppose the Indian government's proposal to levy a fee on traditional fishers to fish in the exclusive economic zone," said Peter.

Also, the clause of not issuing permits to vessels not registered under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 is highly objectionable, he added. "Traditional country crafts are small boats and do not meet the standards specified for merchant ships in the 1958 act, such as a toilet facility, a trained skipper and rescue facilities in the boat. At this rate, none of our country craft boats will get a fishing permit," he feared.

The majority of fishing boats in the coastal states are country crafts. For instance, Tamil Nadu has 35,906 country crafts and only 5,798 mechanised boats.

Predictably, the Tamil Nadu Fishermen and Workers' Association, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), has also raised strong objections to the marine fisheries bill.

There is a need to check illegal fishing without making a scapegoat of small-scale fishers. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

This is not the first time the Indian government has proposed a legislation to regulate activities in the exclusive economic zone. A decade ago, the Union ministry of agriculture's Marine Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill, 2009 had hoped to do the same.

The 2009 bill, to regulate the country's exclusive economic zone waters, was one of the demands of the National Fishworkers' Forum's 6,000 kilometres long coastal march in 2008. Even then the fishworkers' forum had welcomed the move to regulate activities in the exclusive economic zone, but keeping in mind the interest of small-scale fishers.

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