In the spotlight

Should we speak of overfishing?

Over the last 20-30 years, the vast majority of debates around marine fisheries have hovered around Overfishing, especially commentaries from the Global North. The World Bank and FAO’s Sunken Billions report in 2008 emphasised that the oceans are globally overexploited, to justify the increased adoption of State-led Fisheries Management Systems at international, regional, and national levels as part of fisheries reforms towards sustainability. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 demands ending Overfishing due to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing with science-based fisheries management, as well as reducing fisheries subsidies. The World Trade Organisation has furthered this at the fisheries negotiations to cut down fisheries subsidies, as the most blatant use of environmental arguments to secure markets for western seafood companies. Thus, the notion of Overfishing and the need for Fisheries Reform constitute a globally dominant notion that traditional fishing communities are having to confront.

The problem does not lie with traditional small-scale fisheries (SSF), but entirely from Industrial fishing, and the commodification of fish. Big Capital created extensive supply and value chains for seafood in western countries which fuelled the intensification of technology and targeted mono-species exploitation such as tuna liners, shrimp trawlers, etc. The overfishing arguments rely heavily on fish stock assessments and Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) models that historically evolved in water and forest resource management[1], with questionable relevance for fisheries. This usage of MSY to restrict fishing activity also originates from the US to ensure their control of the Pacific oceanic fisheries as opposed to Japanese fleets[2] during the post-World War II era. This shows the historical geopolitical background of the overlapping discourse of Overfishing and Fisheries Reforms.

In India, the historical trend of fisheries policies from the 1970s has been to expand and exploit fisheries resources beyond 12 nautical miles (Nm) (termed Deepsea fisheries) in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)[3], for export earnings and foreign exchange, which was promoted as Fisheries Development and Modernisation. Fishing vessels were imported, joint ventures of Indian and multinational corporates were encouraged in the 70s, foreign vessels were given direct fishing licences to fish in India’s EEZ in the 80s, which was further deregulated after the 1991 neoliberal economic reforms. Led by the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), India witnessed massive protests from fishing communities against these policies, and the government had to withdraw the licencing policy in 1994. It is from 2004 onwards that Indian policies began using explicit environmental language, invoking a need for conservation of fishery resources, and resumed promotion of deepsea fisheries technology touted as “sustainable development”, while advocating for fisheries reforms. The World Bank document of 2011 titled Transitions for Sustainable Development in Indian Marine Fisheries laid out a neat timeline for the rollout of ‘fisheries reforms’ in phases. For the last decade, the union government has argued that seas up to 12 Nm are overfished, with too many fisher conflicts, and promotes capital intensive deepsea fisheries (beyond 12 Nm) as the way out. It has launched deepsea fisheries schemes including subsidised mechanised longlining and gillnet vessels, specifically targeting tuna species, costing over INR. 1 crore ($140,000). The government invites private capital to invest in mid-sea mother vessels, onshore seafood processing plants, as well as in direct-to-home online retail through start-ups funded by venture capitalists. Public funds have been invested in supporting infrastructure such as a network of deepsea fishing harbours, Seafood Parks, etc in all coastal states. The production based-policy initiatives India embarked on in the 1950s onwards with marine shrimp as its focus commodity, is being repeated with tuna in this Blue Economy era. It’s a case of history repeating itself as a tragedy and a farce.

Under India’s constitution, fisheries are listed as a state subject, falling under the provincial government. In the last decade, several coastal states have amended their respective state-based Marine Fisheries Regulation Acts. The Union government has also attempted to pass legislation to govern marine fisheries in India’s EEZ, the latest of which was the Indian Marine Fisheries Bill, 2021 during the Covid lockdown. This was opposed by the NFF and the fishing community at large. These have brought in a governance system of boat registrations, fisheries licences with strict rules, and vast powers to officials in charge of implementing regulations. Taken together, these are an attack on the unrecognised customary governance institutions, as well as an attack on the constitutional separation of powers between the Union and state governments, while simultaneously promoting marine security and defence institutions. ‘Fisheries Reform’ in India represents centralisation as well as the militarisation of fisheries governance, which shifts power further away from the people.

In the context of the Blue Economy, terrestrial capital is increasingly expanding and intensifying its tentacle-like grasp on coastal and marine resources with different industrial components including ports, shipping, Coastal Economic Zones, offshore hydrocarbon, tourism, desalination, renewable energy, etc. Under the grand Blue Economy narrative, marine fisheries are envisaged as an industrialised deep-sea sector. Inevitable consequences are the criminalisation and steady dispossession of traditional fishers from coastal and oceanic commons. Blue Economy ultimately aims to clear the seas of marine capture fishers and make way for these sectors.

In conclusion, the overfishing debate has been centred upon fishery resources. It views fish stocks as mere commodities to exploit and regulate through State-led techno-managerial tools, whereas traditional fishing communities’ relationship with the coast and sea is as Home and fisheries as a livelihood. The struggle against the overfishing debate is not merely about claiming a share in the global fish stock for fisherfolk. It goes beyond the ‘right to fish’ but about reclaiming our status as the stewards of the coasts and oceans. Fishers do not claim the seas as their asset, but that they belong to the sea. The World Forum of Fisher People’s slogan of “We are the Ocean” stems from this spirit of belonging. Fishers cannot allow the takeover of this belonging through intellectual mythologies like Overfishing.

[1] Naveen Namboothri and Madhuri Ramesh. “Maximum sustainable yield: a myth and its manifold effects.” Economic and Political Weekly 53, no. 41 (2018): 58-63.

[2] Liam and Alejandro Colas.” Capitalism and the sea: the maritime factor in the making of the modern world”. Verso Books, 2021.

[3] The exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is an area where sovereign states have jurisdiction over resources.