Image credits: Rudolph.A.furtado

The year 2022 is of global significance with the United Nations declaring it as the International Year for Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture. The commemoration highlights the need for recognition of the rights of artisanal and small-scale fisherfolk across the world, particularly at a time when global fisheries are threatened by predatory fishing practices coupled with moribund centralised institutions to govern marine resources. A good chunk of artisanal fishers are part of small-scale fisheries primarily in developing countries such as India. And globally around 492 million people depend at least partially on small-scale fisheries for their livelihoods. This includes the complex value chains of fisherfolk, small-scale traders, people part of the transport facilities, workers in the cold-storage value chain as well as those involved in value addition such as the dried fish economy. Women are a crucial part of small-scale fisheries and around 45 million women participate in it. That is to say that four in ten fishers and fish workers are women. 

With a total coastline of 8118 km, India ranks second in global fisheries production. However, the Indian fisheries sector is still heavily reliant on less capital-intensive fishing involving smaller fleet size with a mix of motorized and non-motorised boats. Along India’s western, southern and eastern coasts, millions of traditional fishing communities are involved in the sector as a source of livelihood. Fish also serves as an essential for a healthy diet, providing protein and nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, selenium and zinc. The nutritional importance of fish can be gauged by its relatively stable accessibility in the form of a cheap source of protein, in contrast to ever-fluctuating market prices of protein rich foods such as pulses and eggs. 

Despite what many may call a “boom” in the Indian fisheries sector, a myriad sector specific as well as interconnected challenges have come to the fore. For example, increased disastrous fishing practices in open access marine fisheries has led to depletion of fish stocks, often hurting the small and artisanal fishers. Also, environmental concerns on conservation of marine ecosystem has added a new set of regulations such as impractical limits on mesh-net sizes, often hurting small-scale fishers. These challenges have made fishing a volatile occupation with an increase in effort, coupled with decreasing catch. The Government’s response has been focused on enacting new legislation to regulate India’s fishing sector. Like all top-down regulations, new problems have arisen not despite of, but because of regulatory controls put in place. 

A Rights-based Approach

Over the past two decades, traditional and indigenous communities have asserted their property rights over land, forest and marine resources much more vigorously in the light of changing economic patterns as well as a state-led development and conservation venture. For example, State sponsored large scale developmental plans such as coastal privatisation and port-based industrialisation have come at the cost of traditional fishing grounds of local communities. A case in point is of the Wagher fishing community of Gujarat’s Kutch region which fought a landmark litigation against the World Bank over the latter’s support of the Mundra power plant. The power-plant has fragmented the community’s traditional fishing grounds.  Numerous other similar stories of loss of livelihood due to the State’s non-recognition of customary and traditional fishing rights continue to come to the fore. They have raised some fundamental questions on the institutional framework that governs coastal and marine resources in India. Most importantly, to what extent local communities are empowered or dis-empowered due to the existence of these institutions? 

The rights-based approach to fisheries is about balancing the needs of the people, ocean and the economy. It approaches development and conservation through empowering local coastal communities and co-operatives with access and management rights over their fishing areas. These rights are enforced by the State, which becomes the duty-bearer or the enforcer, and the communities or co-operatives become the right holders who can exercise their rights over the resources. Rights-based regimes, unlike centralised and bureaucratic control, see fishers as important stakeholders towards securing sustainable fisheries and prosperous economies. Rights-based regimes introduce stakeholder responsibility with well-defined rights, which create incentives for long-term planning and stewardship. In top-down regulatory models, fishers have little to no incentive to consider long term stewardship because management of fisheries is in the hands of agencies of the State. 

One of the most significant aspects of rights-based fishery management programs is their ability to respond to local realities, cultural norms and customary practices. For example, depending on local dynamics, different models such as catch-based rights, input-based rights or area-based rights can be assigned and enforced.

Catch-based rights involve capping a total allowable catch in a particular fishery, based on scientific evidence. Quotas on catch-share are then assigned to entities within the fishery and often these quotas are transferable.

Area-based rights are assigned to a defined special marine zone and there are many examples of small-scale fisheries in developing countries that are managed under this type of system commonly referred to as Territorial Use Rights in Fisheries. Often, area-based approaches include a “bundle of rights” where, for example, catch- or effort-based rights are combined with rights to carry out management functions such as surveillance and data collection in a defined area. Instead of assignment of effort or catch rights, a community agrees to a conservation target and sets harvest rules for fishers. Area-based rights are identical to customary practices of property rights-based fishery management found in various traditional fishing communities, where rights to a fishing area and access to it are exclusively granted to individuals or groups.

The padu system of community-based fishing management in stake-net fishery, is an excellent example of area-based rights enforced by a legally empowered community. In the padu system, fishing sites are allocated by an association of fishers called a Sangam. A key element of the padu system is its attempt to redistribute the catch fairly among the fishers by rotating access to fishing locations.

With technological advancements rapidly changing the nature of fisheries, and as new fishery management challenges emerge, the way forward for India is to create rights-based programs to sustainably and equitably manage fisheries. While rights-based principles may not give a one-size-fits-all policy, they do emphasize on the need to assign exclusive rights either through market-based instruments such as catch-shares or through area-based models of property rights assigned to co-operatives or communities. The environmental, developmental and social significance of traditional and small-scale fisheries can be realised through sound institutions, which augment rather than erode their ability to manage or choose in matters linked so closely to their lives and livelihoods.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.