Kerla used to contribute to the total fish production of the country disproportionate to its land size and water frontage. This State has only ten percent or less of India's coastal line. But around 25% of total fish caught are from the waters of this stretch. This 590 km. long coastal line is active because of a group of people living in its surroundings. It used to provide their livelihood from time immemorial. About a million members belonging to approximately 1.3 lakh families are there in this State belonging to fishermen community. The fish caught by about two lakh active fishermen working in this field contribute to the tune of about 1.86% of the State's net domestic production.
About 1.5 lakh sq. km. area only is covered with marine water in this State. Out of which continental shelf region occupies around 40,000 sq. km. It is estimated that the total potential stock of marine fish in this area is 7.5 lakh tonnes, which comes to approximately 30% of the country's potential. In the year 2010 the fish production in Kerala was 5.3 lakh tonnes (The maximum sustainable yield is estimated as 6.99 lakh tonnes), which is slightly more than the previous year's 5.18lakh.
Traditional food source
The fishing community who stay close to the coast used to be the only group in this State engaged in fishing from time immemorial. They, who considered fish as a major food source traditionally, caught fish for their own use and also catered to the society. They had their own traditional technologies for fishing which forced the fishing activity to the near-shore waters. Naturally catch was limited the earnings from fishing was meagre. This affected their living conditions. They became very backward socially and economically in the society. Literacy level was also very low. They had to content with minimal living facilities. Very often their houses got destroyed in heavy rain or sea erosion.
In fact this community depended on the sea for almost everything. With the kindness of the sea they flourish, otherwise they perish. The occurrence of 'Chakara' (mud banks) is celebrated by them as a festival. This natural phenomena attracts plenty of fish toward the shore where the water is noticed to contain more primary organisms which form the food for fishes. When other parts of the sea is rough, the part where Chakara appears will be calm and temperature variations are also noticed.
Modernization in fishing methods
Early fifties saw a change in the fishing methods due to Government's intervention in fisheries. Introduction of mechanized fishing vessels and synthetic gear materials brought in drastic changes in the coastal area. Based on an agreement with Norway Government mechanized trawlers were brought into Kerala waters to help the traditional fishermen. But by sixties this mechanized fishing started developing in an industrial footing since industrialists got attracted to this. One of the major reasons for this was that the major catch of trawlers was the shrimp variety which was gaining market demand throughout the world (Shrimp lives in the sea bottom and the trawl net catches the bottom living animals). This naturally resulted the extension of fishing operations into the deeper waters in the shelf, and further increase in fishing effort and fish production. The availability of an export market for shrimp and allied products encouraged more fishing activities, especially the bottom trawling.
The trawl fishing was so efficient for exploiting shrimp the variety which helped fetching very high value in the market, especially the foreign market. Naturally this attracted top industrialists and more investment into the field and the number of trawlers increased, thereby increasing pressure on fishing. Introduction of purse seiners in the late seventies further added the pressure on fishing. Altogether this led to the development of fishing sector into a well organized industry of the State.
Mechanization and related issues
Though the mechaization was introduced with the idea of helping the traditional fishing community and the mechanised vessels were handed over to the cooperatives of these people, slowly the picture changed. The business groups manged to own the mechanised vessels and consequently the traditional people had to go back to their old methods of fishing for earning a living. Slowly conflicts developed between these two groups. Further the traditional groups claimed that the mechanised trawlers were catching fish beyond the allowable level, that is over-fishing is done by them, which affected the stock and caused overall decline in the catch. Intensive operation of trawl nets, purse seines and ring seines were considered as the main reason for the decline of catch since it even destroyed the eggs and fingerling of fishes and prawns. Traditional groups demanded a total ban of these types of destructive gears at least during the monsoon period, which coincides with the spawning of many species of fishes and shrimps. The boat owners and the workers were fully against this view. These contradictions between the two groups led even to clashes and very often created law and order problems in the Kerala coasts.
After studying the whole issues and understanding the situation and also realising the importance of conservation of the fishery resources and for sustainable development and management of the fishery along the coast the Government of Kerala enacted the Kerala Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (1980), which empowered the Government to tackle problems in the sector.
Further, the Government based on recurring problems in the sector appointed various committees to find out solutions and as a result trawling operations during monsoon time was banned (now 47 days) as a major action to solve the tension on the coastal areas. Studies were carried out by different agencies to assess the impact of this ban.
Meanwhile Government of India introduced fishing ban in the Exclusive Economic Zone because of complaints received from Coastal States, contiguous to the territorial waters of Kerala. Introduction of trawl ban not following a uniform nature led to new problems. This prompted the Central Government to have a uniform ban period for the West coast and another for East coast, based on the climatic differences.
Trawl ban and its impact
Studies carried out by different agencies about the impact of ban show that the ban benefited the Kerala fisheries to a large extent. The marine fish production has shown drastic increase from an annual average of 3.3 lakh tonnes during pre-ban period to 5.7 lakh tonnes during period of ban.
The average annual sales values at the landing centre level (first sales value) during the pre-ban and ban periods were, respectively, were Rs.446 crores and Rs. 2198 crores. The earnings from marine export showed the figures as Rs. 126 crores and Rs. 1040 crores respectively. It is reported that the annual per capita income of earnings of active fishermen increased steadily from Rs. 7,025 in the pre-ban period (1980) to Rs. 38,636 during the ban period. Similarly the average per capita income of the secondary sector in 1980 was Rs.18,522 which became Rs. 61,646 in 2005. The literacy rate among the coastal fishermen was about 40% in 1980, which became around 90% by 2005.
It may also be noted that during these years lots of developments have taken place in fishing technology. Various modifications were introduced in crafts and gears which proved to be more efficient and helped increasing catch. This also has been pointed out as a reason for increase in the total fish catch during these periods by some of the experts. Natural causes such as global warming, water pollution due to heavy industrialization, etc. might cause variations in the fish stock throughout the world.
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A point which has to be discussed with the fish production of the State is the changes in the ecosystem due to which the production is getting reduced. Most of the changes are due to man made causes. A typical example is the Thanneermukkam bund near Cherthala in Alappuzha district.This bund actually affects the natural flow of water in the Vembanad lake. Several fish varieties especially the prawn/shrimp varieties need fresh water as well as salt water for its life cycle.
When a barrage is constructed the fresh water and brackish water are divided into two different compartments. This disallows the shrimp to travel from one place to the other causing negatively their natural living condition. Definitely its production get reduced. Survey results have established this.