Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Facing Capture Fisheries

- V. Gopalakrishnan, Ph.D.
Ex: Hd. of Division, CIFRI, Barrackpore and Chief Technical Adviser, FAO
Current Chairman of Fisheries Technocrats Forum, Chennai.
Address: 37A, Rukmani Road, Kalakshetra Colony, Chennai \ 600 090, India.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 77-81.
People eat more fish than any other type of animal protein. It is therefore only natural that when considerable significance is being given to food security, issues on sustainabilty of fisheries development have received great attention in recent years. In this respect the three major components of fisheries viz., capture fisheries, culture fisheries and culture-based capture fisheries, have their own potentials and developmental issues. There is general global agreement that greater attention need to be given in fisheries development programmes to sustainability parameters.

Sustainability concept for capture fisheries

There are many definitions of sustainable development as applicable to fisheries, but for the present purpose the under-mentioned FAO approach is generally satisfactory: gSustainable development is the management and conservation of natural resources base and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for the present and future generations. Such development (in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors) conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources; is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptableh (1). Thus, considerations on the sustainability issue in capture fisheries development will naturally involve biological, ecological, environmental, social, economic , legal and institutional parameters. It therefore follows that such exercises will be very complex, dealing with resources, ecosystems, society, economic indications, environmental degradation, bio-diversity etc .

International action for capture fisheries development

General policy

The present capture fisheries regime covering the resources of the worldfs oceans, as unfolded by the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (1982), has provided the opportunity for all coastal countries to participate more fully in the utilization of their resources and to increase the contributions they make to national economic, social and nutritional objectives. At the same time attention has also been drawn to the potential roles of inland water fisheries and aquaculture as food suppliers, within the overall socio-economic context of rural development. These new opportunities and challenges have called for re-appraisal of national policies for fisheries development and management. Accordingly, during the past two decades, many country administrations have attempted to take issue-based developmental action on the entire range on alternative objectives like food production, earning of foreign exchange, generation of income, employment and resource conservation. In many cases these issues have been found to be conflicting rather than complimentary, resulting in difficult choices for relevant policy alternatives. Such a situation has clearly pointed out that there is no single model for capture fisheries development, because of variations in human, natural, physical and financial resources, natural aspirations and socio-economic targets.

FAO Kyoto Conference \December 1995

The FAO Kyoto Declaration addressed the following major issues:

  1. Need to increase efforts relating to estimation of quantity of fish, marine mammals, sea birds, sea turtles and other forms of life which are incidentally caught and discarded in fishing operations;
  2. Determination of the effects of such actions on the fish species and stocks;
  3. Initiation of urgent action necessary to minimise waste and discards by using selective, environmentally safe and cost-effective fishing gear and techniques.
  4. The discussions during the conference focussed on conflicts between traditional community based and other small scale fisheries, and modern industrial fisheries. The issues applicable to traditional fisheries were identified as : sustainability, food security, economic welfare and cultural existence. Other important items highlighted were the role of genetically improved aquatic organisms to global food security and conservation of biological diversity Two recent regulatory actions at International level relate to reduction of incidental catch of sea birds in long-line fisheries and conservation and management of sharks (3,4).
Responsible fisheries

A code of conduct which sets out principles and international standards of behaviour for e Responsible Fisheriesf in order to ensure effective conservation, management and development of living aquatic resources, with due respect for the ecosystem and bio-diversity, was adopted by the FAO in 1995(5). This is a significant action towards sustainable fisheries and it address the following issues:( i) nutritional, economic, social, environmental and cultural importance of fisheries and the interests of all those concerned with fisheries development, (ii) biological characteristics of the resources and their environment and the interests of consumers and other users. FAO has so far prepared technical guidelines in respect of the following capture fisheries activities: fishing operations, precautionary approach to capture fisheries and species introduction, integration of fisheries into coastal area management, fisheries management, inland fisheries, responsible fish utilisation and indicators for sustainable development of marine capture fisheries.

Overview of issues faced by capture fisheries

Capture fisheries comprise complex human activities within the overall national economy and within society in general. The programmes dealing with this subject are generally targeted to multiple objectives, which are not necessarily compatible. This leads to compromises based entirely on their own merits. Since the conditions within which the fisheries are considered as highly dynamic, the plan of action must be explicit with clear demarcation of comparative advantages and relative merits. It therefore follows that for optimal utilisation of capture fisheries resources, appropriate conservation and management measures based on scientific evidences should be undertaken. Such an approach should necessarily be based on ethical considerations also and with due respect for ecological, social and economical stability and sustainability. Further, well-balanced legal frameworks and industrial structures are also essential for achieving the objectives set forth. Such a concept applies to both capture and culture fisheries and is of particular importance where there is competition among local fishers and between commercial and recreational fisheries, and where there is intense competition from other land and water users. In order to address issues related to small scale fisheries, an integrated approach through and with the participation of fishing communities, is often the best way of channelling technical, financial and other forms of assistance. For the development of national large-scale fisheries, a workable balance should be set up between the potential and needs of artisanal and large-scale operations.

It is in this context of changed fisheries regime in most countries \both developed and developing- that an attempt is being made here to briefly discuss the ethical, social and legal issues facing capture fisheries. As indicated earlier, since fisheries science is a complex activity and in some cases rather abstract in character, involving different disciplines, social and economic conditions and highly site- specific ramifications, the issues described here are contiguous and overlapping within the three groups.

Most countries are experiencing problems of environmental degradation and progressive increase in land and water scarcity. A recent FAO Report (6) describes the main challenges to maintaining and enhancing inland fish production and associated social and economic benefits as degradation of aquatic resources and environments, increasing competition for resources and insufficient institutional and political recognition. The basic issues are described as: (i) decreases in availability of land, water and assimilative capacity of the environment, (ii) open access characteristic of resources, (iii) multidisciplinary management actions,(iv) mismatch between administrative and management units and (v) multiple resources-dependency of communities. In order to address these important issues, FAO has suggested to member countries a strategy of integrated resource management (IRM)

Overfishing is probably the most important problem facing capture fisheries. The gTragedy of the Commonsh (7), analytical model which is often used to explain the problems relating to fisheries development, covers other major issues like environmental degradation, pollution and unsympathetic attitude of governments and other related agencies.

High rates of discard is another issue which requires urgent action. An FAO report (1994) states that the world discard from capture fisheries is about 32 %, which is high by any standard.

Coastal fisheries get affected drastically by environmental degradation of the adjacent land, which can affect life cycles of fish stocks, migration of fish from fresh water systems to the sea and by population pressures leading to increased coastal subsistence fishing. A major portion ( more than 60%) marine fish production is known to be from stocks which go through critical phases in the their life history in coastal waters.

Global scenario of capture fisheries

Marine fisheries

It has been found that many of the marine fish stocks show a rhythmical pattern in their upward and downward trends, which is supposed to be due to a linkage phenomenon with climate. However, this hypothesis is yet to be substantiated . What we know for definite, is that throughout the world marine fish landings are leveling off. From the data available regarding fish stocks and resources of traditional fisheries, the total marine fish catches in the main fishing areas have reached the estimated potential more than 5 years ago. Deep sea fishery catches appear to have declined since 1990 due to a combination of factors. Recent FAO reports show that 44% of fish stocks are fully exploited and 16% are over-fished. In the latter case it is possible that unless immediate regulatory programmes are undertaken the catches may decrease substantially. In addition, 6% and 3% respectively of stocks are depleted and recovering from damages caused by human interference. Possibility of increased catches are forecast from Indian Ocean (Eastern and Western areas), Western coastal Pacific and NW Pacific. All these areas are under -or moderately exploited without signs of depletion.

FAO has taken action to highlight the importance of three international issues:

Inland fisheries

During early 1990s, inland capture fisheries formed about 8% of the total catches and were composed mostly of fin-fish, molluscs (7%) and crustaceans (6%). However, in recent years the exploitation is reported to be more, with an annual 2% increase with intensive activities in Asia and Africa. However, future outlook is not promising, the major problems being (i) degradation of land and forest resources and habitats, (ii) bio-diversity, (iii) scarcity of freshwater and (iv) pollution of rivers, lakes, reservoirs, estuarine systems, backwaters and coastal lagoons. Thus, the major issues related to inland capture fisheries may be summarised as degradation of resources, degradation of environments and increasing competition and conflicts.

Culture-based capture fisheries.

The importance of these resource enhancement programmes, also known as ehatchery enhancementf and emarine ranchingf has received appreciation in several countries. The negative considerations in this respect are: possibility of interactions resulting in loss of natural genetic diversity, bad history of the brood stock, lack of sufficient evidence regarding enhancement of the ehostf fisheries, occurrence of new and larger mixed populations, creation of fish strains competing with natural stocks, and adverse environmental reactions especially when using exotic fishes. On the other hand, the positive factors are: low resource input systems, increased social participation, negligible polluting conditions, limited and low key inputs, potential for higher fish production, absence of serious conflicts except some ownership and traditional free access rights.

Trends in fish catches (8)

Total global production (1996) : 121 million tonnes

Total global capture fisheries yields: 94.6 million tonnes

Trends in marine and inland capture fisheries yields (in million tonnes)

Year Marine Inland

1950 17.0 -

1961 34.9

1983 68.3

1990 79.29 6.59

1992 79.95 6.25

1994 85.77 6.91

1995 85.62 7.38

1996 87.07 7.55

1997 (estimated) 86.03 7.70

Prediction: The production may level off at 100 million tonnes.

Capture fisheries scenario in India

Catch figures for Indian Fisheries: (in metric tonnes)

Marine Inland(Capture)

1950-51 0.53 0.22

1987-88 1.64 0.30

1994-95 2.67 0.49

Potential from EEZ area has been estimated as 3.9 million tonnes.

Although the total annual marine catches are seen to be far below the projected optimum, some of more important stocks are heavily fished. Overall exploitation is from fishing grounds 0 \ 50 m depth and the level is considered to be near optimum. Stocks of ebombay duckf, mackerel, and oil sardines are over-exploited. Penaeid shrimps are fully exploited in NW and SE coasts. Seer fish, crabs and lobsters are fished at near optimum levels. Anchovies, some sardines, some clupeids, tuna, bill fish, perch, elasmobranchs, carangids, pomfrets and scienids are under-exploited(9).

Issues related to deep sea fishing

The important negative aspects observed in India are: general restriction of fishing areas within 40 fathoms depth, use of large number of vessels in the upper east coast, overexploitation of some species(while the catching of the other species are not economic), capital intensive operations, discard of unwanted fish ( approx. 1,30,000 tonnes catch annually) and heavy fishing pressure on shrimp resources(10).

Issues related to artisanal capture fisheries

The major problems faced in India are: overexploitation of fishery resources, destructive fishing practices, damage to natural habitats, conflicts with other sectors, fishing in non-traditional areas, misuse and wastage of surplus catches, non-compliance with unwritten laws like respect for the fish, respect for other fishermen, appreciation of the environment, passing on information to others, and adopting egreed ethich tactics.

Fish aggregating devices

The effectiveness of fish aggregating devices in increasing colonisation of micro-organisms which facilitates congregation of fishes in the area, is well known. However, the associated problems regarding ownership and fishing rights frequently occur and hence regulatory measures are required before sustainability would be ensured.

Issues related to inland fisheries

There are strong evidences to indicate that due to stresses caused by human interventions, the capture fisheries of inland water systems in India have been adversely affected.. Specific instances relate to reports of decline in Gangetic fish stocks, depletion of stocks in some areas of Godavari and Cauveri river systems and Chilka and Pulicat lakes. The decline in Mahseer fishery in upland rivers has been another cause for concern. The causative factors have been identified and what is necessary is to arrest the decline of fish germplasm resources. Present and future strategies have been worked out and a determined effort in this direction is urgently called for.

Traditional conservation of inland fisheries in India has been practised, though not on a wide scale. One good example is observation of eclosed fishing seasonsf. In West Bengal, for instance, consumption of prized hilsa has been religiously prohibited after the Durga Pooja till Saraswathi Pooja, which period corresponds with the breeding season of the fish

Some of the exotic fishes introduced into the country for increasing production from confined waters have established themselves in some of the natural water systems, mainly reservoirs. Specific examples are: silver carp replacing major carps and contributing to more than 80% of catches in Govindsagar, tilapia contributing to a major share in catches from Amaravathi reservoir, and common carp overtaking native fishes in Kashmir and Manipur. Experts have opined that g out of more than 300 species of fish introduced in the country for culture, ornamental and biological purposes, only the trout has been found positively contributing to our capture fishery system, both ecologically as well as productivelyh. Such a scenario calls for extreme caution and strict analyses before introducing any more fishes into Indian waters.

The negative human actions which have affected capture fisheries of Indian reservoirs, lakes and estuaries are known to be drastic water abstraction, progressively increasing pollution by domestic, municipal and industrial sources, disruption of fish breeding grounds, habitat destruction, over-exploitation, use of explosives, flood control measures, silting, artificial barriers affecting fish migration, tourism development, large scale destruction of fish seed incidentally caught with prized cultured species like shrimps and prawns, and introduction of exotic species.

Conservation and regulation

The Indian Fisheries Act 1897 formed the basis for the different states and union territories to introduce fishery laws and rules to suit local demands and conditions. This resulted in lack of uniformity, The Fishing Regulation Act of 1981 authorized maritime states to frame rules for regulation of fishing to protect the traditional fishermen from the mechanized fishing vessels and the operation of large fishing vessels.

Management measures in marine fisheries relate to promotion and conservation. In addition to the promotional measures undertaken, an immediate requirement is registration and licensing of all fishing craft. Regulatory legal measures have been adopted in many states, particularly regarding mesh size, dynamiting, destruction of fish seed, destruction of brood stock etc. Some recent examples of regulatory measures adopted are:

The Govt. of Kerala introduced in 1980 a ban on trawl fishing for a period of 45 days during monsoon months. The spawning of shrimps, sardines and mackerel, which are the main components of Keralafs major fishery resources, takes place during this period. Very recently a committee has recommend 65 daysf ban during monsoon season every alternate year.

Strong protest demonstrations and strikes organized in 1994 by fishers and entrepreneurs associated with all activities of the marine fisheries sector, demanding that Government should abandon its policy of giving licenses to joint ventures for deep-sea fishing. FAO had earlier reported that there were three constraints to harvesting this potential. It is a common knowledge that conflicts rule the marine capture fisheries in India, the most significant problem being fighting between artisan fishers and mechanized boat operators. The above mentioned protests did have a significant impact on the policy of the Govt., which clearly justify the sustainability criteria described earlier in this review.

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)

It is only in recent years that action has been taken in India to study EIA in relation to Capture Fisheries. This has been mainly due to lack of appreciation as well as scarcity of environment based technological competence. Investigations carried out by the Central Inland Capture Fisheries Research Institute on EIA in riverine ecosystems are particularly noteworthy (11).

General remarks

The major ethical issues in respect of capture fisheries of India may be summarised as: water quality maintenance and protection, abatement of pollution, protection of natural bio-diversity, protection of traditional fishing areas, customs and habitats, sustainability of fishing practices, ensuring social, ecological and technical stability, protection, restoration and recovery of endangered species and stocks, balancing population pressure in neighbouring areas, and conflicts with other developmental actions as well as other fisheries sectors

The more important social, legal and management issues specifically related to capture fisheries of India are:

A. Reduction of excess fishing capacity, multi-species management of resources, control of discarded incidental catches including marine mammals, sea birds, sea turtles etc. Two recent regulatory actions taken at international level relate to reduction of incidental catch of seabirds in long-line fisheries and conservation and management of sharks.

B. Development and use of selective, environmentally safe and cost effective fishing gear and technique, sustainable development of unexploited or under-exploited species, protection of endangered species and strict compliance of fishing area norms- specially with artisanal fishing and deep-sea fishing.

C. Need for self-reliance in fisheries management and development. There is an urgent need for Governments to ensure sustainability in the development of technical, institutional and financial self-reliance in the fisheries sector. Human resources development is an issue to which adequate attention has not been paid.

An important observation to be made here is that in most cases, the non-governmental sea tenure system adopted by fishers themselves work reasonably well all over the world. For example, in Tamil Nadu, fishermen are known to recognize the erightf of fisher communities to econtrolf the fishing actions. One way to describe this is to say that the coastal waters are under gtenure, subject to the rules of neighbouring settlementsh. The banning of snail net and ray fish net are noteworthy success stories.

Recently I came across an article titled g Save lakes from sins of humanityh, which inter alia said that gIn India everything possible that can happen to lakes is indeed happening to them. They are being polluted, their catchments are being denuded, their fisheries are being destroyed and their drainage channels are being obstructedh(12). In my view this sums up what the main issue is for Indian capture fisheries to reckon with!

In conclusion, I would like to mention about a recent Fisheries Action Programme implemented by the Natural Heritage Trust (formed for ea better environment for Australia in the 21st centuryf), which plans to rebuild the countryfs fisheries to more productive and sustainable levels. The guidelines for the operations are :

I submit the above guidelines as suitable models for planning sustainable capture fisheries development in our country, based on the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and appropriate management actions to address the problem of uncontrolled exploitation of fisheries resources.


  1. FAO/Netherlands : The Don Bosch Declaration and Agenda for Action on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development. FAO, Rome, Italy and the Hague 1991.
  2. .
  3. Gopalakrishnan, V: Conflicts in Coastal Aquaculture Development. Fish and Fisheries, Fisheries Technocrats Forum, Madras, India. 1995 (4): 2-5.
  4. .
  5. FAO: The International Plan of Action for Reducing Incidental Catch of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries. FAO Fisheries Department 1999: 1-9.
  6. .
  7. FAO: The International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks: FAO Fisheries Department 1999: 1-7.
  8. .
  9. FAO: Code Conduct for Responsible Fisheries: FAO Fisheries Department 1999: 1-8.
  10. .
  11. FAO: Integrated Resource Management for Sustainable Inland Fish Production: FAO Fisheries Department Committee on Fisheries, COFI/99/2: 1-8.
  12. .
  13. Whatfs Love Got to Do With It?: 1999.
  14. .
  15. FAO: World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture, 1999: 1-23.
  16. .
  17. Sathiadas, R et al: Marine Fisheries Management for Sustainable Development. CMFRI, Cochin. Technology Transfer Series 2, 1995: 1-32.
  18. .
  19. Varghese, C.P: Deep Sea Fishing in Indian Seas \ Problems and Prospects, Asian Fisheries Society, Indian Branch, Souvenir of Fourth Indian Fisheries Forum 1996: 3-8.
  20. .
  21. CICFRI, Barrackpore, India : Annual Report 1997-98: 21-23
  22. .
  23. Down to Earth : Save Lakes From the Sins of Humanity 1993: Dec 31: 3-4.
  24. .

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