Every day, for the last 14 years, 52-year-old Hemangi Kubal sails out to sea at 1 a.m. to start her workday as the sole fisherwoman of Malvan taluka – a fishing town in Sindhudurg district in Maharashtra in India’s west coast.
Hemangi, a cancer survivor, heads out to sea to cast her net and returns only at daybreak, around 6 a.m., with the day’s catch. Every evening, Hemangi, with her husband Hemant’s help, cuts, cleans, and sells the fish in the evening market that springs up on the shores of Dandi beach.
Hemant’s health does not allow him to go out to sea to fish, so it’s Hemangi that braves the seas every night. Hemangi’s cancer treatment took over much of the family’s resources when it first hit in 2020, during the pandemic. When asked how she overcame these hurdles, she replied with a smile, saying her two daughters, both in their twenties, helped keep the business running. “The fishing community here is very close-knit, they all pitched in and helped us when I was in the hospital,” she says, shyly, her sweeping hand, pointing at the rest of the fishing community busy during the peak market hours.
Unlike Hemangi, who sails out to sea, Malvan’s fisherwomen are mainly involved in ancillary processes. Once their husbands return with the catch, the fisherwomen set out to cut, clean, market and even bargain with customers and agents or middlemen, known as dalals, who help them sell their fish in the wholesale market.
Fish is integral to Malvan’s people and its culture. Malvan is also Sindhudurg’s largest wholesale fish market.
Ribbonfish, bangda also known as king mackerel, surmai or the Indo-Pacific kingfish, bombay duck, sardines and prawns are a few of the fish and sea life that dominate the market in Malvan’s Dandi beach. An odd stingray can also be found. These, along with sharks, are dried and often fetch a high price.
The beach is flanked on both sides by allied commercial activities. While one side is a thriving tourist hotspot, with water sports such as scuba diving, parasailing, and jet skiing, the other side hosts Malvan’s fish auction and market that’s held twice for two hours every day, once early morning at 7 a.m. and then in the evening at 5.30 p.m. These commercial activities are the town’s lifeline.
Reducing Fish Catch
Ketaki Jog, a Ph.D. student from Australia’s James Cook University and Mihir Sule, a marine biologist, have been studying Malvan’s fisheries and marine biodiversity for over a decade. “Compared to the catch from before, the quantity has dwindled over the last decade,” Jog told Mongabay-India. “There used to be a good haul of sardines earlier, but it’s hardly available now.”
About the fisheries in the region, Jog says, the fisherfolk rarely ventured out beyond regional waters. Pointing to the bay, Jog said that the waters were bound by a ring of rocks. “The water conditions here, including its temperature and wind conditions, are different compared to neighbouring areas and this is a characteristic of this coastline. These harbours are very local, so a fisherman here would know this area quite well. He won’t be able to ride his boat out into any other harbour as he is accustomed to the local conditions.”
Fish supplier Simpson Fernandes has been in the business for around three decades. “The fish catch from here (Malvan) fetches anywhere from Rs. 2,000 to 100,000. We have sellers all the way from Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, and even Kerala,” Fernandes said.
However, Fernandes also claims fish catch has gone down. “We got sardines this season, for the first time in years. We rarely find them in these waters anymore.”
When probed on the reason for the dwindling catch, Fernandes said bottom trawling – which involves dragging a weighted net across the sea floor – was always a problem. “When fishermen indulge in bottom trawling, the eggs are destroyed by non-artisanal artificial nets with tiny holes, intended to catch even the smallest fish. These nets go down almost 10-30 km deep into the sea. The next generation of fish is wiped out even before they are born. Bottom trawling needs to be stopped immediately.”
These tiny fish, which often include young fish, larvae, hatchlings, and fingerlings, are caught in these nets, resulting in high bycatch. These are mostly discarded as they are low value.
Another reason the fisherfolk suffer, Fernandes claims, is fishermen from neighbouring states often encroach into Malvan’s waters. “Fishermen often come in from Malpe (Karnataka) in high-speed boats. Our fishing community, which mostly relies on artisanal boats and trawlers, is unable to keep up with the competition. We often have arguments with them, but there’s no solution to this,” Fernandes said.
Shawn Dsouza, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISC), Bengaluru, has been closely involved in projects studying Malvan’s fish populations and problems of bycatch, particularly of sea snakes. About problems plaguing Malvan’s fisheries sector, Dsouza agrees that bottom trawling has had a negative impact on the local marine biodiversity.
“Trawling is an extremely destructive practice, however, the issue in Malvan can’t be viewed purely from an ecological standpoint. The issue is socio-economical. Around 1952, when there was a push for modern fisheries, trawlers started coming into Malvan and this helped bring the local fisherfolk out of poverty. Kerala and Tamil Nadu invest heavily in their fisheries sector. However, most Malvan’s fisherfolk are still dependent on their artisanal fishing practices,” Dsouza, also a research affiliate at the Dakshin Foundation, said.
In addition to bottom trawling and encroachment of fishers from other states, another major issue hurting the sector in Malvan is LED fishing, a practice that started around 2017. The method is practiced at night and involves trawlers installing LED lights on their boats and even dipping these lights deep into the sea to attract fish.
In 2017, the Union government had banned the practice, deeming it illegal. However, fisherfolk claim that the lack of government investment in infrastructure, coupled with dwindling fish populations, is forcing the locals to resort to such means of fishing.
Fisheries subsidies in India go towards providing infrastructure (motorised boats, equipment, etc.) to vulnerable fishing communities, notes this paper by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI). “According to the draft proposals on subsidies issued by World Trade Organisation in 2007, the subsidies or grants for buying or modernising boats, engines, fishing gear, and other fishing equipment (iceboxes, GPS, communication systems, fish finders) in mechanised sectors and HSD fuel tax exemption for mechanised boats in India will be affected by the proposed WTO rules,” it says.
WTO Curb On Illegal, Unregulated Fishing
In June 2022, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) announced the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies in a bid to curb Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and overfished stocks by banning subsidy provisions for developing and least developed countries (LDCs). The move comes on the heels of the year 2022 being hailed by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture.
The aim of the agreement was three-fold, “Prohibition on subsidies contributing to IUU fishing; Prohibition on subsidies regarding stocks that are overfished; Prohibition on subsidies for fishing in the unregulated high seas.”
The move caused a furore, with India’s Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution and Textiles, Piyush Goyal, seeking a 25-year transition period at the Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations during the 12th Ministerial Conference of the WTO in Geneva. “The transition period of 25 years sought by India is not intended as a permanent carve-out, it is a must-have for us and for other similarly placed non-distant water fishing countries. We feel that without agreeing to the 25-year transition period, it will be impossible for us to finalize the negotiations, as policy space is essential for the long-term sustainable growth and prosperity of our low-income fishermen,” Goyal had said.
For developing countries and least developed countries (LDCs), the WTO has announced a transition period of two years from the agreement. However, the Indian government has denounced the agreement, saying the fisherfolk would inevitably take the hit.
Pushing Malvan’s Cause At WTO
Leading Malvan’s efforts toward sustainable fisheries, are Ravikiran and Jyoti Buwa Toraskar. On a mission spurred by the government campaign Blue Revolution, which focuses on fisheries development and management, they run an aquaculture centre and the Shramik Machimar Sangh, an NGO aimed at spreading awareness among the local villages to promote sustainable fisheries.
According to Ravikiran, who is a national executive committee member of the National Fishworkers’ Forum, subsidies are generally handed over to the government which then doles it out to the states through direct-to-beneficiary schemes. “Generally, such subsidies are in the form of schemes with funds handed over from the Centre to the state, which in turn doles it out to the beneficiaries. These schemes provide for infrastructure, equipment, etc., and are transferred as bank loans. Some schemes are given directly from the Centre to the beneficiary, and some are operated by the state government. There are also some schemes run jointly by both the central and state governments,” he explained.
Ravikiran says the area is rich in biodiversity due to corals in the region. “This area is rocky, allowing many species to thrive as it functions as a hospitable breeding site.”
Listing out the biggest problems plaguing the region’s fisheries sector, he says, “Bycatch is the biggest problem. Apart from this, there are also the problems of LED fishing, bull trawling, and encroachments on fishing by fishermen from neighbouring states of Goa and Karnataka. Destructive fishing practices in these neighbouring regions have destroyed the fish populations there, so they often encroach along Malvan’s coastlines.”
Elaborating on LED fishing practices, Ravikiran says the practice is rampant even though it was illegal. “The problem lies in the fact that the coastline is too big to monitor. As per the coastal regulations zone (CRZ), the state’s purview extends until a certain limit, after which the central government is in charge. Since these IUU fishers generally operate at night, they find ways to stick to the grey area when it comes to CRZ. This leaves the Centre and state at loggerheads when it comes to supervisory responsibility.”
About potential solutions, he cited the central marine fisheries policy which states self-regulation is key. “The only way to monitor the coastlines would involve adopting drone technology that could help with satellite mapping. Traditional fisherfolk must keep artisanal fisheries alive. This is the only way forward,” he added.
His wife Jyoti hails from northern Konkan’s seaside Chaul region, an ancient port town and a former Portuguese commercial stronghold. In June this year, Jyoti was one of three female members of a 24-member team that flew down to the WTO headquarters in Geneva opposing the subsidy ban. The team had representatives from the fishing community from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, all nations affected by the subsidy ban.
The team stayed on for five days, from June 11-15, demonstrating outside the WTO headquarters as India’s commerce minister Goyal made his speech against the ban.
“For us, the sea is like a mother,” Jyoti told Mongabay-India. “If the WTO will take away the subsidy, the fisherfolk will lose their daily livelihood.”
Recounting what she pushed for in Geneva, Jyoti said she only focused on the female fisherfolk’s cause. “There are over 900 fisherwomen in this town (Malvan) involved in cleaning, selling, and all the other ancillary sectors. These women need the subsidy for their sustenance. We don’t consider fisheries as a business, but as our livelihood.”