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Rape of the seas

Deep in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, halfway between the Andaman Islands and the mainland, a fishing ship begins to reel in its catch. The ship is Indian; the crew isn’t. They’ve been out here in no-man’s-water for over three weeks. They’ve endured choppy waters and scorching sun and, apart from themselves, not seen another man.

Miles away, Syed Anwar Maqsood glowers as he sits in his office at the Howrah Wholesale Fish Market Stall Owners’ Co-operative Society, the nerve centre of Asia’s second largest fish market. Maqsood is worried about the future of the hilsa.

The fishermen in the Bay of Bengal are angling for tuna, which is in great demand in foreign markets. But because of the fishing techniques they use, they end up with bycatch — fish that’s not targeted. For example, hilsa.

“Because of this, less and less hilsa make it to inland waters for us to catch,” Maqsood rues. “A few years ago, we’d get 10 trucks a day from Mumbai and Gujarat, each carrying around two tonnes of fish. Now we bring it in by air. Each box carries only around 70kg.”

There is trouble brewing in the sea — and the rumbles can be felt on every dinner table. A recent Greenpeace study titled Licensed to Loot details what it claims is theft by foreign fishing vessels of deep sea fish resources through — ironically — a government scheme.

The story goes like this. Traditionally, Indian fishermen stick to the coastal waters for their catch. So in an effort to tap into deep sea resources, the government introduced its Licence of Permit scheme (LoP) in 2004. This allows an Indian to buy foreign fishing vessels, that are better equipped and have better trained crew, for deep sea fishing. These foreign vessels thus get Indianised and have permission to fish in Indian waters. As of now, 77 vessels have been issued LoPs.

However, fishing groups allege that these LoP vessels are taking their catch out to foreign ports for sale, instead of bringing it back to India. “It’s legalised poaching,” says a senior Coast Guard official who did not want to be identified.

The amount lost to illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing in India is estimated to be worth between Rs 815.63 crore and Rs 1,196.26 crore ($150 million to $220 million) annually.

LoP vessel owners, however, contend that the opposition to them is misguided. “Like in any other activity, in LoP vessel operations, there may be some errors committed by individual operators. These are different from illegal activities,” says N. Srinivas, a spokesperson for the Indian firms that operate LoP ships.

The main interest of these vessels lies in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) set up by the government in 1977. The EEZ covers an area of 2.02 million square kilometres and extends up to 200 nautical miles from the Indian coast.

“When the EEZ was set up, southeast Asian fishermen who had a thriving business from the catch in our waters were suddenly barred from entering it,” says a government officer. “They needed a way back in. The only way was getting the government to let them back in.”

The government, which believes that untapped resources are mined when foreign ships are allowed to fish in the EEZ, came up with the Deep Sea Fishing Policy in 1991 to attract entrepreneurs into the fishing industry. It allowed Indian companies to undertake joint ventures with foreign firms, and get better equipped foreign fishing vessels under lease to fish.

Fishermen reacted with hostility, maintaining that the scheme allowed foreign vessels to take catches away from them. Under pressure from them, the government set up a panel called the Murari Committee to look into the matter, headed by former industry secretary P. Murari.

In February 1996, the committee submitted 21 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Cabinet committee on economic affairs. The first two proposed cancelling permits issued to foreign vessels, and not renewing or extending current permits or issuing new ones.

The government, however, brought back the concept in a new form — the LoP scheme. “But no foreign vessel is permitted to fish in the EEZ waters of India,” stresses Tarun Shridhar, joint secretary (fisheries), department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries, ministry of agriculture. “The issuance of licences to foreign vessels stopped after the government started implementing the LoP policy.”

Y.G.K. Murthy, president of the Association of Indian Fisheries Industry, believes this is “simply calling your right hand the left hand”. He says: “There’s no difference between the old charter policy and the LoP. Chartered vessels were foreign vessels allowed to fish in Indian waters. LoP vessels are simply foreign vessels made Indian and allowed to fish in Indian waters.”

Although the guidelines to allow foreign vessels to obtain an LoP are numerous, some foreign vessels seem to have figured ways to get around them to get a licence.

Take vessel registration. According to Indian maritime law, any vessel that wants to ply its trade within Indian waters must register itself with the Indian government solely. “LoP is always issued to an Indian citizen and the vessel is registered in India,” Shridhar says. “It is compulsory for the owner to show us the de-registered certificate issued by the country he bought the vessel from to get registered here.” But both Greenpeace and Murthy say that many LoP vessels still retain their old registrations.

Research by Greenpeace also looks into IUU fishing and flag hopping in southeast Asian regions, and explains how things work.

To begin with, the original company obtains an interim registration certificate with a country like Sierra Leone or Tuvalu. This new registration is then surrendered to the Indian Mercantile Marine Department in order to obtain clearance to fish under the LoP scheme. This allows the ship to retain its original country’s registration, while obscuring the fact that it has done so, says Greenpeace.

Shridhar, however, insists that the government thoroughly checks a ship’s history before issuing a license. “We see to it that the vessel owners adhere to the rules. We have a zero tolerance policy towards offenders.”

Another problem is there is no system to verify the catches being made by LoP vessels. Since a ship is allowed to transfer its goods to another vessel mid-sea without having to touch a port, some LoP vessels move their catch to more lucrative foreign markets instead of bringing them back to India, as the LoP guidelines ask for.

The judiciary has also stepped in. Murthy has filed a writ petition with the Hyderabad High Court against the LoP scheme and vessels. Till the judiciary reaches a conclusion, the imbroglio will continue. And till then, the sea will rumble.