12 January 2017 14:44:26 IST

Why sustainable fishing is important

India needs to have tough laws for throwing by-catch back into the sea and enforce them strictly

Many years ago, I happened to be on a recreational fishing expedition on the Tweed river, in New South Wales, Australia.

We were a bunch of journalists visiting Australia. On that particular day, we went crab hunting. This involved sucking up little yabbies — small, fresh-water crayfish — out of the mud in the shallow river’s bed, using devices that look like cycle air-pumps, and then using those poor creatures as bait in traps for crabs. You get really big crabs there. I pumped out yabbies with great gusto, and even held a big live crab in my bare hands. Creepy experience, but fun.


A little further downstream the waters got deep and we had to give up yabbie and crab hunting for plain fishing. We were all first-time anglers and, for a long time, we waited in vain for a bite.

Finally, Sarbjit Dhaliwal of The Tribune felt a nibble. He pulled assiduously and came up with a finger-sized silver bream, gleaming in the sunlight. Dhaliwal was thrilled. He had just caught his first fish and was probably thinking up a couple of juicy recipes, when Jason Harris, the captain of the expedition came along and put an arm around Dhaliwal’s shoulder.

“Please throw the fish back into the water,” said Harris.

“What!” said Dhaliwal.

“You have to throw the fish back into the water, sir. Please do it, and then I’ll explain why.”

Sarbjit Dhaliwal’s silver bream, which probably had ten seconds more to live, got a lease of life. It disappeared into the waters, perhaps to hurry to its friends and relatives to recount the amazing story of its escape from the jaws of death.

But why did Jason Harris disappoint Dhaliwal? Therein hangs the story of recreational fishing in Australia — a big lesson for Indians.

Play by the rules 

Down Under, recreational fishing is big business, but you have to strictly play by the rules. Some of the rules are that if you catch a young fish or a pregnant one, you have to put it back. This is to ensure that the young fish are allowed to grow big before they are caught, and the females are allowed time to spawn. Don’t do these, you will maul the ecosystem and then, there will be no fishing possible at all.

As we listened to Harris explain the rules, one question kept popping in my mind, (as, I’m sure, in yours too, right now.) How on the earth would the authorities know if a few fish in the basket were young or pregnant? After all, we were in a wild river deep in the wilderness of New South Wales’ forests, far removed from any blue-coated law enforcers.

But it is not so easy. Harris explained that they the authorities are given to surprising — they pop up from nowhere and do surprise checks. If you are caught violating rules, that’s the end of your fishing career. Punishment will be swift and severe. Even the boat will be confiscated, so the boat owner (like Harris) will never allow his passengers to monkey around with the law.

Situation in India

It was with the Tweed river episode in mind that I recently read a report titled ‘Economic value of biodiversity loss: A study of By-catch from Andhra Pradesh Marine Fisheries”, a product of the efforts of the Centre for Economic and Social Studies.

The study says that 59.8 per cent of the biomass is foregone due to juvenile catch. This chokes off breeding. The fisherman gets little for the by-catch — he sells it for ₹1 a kg to poultry farmers. Annually, some ₹250 crore of value is lost. And that is just off the Andhra Pradesh coast.

The Marine Biological Association of India is very concerned about this. Because of the unrelenting scooping of seas by trawlers, the future of fishing itself is in peril. Trawlers are getting bigger in size, are equipped with bigger engines and can wander far into the seas. They are not only catching juveniles and females, but also many other animals. A 2013 study of the Association revealed 237 species of marine fauna and juveniles of commercial importance were landed as ‘low-value by-catch’, and discarded.  The authors note in the ‘Conclusion’ that “this practice is causing heavy damage to the marine ecosystem and by continuous landing of juvenile fish, the sustainability of fisheries production is under serious threat.”

India needs to have strict laws mandating the throwing back of by-catch into the sea and must enforce these very strictly, in our own enlightened self-interest. We need to learn from Australia.