By deciding to test up to 50 per cent of India’s shrimp consignments for antibiotic residues such as chloramphenicol and nitrofurans, the EU has ramped up the cost of India’s shrimp exports. The US too has raised concerns over the high antibiotic residue levels in shrimps from Vietnam, Malaysia and India in the recent past. India’s seafood exporters are miffed by the EU’s crackdown, despite the absence of rejections in the recent past. Whether the EU is trying to secure broader trade and investment gains, such as in bilateral investment treaties, can only be a matter of conjecture; there can, however, be no denying that the EU tends to use SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) restrictions in the case of seafood, fruit and vegetables in an exaggerated way, its specifications at times exceeding the norms prescribed in the Codex Alimentarius standards of the FAO. India can challenge the EU in the WTO if the latter’s SPS norms in the case of shrimps (antibiotics levels in parts per million) are too stringent. Besides antibiotics residues, traceability criterion (where the catch was made) can be hard to meet. The government needs to strike a balance between improving storage, hygiene and marketing infrastructure on the one hand and resisting unreasonable demands that could compromise the livelihoods of 14 million traditional fisherfolk on the other. India’s fisherpeople should indeed be entitled to similar protection as farmers under the WTO’s ‘livelihood box’. It is now being acknowledged that marine and fresh water pollution, accompanied by the effects of global warming and El Nino, is impacting fish catch, as in the case of anchovies in Peru, even as the global demand for fish is rising. Developing countries, which account for half the fish exports, can make common cause in multilateral trade and climate forums.

The EU can fund projects in shrimp producing countries to deal with the issue of antibiotics resistance, as it indeed did in 1999-2000 to improve India’s landing facilities with respect to shrimps. Such bans can also open up business and technology opportunities. For instance, the US had earlier raised objections to shrimp trawling trapping turtles as well (and the resulting turtle deaths), which created a market for nets with turtle-excluding devices in India.

India accounts for over 6 per cent of world fish production and 4 per cent of the export of about $150 billion. The EU (20 per cent), the US (28 per cent) and South-East Asia (23 per cent) account for the bulk of India’s export markets. India should vie for a greater share in China, (the world’s largest exporter and importer), Japan and West Asia. There is immense scope to raise India’s per capita availability of fish beyond 9 kg to about 20 kg. Fish is endowed with protein and Omega-3 fatty acids, a boon for India where malnutrition and heart disease are endemic. But the quest for a ‘blue revolution’ should not result in the offloading of health, social and environmental concerns.