In January 2021, several forums that included the All Kerala Fishing Boats Operators Association and the All India Purse Seine Association had expressed grave concern over the presence of 1,000 Chinese trawlers in the Arabian Sea, each with a capacity to haul in more than 500 tonnes of fish.

The concerns of these fisher organisations were also moored in the low capacity of the Indian boats that could haul just 10 tonnes of fish per trip. Grave concerns were also expressed that these boats could also be targeting petroleum hydrate resources from the sea bottom, which could be holding reserves to last more than 300 years..

Indian fishing revolves around 3.77 million fishing dependent people in 0.90 million families in 3,202 fishing villages in India. About 67.3 per cent of such families were under BPL category. The Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) hosts a potential marine fishery resource of about 3.921 million tonnes. But fishing activity in this area is restricted in a zone of 0-80 m depth. Near shore water fishery has reached optimum yield levels.

Only 37 per cent (59,000) of the Indian fishing vessels are mechanised and the rest are non-motorised fishing crafts. The latter category comprises traditional catamarans,  dhonismachwasmasula boats, dug out canoes and plank-built boats. The 63 per cent of traditional fishers have always been governed by their traditional value systems, practising only subsistence fishing through the ages.

Therefore, Indian marine fishery resources have always conformed to protection of the marine environment. The official fishing ban period of 61 days per year on both coasts of India and the implementation of the fisheries regulations acts by the maritime States have a positive bearing on resource conservation.

Only about $300 million per year is offered to the Indian small fishers in comparison to the massive subsidies of $7.3 billion by China, $3.8 billion by the EU and $3.4 billion by the US. This works out to a subsidy of only $15 per Indian fishers per year, while for Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands the amount works out to $42,000, $65,000 and $75,000, respectively. Indian fishery subsidies are a real-time assistance to fishers to engage in livelihood fishing for food for family. Stopping this assistance could push millions of families into absolute poverty.

The Doha Round of talks in 2001 was killed by the developed countries for safeguarding their selfish interests. The Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) was concluded in 2013 at Bali, Indonesia. The current WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, adopted at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) on June 17, 2022, prohibits harmful fisheries subsidies on overfishing, deep sea fishing, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Unfortunately, the Indian demand for curbs on non-specific fuel subsidies given by developed countries with industrial fleets had been completely ignored. These subsidies amount to as much as 22 per cent of the total fisheries subsidies.

Transition period

India and the developing world need a 15 year transition period for phasing out subsidies. But the ensuing draft required all developing countries withdraw subsidies that contributed to overfishing and overcapacity within seven years of the agreement coming into force or 2030, whichever is earlier.

The cardinal principle of special and differential (S&D) treatment has been ignored. Items of assistance or subsidies that need to be given for the traditional low-income fishers’ transition to a secure livelihood in a 25-year window included construction, acquisition, vessels up-gradation, support machinery and equipment such as fishing gear and engine, on board refrigerators, insurance and social charges.

But at the end of the talks, this provision tabled by India has been removed from the text and will now need to be renegotiated again within four years.

The need of the hour is to construct a stronger negotiating position among the developing countries to wrangle out the specific country requirements for subsidising their fisheries.

India may need to defend its right to subside its marine fisheries reasonably until the sector finds its own feet.

Krishnan is former Principal Scientist and Head, Fisheries Social Sciences Division, ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Mumbai, and Gopalakrishnan is Lead (Advisor) (Trade and Commerce) NITI Aayog

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