“Let your hook always be cast. Some fish will eat the bait and the free food will come your way”.
This was a popular belief in the Andaman Islands until recently. However, these days, alas, one can’t be so sure of a nibble. Casual chats with senior fishermen are dotted with stories of dwindling fish numbers and how these folk are struggling to make ends meet. The pattern common in much of tropics. Once abundant fish are rare and those in demand are getting exploited at an alarming rate.
So why then are the fishermen still spending time, money and energy in catching fish?
The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple version: the fishermen are hopeful and are adapting to economic impulses of the market. They are responding to changes in supply and demand, seeking new markets, exploring new fishing grounds and deeper areas to keep themselves afloat. The complicated answer, however, is wrapped up in the global economics of seafood, a research area that, while still in its infancy, is important to understand for the sake of saving the remaining fish stocks of the islands.
In the early history of commercial fisheries involved a focus on Trochus and Sea Cucumbers, which then shifted to sharks, crabs and pelagic species. However, in the past ten years, there has been a transformation of fisheries from subsistence fisheries to the fisheries that woo to the demands of new markets. One particular species of grouper (Plectropomus leopardus), commonly called as ‘dollar macchi’ or CT (coral trout) is the main driver of this transformation. The demand for this fish started in early 2000. Once considered as a trash fish, they suddenly started selling for the higher price as eating a red coloured fish is considered a sign of prosperity in China, where nearly all of these fish are headed. Today a significant proportion of the landed fish stocks are exported to Southeast Asia. In addition, there is no effective monitoring of resource extraction trends and poor, often outdated and non-contextual management regulations.
The most commonly used gear for catching the dollar fish is a hook-and-line, where the hook is set to cast, the fish nibbles and gets caught in the process. Along with groupers, many other fish get caught who nibble the bait ranging from snappers, barracudas, jacks to sharks. Most of these fish groups are top predators of the sea. They feed on smaller fish and invertebrates such as crabs, shrimps and lobster and thus playing an important role in maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystem. Depletion of their stock has bitter consequences for the island marine ecosystem.
These islands were hit by the tsunami in 2004. Memory of local people divides the Islands into before and after the tsunami. Immediately after the tsunami, the fisheries took a toll as many small-scale fishermen lost their boats and nets to the vicious waves of the tsunami. The island administration promoted this archipelago for tourism, whereas the fisheries department worked towards rejuvenating the island’s fisheries. Resorts and restaurants mushroomed to cater to the influx of tourists. Most tourists preferred eating fish that has tender meat, and thus the demand for prawns, crabs and travellys, barracudas, snapper fish increased. These new demands put additional pressure on the Island’s fish stocks. To top this, global warming and changing climate pose further problems to the Island fisheries. As carbon dioxide levels rise, the oceans become more acidic, rendering the water inhospitable to marine species. The rising water temperatures affect reproduction and survival. They also increase overall nutrient load in the water column by fostering harmful algal blooms and impacts fisheries. In addition to the 2004 tsunami, disturbances in the recent past, which include three major coral bleaching events have impacted the reef ecosystems, resulting in habitat loss for reef fish.
Some suggest fish farming as a solution to meet growing demand for seafood–a blue revolution in this century to mirror match MS Swaminathan’s green revolution of the past. In the Andaman Islands, the rearing of commercially important species such as grouper fish has been tested in cages in Chidiyatapu region in south Andaman. The idea is that young ones of fish are reared in aquariums and later allowed to grow in sea water inside the cages. Once they reach a certain size they are harvested as fish stocks. However, various studies have shown that cage culture is easier said than done; it requires a lot of maintenance and comes with its own host of ecological problems.
Should we eat certain fish species or should we be selective in our choices are real questions? It’s a fact that catching fish out of the sea has an impact on the environment. Yet wild-caught fish are free from additives, less costly in terms of carbon footprints budget than pork or beef. And, unlike some sectors of the farming and aquaculture industries, wild fishing doesn’t depend on intensive doping with antibiotics, the gross simplification of habitats or animals reared in intensive care wards.
Studies have shown that the fish, like other animals, compete and cooperate, breed and migrate and are sentient beings. There is considerable knowledge of the management of fisheries from other parts of the world. A few initiatives tell you what fish to eat during which month. For mainland India, there is ‘Know your Fish’ and ‘InSeason Fish’ programs that encourage consumers to make informed choices when it comes to eating fish. There are other programs in the west that endorse and encourage fishermen to practice sustainable fisheries and even issue licenses based on the fishing practices they follow.
Setting-up Marine protected areas (MPA), a simple premise to set aside a part of the seascape, which is devoid of any human activity, are known to have long-lasting impacts on fisheries sector. Such MPAs can be both a safety valve and a treasure trove for marine life. They can act as insurance against natural catastrophes. Fish can prosper in the protected areas and thus spill over into the “unprotected” sea. In the Andaman Islands, we do have two prominent marine protected areas, the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (MGMNP) in South Andaman and Rani Jhansi Marine National Park (RJMNP) in Ritchie’s archipelago. Besides, there are 105 protected Islands where fishing is prohibited. However, most of these areas function as mere paper parks. Fishers who live on the fringes of these MPAs complain that their livelihoods are being ignored and they often show lack of compliance inside the park. Except for MGMNP in other protected areas patrolling, monitoring and implementation of the law framework is weak. Besides, the issue of poaching for fish resources by foreign poachers continues.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is also a marine biodiversity hotspot encompasses multiple habitat types that support a range of fisheries also are home to various indigenous communities that have relied on marine resources for subsistence purposes for centuries. People from different parts of India have settled in these islands and each community follows different practices, gears that they have learnt from the Indian mainland. Considering social-cultural and ecological setting of the island, the Andaman Islands would require different management strategies.
At present, only seven fish are protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Fishery monitoring agencies have been collecting coarse landing statistics of fish groups, with no separation of species or even family and huge gaps exist in our knowledge of fisheries and there is limited documentation of the status and impact that fishing practices have on marine ecosystems and fisher livelihoods. Economic analysis of fisheries would be useful to demonstrate the short and long term advantages of well-managed fisheries. The lack of reliable data and trained manpower to handle fisheries also highlights the need to improve the dissemination of information so that strategies for the management of these events can be implemented. The popular belief that the only time we are supposed to stay off seafood is during the monsoon no longer holds true.
Given the potentially negative consequences of catching one particular fish species such as grouper fish, an ecosystems-based approach to fisheries management can be a way forward, which also encompasses conservation of marine biodiversity. While a bit vague, the idea is to take into consideration habitat of fish when making management decisions. From the viewpoint of the ecosystem, it is important to know how overfishing of one species affects another species. In particular, exploring offshore resources while protecting inshore fisheries, understanding of fishing community perspective, promoting recreational fisheries, which brings better returns per fish, enforcing patrolling and dealing with all illegal fishing can go a long way in managing Island fisheries.
Conserving marine biodiversity and managing fisheries is a must, after all, it’s not about the ‘fish’, but it’s about food and job security of thousands of islanders who are dependent on the fisheries sector. It is time that we take effective steps to manage island fisheries, to insulate Andaman from global fishing pressures. If we don’t take timely actions, then the common hook-and-line fishing method can be a sinker for the Andaman island fisheries.
An edited version of this article was first published in the WIRE.