Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tuna: business plans for vanishing fish?

Tuna: business plans for vanishing fish?


The Andaman and Nicobar islands are proposed to be made the hub of a thriving tuna fisheries industry. Without a sustainable approach, though, it will seriously deplete fish stocks and harm marine biodiversity, says Manak Matiyani (Email: manakmatiyani@gmail.com)

"The Zonal Director, Fishery Survey of India (FSI), based on their field experience clarified that there will not be any environmental impact by promoting tuna fishing in the islands."

--Minutes of stakeholders meeting to discuss tuna fishing in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands held on March 10, 2008.

On January 6, 2008, the Minister of State for Commerce, Mr. Jairam Ramesh released the first draft of the plans for expansion of tuna fishing in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) is spearheading the plans to develop packaging and processing plants and landing centres in Port Blair so that the fish caught by trawlers can be landed, marketed and exported directly from the islands. The proposal met with opposition from various fisheries associations and the Human Rights Law Network in Port Blair when it was publicly announced, on grounds of loss of livelihood of local fishing communities and harm to the environment, marine mammals and birds.

There is a sense of urgency behind the plans, which is attributed to the migratory nature of tuna and its export value. The current project is being promoted on the assumption that if we do not catch the tuna here, it will be caught by other nations elsewhere. Fishing grounds the world over are facing stock depletion and these waters are perhaps some of the few remaining sites where, reportedly, stocks still abound. Rather than mutual cooperation to promote long term sustainable fishing in South East Asia, the driving force here is competition between coastal nations that will lead to precipitous decline of fish stock.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands have a rich biodiversity and ecological wealth protected by the isolation of these fragile ecosystems. Any development project must take into account possible impact on the environment. The government's attitude here is purely profit-oriented and seems to show little concern for the environment. By declaring that "there will not be any impact" the government has done away with the need for any studies or assessments to support this claim. The soft steps taken to appease the fishermen will prove to be further damaging to the environment without giving any real opportunity for growth.

The geography of the islands is such that fishermen need not go too far into deep water seas to find tuna and tuna-like species. By asking the government to not grant permission to outside vessels within 24 miles, the local fishermen wish to harvest the potential of those waters themselves through a "fishing corporation" that would operate long liners close to shore. This was considered by the administration along with loan schemes for procurement of more boats. It was decided that outside vessels would be permitted to fish only beyond 24 nautical miles from the islands. The FSI has stated that in the islands, tuna fishing operations can be conducted economically only during three to four months of the year. There is no guarantee therefore, that a new fishing corporation will not meet the same fate as the previous Rubber Board and Forest Corporation that created ecological disasters in the islands and also became financial liabilities due to heavy losses. What is needed instead is to promote diverse small scale fishing operations which allow replenishment of stocks without causing irreparable harm to the environment.

The administrative position is that they cannot control vessels operating beyond 24 nautical miles. The permissions being given then are only for landing, processing and exporting from the islands. In stating so, they are conveniently avoiding the task of regulating and monitoring the operations.

Increased traffic in these waters will have a damaging effect in the long run. Pollution and dumping in the sea, activities that are currently unregulated, will increase dramatically. The mortality of animals such as the dugong, dolphins, birds and various species of turtles that come to nest on these islands due to entanglement in monofilament lines is also likely to rise. It is interesting that certain areas of the United States have effective systems for proper collection and disposal of discarded monofilament lines so that they do not become environment hazards. All over the world there are companies that catch and package certified "Dolphin Safe Tuna" but no such conditions have been included in the proposed plan. The FSI, in fact, has said that they only have "negligible shark by-catch" and the threat to other species such as dolphins, dugongs and turtles, all protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Act, has not been considered.

The capacity of the Coast Guard to monitor the waters around the islands is obviously inadequate. The Director of Fisheries has admitted that it is impossible for the department to monitor the waters effectively. Local fishermen report regular poaching of sea cucumbers, turtles and even dolphins by Indian and foreign vessels around the islands. With increased activity and no strong monitoring agency in place, poachers will find it easy to operate. The months during which the operators would be in these waters are not specified in the plan. If tuna fishing can be conducted economically in only three or four months, the case for maintaining a year round presence around the islands becomes weak, and the motives questionable.

The long term impacts of the proposal are not being considered in the face of likely short term gains and no party is interested in conducting an impact assessment. The government has already given the go ahead to the tuna fisheries plans by allowing two private companies to commence operations. The latest development in the sector, however, is most curious. According to two reports published in The Hindu in March 2008, while the Fisheries Department has made an allocation of Rs.1.5 crores specifically for the development of tuna fisheries, a lot of operators have ceased operations in the Bay of Bengal due to losses as there is no tuna available.

Clearly, we need to evaluate afresh the plans that appear to be failing even before they have taken off. Without proper surveys, environmental studies, or assessments, we seem to be heading towards not just an ecological disaster, but a financial one as well.

1 comment:

Ramanujam said...

A fine, tightly woven article that introduces the issue and points out the drawbacks of the tuna fishing idea very well.