Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

11 Fisheries and conflicts at sea

In april 1989, the national fisherman's forum organised the kanyakumari march with the avowed aim-'protect waters, protect life'. For people who depend on the ecology of the coastal region for their livelihood, the relation between water use on land and the sustenance of living resources of the sea is clear. Irreparable damage has been caused to the biological productivity^of the sea by the use of inappropriate technologies on land and in the oceans. Dams and barrages across rivers have taken their toll by disturbing the ecosystem and altering the natural flow of water and nutrients. Rivers which once used to carry food for marine life now carry mud and chemicals, leading to the gradual transformation of our waters into aquatic deserts.

The marine and coastal habitats of India are being subjected to severe environmental stress. On the one hand, the coastal areas and seas are treated as a depository of all pollutants from the terrestrial environment: silt and sediments from uplands, residues of fertilisers and pesticides from farm lands, sewage and industrial effluents are all ultimately dumped into this habitat. On the other hand, the 'marine revolution' which has introduced powerful technologies in the fisheries sector has transformed fish from being a renewable resource into a non-renewable resource. Pollution combined with over-exploitation is threatening marine resources as well as the livelihood of the fishing communities.

The national movement of these fishing communities, the National Fisherman's Forum, assumed the status of a major ecological movement related to water resources when the month long campaign along the belt of India converged at Kanyakumari on May Day in 1989, to stress the intimate links of water movements on land and in sea through the slogan 'protect waters, protect life'. Approximately 15,000 people, nearly three-quarters of them women, gathered 'for a celebration of life and at the same time a desperate outcry against the threat to survival of ordinary people and of nature'. The protest was, however, disrupted and the police fired indiscriminately- injuring six people and beating up many more-an indication of the conflict between the survival of fish and fishermen on the one hand, and the forces that control fisheries on the other.

Conflict Over Living Marine Resources

Three-quartexs of the good earth, as we endearingly call our planet, is covered by vast stretches of water, the movement and mysteries of which man has yet to fully fathom. The seas and the oceans have more recently. been rightly called the 'common heritage of mankind' implying man's collective rights and responsibilities for their judicious utilisation and conservation.

Living marine resources comprise a small part of the potential wealth of this heritage. Despite this, what makes their contribution to human beings so significant is the direct bearing they have on the fullness of human life-as a source of livelihood and food.

The need for care and continued sustenance of this resource is, therefore, too apparent to be stressed. By the same reasoning any impending harm to its future warrants close and urgent attention. It is with this sense of priority and urgency that the rising tide of conflicts over living marine resources the world over should be viewed.

An attempt in this direction is presented here. Beginning with a brief historical overview, the focus is on the particular manifestations, causes and consequences of the conflicts over living marine resources in India and a few suggestions that may help to ensure less harm and increased sustenance of this vital resource in the future.

Both the casual visitor to the seashore and the skilled fisherman imagine the sea to be the storehouse of a limitless expanse of living resources, particularly fish. The basis of such impressions are however drastically different: the layman's impression is conditioned by a tinge of idle romanticism and a lot of ignorance; the fisherman's impression is based on years of experience in work combined with the tacit faith that 'mother sea' always provides.

It was perhaps a blend of the two which prompted Hugo Grotius to work on his famous thesis 'Mare Liberum' (1608) where he argued that fishery resources were so abundant that no one would benefit from having exclusive rights over them and there was no possibility of their being over-exploited. The question of conflict over living marine resources would therefore not arise.

For nearly three centuries the concept of 'freedom of the seas' prevailed all over the world. So long as fishing remained primarily a 'livelihood' activity and fish caught and traded for its intrinsic use as a food, no major conflicts arose despite the fact that the oceans 'belonged' to no one. This state of affairs in the world at large continued until the middle of the last century and in India even as late as the middle of this century.

The post-war period saw rapid population growth and rising incomes which in turn spurred off a greater demand for fish. The use of steam and mechanical power increased the mobility of fishing vessels. The spillovers from naval warfare research further perfected techniques such as bottom trawling resulting in a spectacular increase in the productivity of fishing operations. The manufacture of ice decreased the perishability of fish and considerably enhanced its marketability.

All these factors, appearing together around the beginning and middle of this century enhanced the stature and complexity of the fishing,industry. There was more than just harvesting and consumption. The organisation of fish preservation/processing and marketing began to gain prominence and in turn influenced the realm of harvesting. Not only was more fish in demand, but species with different qualities having a variety of end uses unrelated to direct human consumption were required. The impulses for building long distance fishing fleets, active investment in the fisheries of other nations and a stepping up of international trade in fish and fish products were the natural concomitants. A standard 'package' of the above, generally biased towards the nature of factor allocations and effective demand in the developed countries, came to be termed as 'fisheries development proeramme'.

Along with 'fisheries development' was the awareness among both fishermen and laymen that expanding the horizons also brought one closer to the limits. Questions were raised about unrestricted access to the oceans. The inability to sort out the issue often led to openly manifest conflicts over harvesting rights. In the realm of trade priorities and end use patterns the latent conflicts were contained, in a sense masking the true character of the confrontations at sea.

The End of Mare Liberum

It was during the two decades (the fifties and sixties) following the end of world war ii that the challenges to the principle of the 'freedom of the seas' emerged rather sharply. This was particularly so when four developing countries-Peru, Chile, Honduras and El Salvador-unilaterally extended their territorial rights seawards up to the 200 mile limit and began taking punitive action against fishing vessels of other countries that failed to honour these rights.

The progress of unilateral extension of territorial/economic rights by developing nations did not spread rapidly after this initial spurt. Following the debate in the UN General Assembly in 1967, prompted by Dr. Arvid Pardo, and the framing of the UN Law of the Sea Conference saw a renewed interest in the matter. Even before the adoption of the Convention, due to the clear consensus seen in the early sessions, many nations extended their jurisdiction over fisheries beyond the hitherto accepted 12 nautical miles. By the end of 1980 this number increased to ninety-eight, seventy four had taken action after 1975. Of the latter, fifty-seven were developing countries.

This spurt of declarations was also an indicator of the desire on the part of the developing countries to protect their fisheries (and other marine resources) from being exploited by other nations. Since many of the developing coastal states which expanded their economic zones did not possess the technology to harvest all the fish in it, the move may also be construed as one aimed at preserving the resource for their future generations.

The Emergence of 'Fisheries Development'

Quantitative estimates of sustainable resource potential of the oceans are disparate, the basis of calculation and/or extrapolation widely affecting the results.

For the tropical South Asian waters the oft quoted potential yield figure is around 4 million tonnes -66 6 per cent of it (2.64 million tonnes) bordering the coast of Pakistan, Western India and Western Sri Lanka and the remaining 1.32 million tonnes lying off the east coast of Sri Lanka, India and the waters of Bangladesh.

Of this total potential yield, around 70 per cent is accounted for by pelagic species (fish generally inhabiting the surface waters of the ocean) and the rest by demersal species (fish generally inhabiting the bottom layers of the ocean). In terms of the spatial concentration of resources, about 65 per cent lies within the depth range of 50-70 metres along the continental shelf in the inshore waters. The present harvest is almost exclusively from this zone.

Between 1953 and 1983 the actual marine harvest of these four countries has increased threefold from 0.71 million to 2.11 million tonnes thereby increasing the share of harvest of sustainable resource potential from 18 per cent in 1953-54 to 47 per cent in 197-77 and further to 54 per cent in 1982-83.

Given that half the potential resources are yet to be harvested and that venturing into the deeper waters of the ocean is still at its infancy, why is the South Asian region marked by conflicts over living marine resources? What are The historical origins of these conflicts? What are the common manifestations, the deep-rooted causes and the most damaging consequences of these conflicts? Are there any remedial measures that can be taken? We shall attempt to answer these questions, making generalisations where they are applicable to the region as a whole and highlighting specific cases where that is more appropriate.

It needs to be mentioned at this stage that while the ingredients of conflict and its concrete manifestations are visible everywhere in the South Asian region, the consequences are indeed more acute in some areas and less apparent in others. In the southwestern region of India (the States of Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala) and the south-eastern coast of India (Tamil Nadu) bordering Northern Sri Lanka, both the level as well as the socio economic and political ramifications of the conflicts over living marine resources are very intense. On the other hand reports of conflicts are much fewer from the rest of the region.

Inheriting Conflict

The fish economies of the south asian countries prior to independence were essentially subsistence sectors. In the realm of harvesting, the transformation of the living marine resources into products with use and exchange value were mediated by the skills of fishermen and the judicious use of technology. The two hallmarks of these technologies were their appropriateness to the acquatic ecosystem and their inherent limits on the harvesting capability. It was a technology appropriate for fishing as a source of meagre livelihood.

The bulk of the catch was exchanged or bartered for basic necessities. The perishability of fish greatly restricted its internal trade flows and the bulk of it was consumed in the immediate coastal hinterland by the rural masses for whom it formed the cheapest source of animal protein. Long distance trade did exist, but with a few exceptions, it was essentially between countries within the region and the fish products were of the low value added type (primarily dried and/or cured) marked essentially to the low income consumers of the region.

The first decade of planned fisheries development (the fifties) and half of the second (until 1965) passed smoothly without facing any storms. In fact, the single most important technological change in fishing introduced in the Indian region-the shift from cotton to nylon fishing nets-contributed to a fairly steady increase in the harvest and is likely to have had considerable income generating effect. However, because the control of the marketing of the fish had never been in the hands of the fishermen in any part of the region, it is likely that the largest share of the enhanced income due to rising productivity was usurped by the 'sharks on the land'.

The rapid changes in craft design and the introduction of techniques such as bottom trawling and purse-seining were phenomena which generated momentum in the late sixties and became intense in the early seventies.

These changes were fostered by factors which were autonomous of the socio-economicand technological developments in the South Asian region. The three most important factors were: rising incomes in the developed countries, particularly the USA and Japan; the oil crisis and the extension of territorial zones by many countries which had an adverse impact on the economics of the distant water fishing fleets of countries like Japan; and the rapid depletion of marine resources in the waters of the developed countries.

These factors combined to lay the foundation of a new era of international development assistance in fisheries combining technical and financial aid. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan were major recipients of such 'packages' of development assistance. India availed of such aid on a smaller scale, largely in the form of the Indo-Norwegian project for fisheries development in Kerala.

Consequently, the fish economies of the region accepted more imported technologies in harvesting, processing and marketing; gave priority to the setting up of large infrastructure facilities like harbours and freezing plants; and emphasised export orientation as a key objective of the fisheries sector relegating earlier priorities to a second place.

Thus the 'initial conditions' prevailing in the fish economies of the South Asian countries-be they with respect to the fishertnen's ecosense; prevailing fishing techniques; processing and preservation methods; established trade links; forms of traditional organisation and resource management or patterns of local fish consumption-were written off as being 'primitive' and/or 'unscientific' in the face of the glistening prospects of the new development current.

By taking steps to 'develop' their fisheries along the western lines (largely with respect to technology, the orientation of trade and the organisation of administration and industry) they were also unknowingly inheriting the conflict potentials inherent in that approach. This fact was hardly recognised in the early phases of development due to the unquestionable respectability of the magical identity:

Development = Modernisation = Westernisation

The charm of this magical 'development' process began to gradually wear out. However, the initial signs of this were not immediately perceived by those who planned and propagated the modernisation programmes. Fishermen who experienced the ill effects merely suffered silently for want of an effective organisation to give vent to their grievances and the lack of cohesion to protest collectively.

As the pressure began to build up, the diverse manifestations of the conflict slowly began to appear in the open, some overtly, others not so overtly.

Manifestations of Conflict

Conflicts over living marine resources tend to be most visibly manifest in the following two realms: (a) conflicts that arise primarily from fishermen's violations of national jurisdictions while in the pursuit of fish, and (b) conflicts that arise between fishermen using two different levels of technology.

National jurisdictions and inter-regional conflict

It is often said that fish tend not to respect the maritime boundaries fixed by nation states, and fishermen in pursuit of fish seem to follow suit.

A long known conflict in the realm of marine fisheries is that between contiguous maritime states. The difficulty in demarcating national boundaries in the territorial seas in the primary cause for this conflict. An equally important factor in the Couth Asian region is the lack of sophisticated navigational devices on fishing vessels which can forewarn fishermen of such trespass. While cases of trespass into another nation's waters may be quite unintentional, they often lead to rather adverse situations sometimes necessitating the use of naval forces.

In the South Asian context, the political conflict between India and Pakistan, the Tamil problem causing tensions between India and Sri Lanka, and the conflicting claims over newly formed islands in the Bay of Bengal between India and Bangladesh have all had adverse effects on fishermen fishing near the maritime boundaries of their nations.

The fishermen of Okha in Gujarat bring reports about the increasing number of occasions when they have unwittingly transgressed into Pakistani waters only to be apprehended by the Pak Navy Patrols resulting in harassment and confiscation of their fish.

Fishermen of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, where the maritime border with Sri Lanka is only 15 to 20 km away from the coastline, are increasingly faced with stern action by the Sri Lankan Navy for trespass. Some fishermen have been killed in these clashes and many have been arrested and taken to Sri Lanka. With the Tamil issue flaring up, there is a widespread feeling that the arrests are more political and less as a measure to safeguard marine resources.

The incidents of 'conflict over marine resources between India and Bangladesh are rather rare. This is partly due to the fact that the maritime traditions of this part of the region-Orissa and the West Bengal (Indian states) and Bangladesh-are far less developed in general, the overwhelming importance of inland and riverine fisheries of these parts has been a deterrent to large-scale development of marine fishing.

Prior to the extension of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to the 200 mile limit by countries of the South Asia region, the waters off their coastline were fished by distant water fleets from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan.

The Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the region of the Indian Ocean around Sri Lanka were major fishing grounds for the distant water fleets of Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan. The post-oil crisis era saw a significant reduction in their activity. The declaration of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) by Bangladesh (1974), Pakistan (1976), India (1977) and Sri Lanka (1977) further reduced the scope for legal harvesting of fish without licences. In spite qf these factors, the region continues to be a lucrative fishing ground. While many operators have entered into licence agreements, a large number take undue advantage of the lack of legal measures and policing facilities at the disposal of the countries of the region and take the risk of fishing illegally. The major culprits have been Taiwanese trawlers all over the region and have been apprehended by the coastal guards of all the counties. In Pakistan, for example, in response to the growing menace of 'poaching' the government has recently enacted a law which provides for confiscation of the poaching vessel. a fine of US $720,000 and a five-year jail sentence for the captain.

Technological polarisation and conflicts

In the popular mind, largely conditioned by the news media, the conflict over living marine resources is largely manifest in the form of a clash between fishermen within a country using two different levels of technology. This is indeed the most visible aspect of the conflict which at the moment seems to be the one which engages the concerns of the policy-makers and the energies of the fishermen.

The logic of 'technological polarization' in general, its historical roots and socio-political consequences have been elaborated in Chapter 1. The drive towards modernization was based on the assumption that new technologies as such will help fishermen improve their economic conditions, however, the fact that small fishermen do not have the backing of favourable resource or market conditions was overlooked. This made the technologies introduced largely inaccessible and inappropriate to their long term capabilities and needs. Hence by default the technologies came under the control of a powerful minority group of non fishermen in turn enhancing their economic and political clout arid ossifying the technological duality in the sector. The duality did not create two isolated independent groups in the sector. On the contrary, the resulting groups were 'intimately related to each other by an exploitation linkage rooted in technology'.

The introduction of fishing techniques such as bottom trawling in the countries of South Asia and purse-seining in a few countries of the region were the most obvious departure from the technological continuum which hitherto had evolved over the centuries. While the new techniques were undoubtedly a quantum leap forward when viewed from the perspective of fishing efficiency and productivity, they were retrogressive with respect to their appropriateness to the ecosystem of tropical waters. The hallmarks of temperate waters are the limited number of species, each available in millions; tropical waters on the other hand are marked by thousands of species, highly dispersed and each available in small quantities. The basis of this difference between the temperate and tropical waters is rooted in the temperature differences which have a bearing on the dissolved oxygen content and hence on the primary production rate of the microscopic plants (plankton) on which the fish feed. The density of fish stocks in temperate waters is far greater than in tropical waters. The rejuvenating capacity (ability to recover from man's excessive intervention) of temperate water resources is also far greater. In the tropical waters, on the other hand, harvesting operations even at low productivity levels (output/unit) if undertaken by far too many operators can affect the resource balance substantially.

These techniques, evolved for the single species fishery of the temperate waters by countries with totally different capital-labour ratios, tend to come into conflict with the innate ecological and socio-economic fabric of this region rather quickly. This conflict becomes further heightened when the technology is controlled by those who have invested in fishing merely as a source of quick profits.

Conflicts between fishermen using different levels of technology can be analysed with respect to conflict over space, conflict over product or both. Artisanal fishermen generally concentrate on harvesting pelagic ' species while the mechanised boats hauling bottom trawls fish for the demersal prawns in the same area. The result is that small fishermen lose their nets when they are cut by the propellers of mechanised boats or Bet entangled in the ropes of the bottom trawl nets leading to a conflict over rights to fishing space. Reports of such conflicts are widespread all over the region.

When large mechanised purse-seiners haul in huge shoals of pelagic fish before the schools get a chance to move inshore, they deprive the shoreseine fishermen of their livelihood. Along the south-west coast of India, the uprisings among the fishermen of Goa and the more passive pauperisation of the fishermen of Karnataka can be traced to this conflict over the same product.

Both types of conflicts mentioned here-the first resulting in damage and destruction of fishing gear and the latter to a deprivation of fish-cause immense hardships to the majority of fishermen in the region who depend on fishing as the sole source of livelihood.

Conflict between profits and survival

It is the market mechanism and the 'invisible hand' which drives it that underlies the choice of new fishing technologies and the harvesting patterns which they involve. Conflicts at sea today are essentially conflicts between the few, spurred by the motive of profits, and the many whose objective is survival. The former are largely catering to the ever increasing demand for seafood of the overfed metropolitan consumer in the developed countries and the latter to the basic protein needs of the rural masses of the region.

More specifically, in South Asia bottom trawling which was introduced in a big way in the sixties helps primarily to increase the production of prawns which in turn are exported to Japan and the USA. Prawns are generally found in shallower inshore waters. Using capital-intensive technology to fish prawns for Japanese or Americans comes into direct conflict with harvesting fish inhabiting the same ecosystem which goes to flavour the rice of the rural masses of the region.

It is interesting to note that in the South Asian region, until the end of the fifties, marine fish harvest increased at a rate of 5 per cent per annum in spite of the lack of new harvesting technologies. During this period, between 5,000-6,000 tons of prawns from India were exported to Burma, Thailand and Malaya every year in dry form and accounted for 25 to 30 per cent of the annual export value of around US $11 million (1958-59 average).

Following three decades of planned fisheries development in the region, by 1976-83, the rate of growth of marine fish harvest had dropped to 2 per cent per annum. It was also during this period that the conflicts at sea were most rampant. Interestingly during this period of overall stagnation, the exports of prawns-all destined for the Japanese and American markets in frozen form-increased dramatically. The experience of Kerala is valuable in illustrating the trend of fisheries development and destruction in the region.

This export-oriented approach to fisheries development was first seen in the early sixties. Attention was focused on prawns. From an export turnover of a little under 500 tonnes of frozen prawns by the end of the fifties, by 1961 the figure had reached 1,462 tonnes with an export value of over Rs. 4,000 per tonne compared to the internal fresh fish shore price of Rs. 150 per tonne. In 1962, the Japanese were scouting for prawn supplies as they had lost access lights to Mexican waters.

Table 11.1 Export of Frozen Shrimp/Prawn from India

(Rs. million)
(Rs. million)
(Rs. thousand
(Rs. thousand
per tonne)
(Rs. million)
(Rs. million)
(Rs. thousand
(Rs. thousand
per tonne)
(Rs. million)
(Rs. million)
(Rs. thousand
(Rs. thousand
per tonne)
1953 No exports 1   13 NA     13 NA
1957 No exports             496 NA
1962 9 0.1 8.9 2055 9.8 4.8 2238 10.8 4.8
1966 1005 11.9 11.9 7100 69.4 9.8 8784 88.8 10.1
1967 2590 41.6 16.1 7957 79.8 10.0 11173 129.8 11.6
1971 11575 205.3 17.7 9504 86.7 9.1 23181 313.3 13.5
1974 19174 390.3 20.1 12681 200.3 15.7 34361 637.3 18.5
1979 36583 1727.0 47.2 13117 357.8 27.3 53511 2231.2 41.7
1982 37713 2352.3 62.4 11256 399.7 35 5 54625 3009.7 55.1

The effect of this overpowering demand-pull for prawns had its repercussions in Kerala's fish economy as a whole. A sector which was relatively outside the mainstream of the economic and social processes in Kerala society was suddenly transformed into a respectable avenue for investment and involvement. The possibilities of a modernised fishery sector emerged quickly, breaking down traditional barriers to entry into the sector. The export-oriented thrust that began to get ingrained in the sector was blessed by the country's own attempt to boost foreign exchange earnings. The devaluation of the rupee in mid-1966 gave a further boost to the exports of prawns from Kerala. The implications of the changing emphasis of fisheries development policy on the fish economy and in particular the fishermen is known to us in detail from primary survey data.

It can be said that two clearly demarcated sub-sectors had been created in the economy-one which now received all the attention of the state and the new enterprising merchant class and another which was left largely to its own survival. The first which we may now refer to as the 'modern sector' is made up of the mechanised boats in the realm of production and the more capital-intensive and export-oriented processing and distribution activities. The latter is what we referred to earlier as the 'traditional sector' composed of the non-mechanised crafts and the labour-intensive, internal market-oriented distribution and processing activity.

During the decade, fish production averaged 304,700 tonnes. As of 1969-70 the modern sector in fish production activity accounted for landings of 40,000 tonnes of fish/prawns (12 per cent), valued at Rs. 41.5 million. It gave direct employment to about 7,800 fishermen. The output per worker in the sector (accounting for 8 per cent of the active fishermen in the state) was 5,150 kg and his per capita income (current prices) was Rs. 1,600. At the same time the 90,6()0 fishermen operating non-mechanised crafts accounted for 88 per cent of the total fish landing in 1969-70 (303,000 tonnes) valued at Rs. 165.5 million. The output per fisherman in this sector was 3,340 kg or 35 per cent below his counterpart on the mechanised boats and his per capita income (current prices) was Rs. 1,095 (see Table 11.2).


Contents - Previous - Next