I am on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, en route to Port Blair right now. It has been fantastic to sail from Singapore to India (took us 5 days) and calming to have just the never ending ocean stretched out before you every time you look outside. I also saw some cruise liners, some blink- and-you-miss-it dolphins, and a large piece of cargo floating past us which seemed to have either fallen off or gotten rid of in a hurry.
The Espy – as we call her - has proven to be a very effective campaigning tool for Greenpeace offices around the world, and this is her second voyage to India. With me is a team comprising crew members, media specialists, photographers, videographers and campaigners. And we share one objective—to bring the story of the sea into the lives of people on land. The sea and its resources might seem infinite, but the truth is fish stocks in Indian waters are fast depleting.
The effects of such a phenomenon are not limited to our fish eating habits alone. If you were to look deep into the reasons of why such decline is happening you would know that these problems are due to our carelessness. As the appetite for fish expanded, so did the way we fish, and this resulted in indiscriminate fishing practices like bottom trawling which has rendered the Indian domestic waters overfished and overexploited.
A similar pattern has been manifesting itself worldwide. While industrialised fishing nations exhausted their fish stocks, they found developing countries’ waters a fertile ground for the insatiable demand for fish in the global markets. Highly lucrative fish species like tuna is the sought after prize. Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing was thus born.
Trouble is, India’s fisheries management record has been far from perfect. So, while Indian fishermen bear losses (more effort and less catch) year after year, IUU activities in the Indian EEZ are stealing away fish they could have been catching. Lack of surveillance and loopholes within government schemes mean that illegal fishing goes unabated and unchecked. Unreported fishing costs the Indian government between 250 to 350 million USD annually and it is clearly having it impacts on local fishing communities in India as well, with fishermen incomes now having fallen to 1200 to 1400 USD annually.
F***ing, however, does not need to be dirty and unsustainable. If done right, it can pave the way for a sustainable future. Catching less fish now, only using sustainable fishing methods, can mean catching more fish in the future. Vital for the oceans future furthermore is setting certain areas aside as ‘no-take’ marine reserves, which would allow the fish populations to rejuvenate, like sanctuaries on land. It is essential that rights of local communities are recognized while earmarking these areas, like their right of free passage to reach their fishing grounds and the possibilities of non-impactful and traditional fishing methods allowed in the case of near-shore areas.
It is crucial that more people realize that India’s seas are as important as the rest of the country. Spanning over 2 million sq kms, sustaining over ten million livelihoods and providing foreign exchange annually in the range of 2.8 billion dollars, besides being home to staggering biodiversity and fragile but significant ecosystems, their conservation should be a top priority. They need attention and they need management. Illegal fishing needs to come to an end and Mr Sharad Pawar needs to direct his ministry to put a rescue plan in action. Now, before it is too late.
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Areeba Hamid is an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace India.