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Perceived conflicts and real solutions

Marine Protected Areas such as Gahirmatha in Orissa are vital for the preservation of marine biodiversity and the maintenance of healthy ecosystems to help combat climate change. But regulation and enforcement will not work if they exclude fishermen, the most important player in our marine conservation efforts, writes Sanjiv Gopal

The turtle conservation vs fisher livelihoods conflict has been a long-standing issue in Orissa that escalates with the annual arrival of the turtles between November and May. On the one hand, the ongoing and large-scale mortalities of Olive Ridley turtles point to poor implementation of conservation and management strategies and laws. And on the other, fishermen still argue against the regulations, and traditional fishermen in particular face severe economic hardships. Making things worse is the fact that any approach to resolving this perceived conflict has largely been uni-dimensional, restricted to either turtle conservation or to the issue of livelihoods from the fishermen’s perspective alone. No serious thought has been given to the larger ecosystem on which both turtles and fishermen depend.

As the debate rages on, another serious problem has begun to emerge -- the deterioration of Orissa’s coastal and marine environment, illustrated by the plateauing and possible decline of marine fisheries. Today, it’s hardly breaking news that some commercially valuable stocks are in dire straits. Studies across Orissa show that fish catches have declined over the last decade in terms of quantity, quality and variety (1). This is further validated through anecdotal evidence across coastal marine fishing communities. In some regions, especially the south, communities estimate the decline to be as great as 90% compared to previous decades (2). Fish varieties that once supported the livelihoods of fishermen have been nearly wiped out and species that were once considered trash, like jellyfish, are now being targeted as the fishing industry works its way down the food chain.

It’s not that the fishermen want to decimate fish stocks. In today’s scenario, those who land the most fish reap the greatest benefits; those who take a more sustainable approach watch the fish they leave behind being caught by someone else. By putting various subsidies and incentives in place the state government has allowed in too many fishing vessels, resulting in too many boats chasing too few fish and leaving many fishermen barely able to make ends meet. Throughout, the emphasis has been on short-term benefits.  

The number of mechanised boats has risen by 250% in 25 years, from 692 in 1981 to 1,796 in 2004-05, substantially reducing the area per fisherman. Quite clearly, there is now a problem of ‘overcapacity’ in Orissa’s fishing fleet. The sheer number of fishing vessels, especially in the mechanised sector, and the advent of mechanisation and trawling has enabled vessels to run longer distances and to pinpoint areas that are frequented by the most fish. Wherever the fish go, they can and will be found. 

Ironically, there are laws in place to regulate fisheries. The existing legislation has attempted to balance the issues of conservation and livelihoods. The most important of these is the Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (OMFRA), introduced in 1982, that reserves near-shore waters up to 5 km from the shoreline exclusively for traditional fisherfolk, with a ban on trawling. This Act was introduced primarily as a fisheries management measure, also to protect livelihoods in the traditional fishing sector. The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court of India passed several orders in April 2004, including a distributed access system for different fishing vessels and sectors in the Devi and Rushikulya regions. Importantly, the seasonal restrictions on fishing in the Devi and Rushikulya areas (between the months of November and May) did not prohibit small-scale, non-motorised traditional fishermen; in fact it benefited this poorest section of the fishing community. Besides these, the turtles enjoy protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WPA) 1972, which places them under Schedule I, on a par with the tiger even if merely on paper. Similarly, the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary (GMS) was declared under the WPA, in 1997, as a move to help conserve the turtles.

In spite of, and sometimes because of these regulations the problems persist. An average of 10,000 turtles die every year, and the economic hardship of the fishermen continues, especially those in the traditional sector.

So, what stands in the way of action to protect the turtles and manage Orissa’s marine resources better; to safeguard it for future fishing communities?

Fishermen still fight regulations, which they view as obstacles that limit their income rather than measures needed to preserve their means of livelihood. As with the rest of India, lack of coordination between the forest and fisheries departments in Orissa is a major hurdle. In the game of one-upmanship it’s ultimately the seas, the turtles and the fishermen who end up suffering.

The fisheries managers, in this case Orissa’s Directorate of Fisheries, are tasked not only with the health of fish stocks and the allied preservation of valuable habitats, but with evaluating the economic impact of implementing conservation measures. Simply put, the focus of the fisheries and fisheries export departments remains biased in favour of increasing short-term yields rather than sustaining them over the years. This bodes ill for fisheries management and species conservation.

On the legislative side, Orissa’s politicians appear to lack the political will to dismantle this culture of conflict. It reflects the low priority many legislators give to coastal and marine spaces, both from a fisheries and an ecological perspective. Marine fish consumption in the state is a little less than 50% of the total catch. Marine fish consumption rose 285% in a span of 10 years, from 1986 to 1997 (3). This is vindicated by the growth in per capita consumption of marine fish, from around 2.85 kg in 1986 to around 8.60 until 1999 (4).

That the people of Orissa like their fish is well known; but we are not too interested in where the fish comes from, or how many are left. 

The promotion and declaration of the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary as a “turtle haven”, and not as a tool to conserve marine habitats, to allow fish to spawn, feed and thrive undisturbed, with the resultant benefit to fishing, has intensified the conflict. Fishermen complain, and rightly so, that they have been ignored and kept out of any consultations on the scale, design and size of the sanctuary. They question the current size of the sanctuary -- over 1,400 sq km (20 km into the sea and over 65 km northeast to southwest). Those in favour of marine reserves/Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in general, or the GMS in particular, are often labelled ‘extremists’ involved in a conspiracy to destroy livelihoods, even though the concept of a marine reserve or ‘no-take areas’, in principle, is not new. For centuries, communities have closed certain areas to protect their resources. 

‘Natural’ sanctuaries are disappearing at an exponential rate, so drastic times call for drastic measures. Marine reserves are part of the solution -- designating a system of closed areas of critical importance helps restore exploited ecosystems and habitats and all that they harbour. Of course, given the history of conflict surrounding MPAs it is vital that coastal and fisher communities are involved in the process at every stage.

However all this pales in comparison with the problem of large-scale and thoughtless development along Orissa’s coast. Currently, over 12 ports are being developed/proposed along the 480 km coastline, which translates to a port every 35 km! Of these, nine are in close proximity to important turtle breeding and nesting sites in Gahirmatha, Devi and Rushikulya, and other ecologically sensitive areas. This could have a disastrous impact on the coastal and marine environment, and allied fisher livelihoods. In the absence of any assessment of the cumulative carrying capacity of the coastal environment for large-scale development (including ports), the ongoing proliferation of ports is a matter of serious concern.

Exacerbating things further is the threat posed by climate change. Orissa is fast emerging as one of India’s climate change frontiers. Drought, floods, rising temperatures, accelerated coastal erosion: Orissa has borne witness to all of these and more. Climate change could result in significant economic losses. Similarly, in the absence of effective management and conservation regimes in coastal and marine environments, sea level rises could inundate over 170,000 hectares of coastal areas -- predominantly prime agricultural land -- while displacing close to 1 million people.

Against the realities of climate change, MPAs, as part of a larger effective programme to conserve and manage coastal and marine environments, are being recognised as a powerful way to achieve both conservation and fisheries management objectives. They are vital for the preservation of marine biodiversity and the maintenance of healthy ecosystems to help combat climate change. Without intervention, the status quo could cause the eventual depletion of even the most resilient species, with Orissa’s famous turtles possibly also becoming a casualty.

But the regulation and management of fisheries has to be properly implemented. This would require ensuring that the necessary resources (financial and infrastructural) are consistently made available. Effective implementation would, by default, also benefit conservation significantly. The issue of ‘overcapacity’ needs to be addressed on two fronts. Licensing mechanisms must be made more stringent to ensure that there is a cap on expansion of the existing fleet. Simultaneously, sensitivity must be shown regarding people’s livelihood needs, by responding and acting on the longstanding demand of fisher communities for evolving additional and alternative income-generation programmes, in partnership with traditional fisher communities and the mechanised fisheries sector.

Fisher communities need to be empowered to co-manage marine resources. The current approach of regulation and enforcement must be strengthened by becoming more consultative and by going the extra mile to bring fishermen to the table. By excluding fishermen from the equation so far, we’ve taken out the most important player in our marine conservation efforts.

Enforcement agencies also need to be given the space and flexibility to accommodate and incorporate science into fisheries and sea turtle management. For example, although years of research have indicated that turtles congregate in small and specific offshore areas, adequate protection has not been afforded to these offshore congregations. Likewise, any strategy dealing with the management of Orissa’s marine resources, including fisheries, must move towards an ‘ecosystem approach’ model of management which takes the entire ecosystem into consideration and the various species that inhabit it. It recognises complex interactions between species that make up the marine ecosystem.

These are critical times in the history of the state of Orissa. It remains to be seen whether the government chooses to go down the disastrous ‘industrialisation-at-all-costs’ path, or chooses the more holistic, people-centric, equitable and ecologically sustainable road that has the uplift of the poorest sections of the state as its main objective.

(Sanjiv Gopal is a freelance writer. He also works with Greenpeace in India)


1 Salagrama, 1999a
2 ‘Trends in Poverty and Livelihoods in coastal fishing communities of Orissa State, India’, FAO Fisheries Technical Paper
3 Directorate of Fisheries, Government of Orissa, 2002: 3 and 7
4 ‘Trends in Poverty and Livelihoods in coastal fishing communities of Orissa State, India’, FAO Fisheries Technical Paper

Infochange News & Features, April 2010