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Anchored boats: India’s lockdown and the small-scale fisheries 

by Paula Struk Jaia and Vanessa Eyng

Small-scale fishers are especially jeopardized in the context of the current global crisis, particularly in developing countries such as India, where small-scale fishing is crucial for the national economy and local livelihoods.


Landing place, India ©TBTI

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread globally, many countries are imposing lockdown measures. Such measures have had significant impacts on food security and job availability, exacerbating social inequalities. Small-scale fishers are especially jeopardized in the context of the current global crisis, particularly in developing countries such as India, where small-scale fishing is crucial for the national economy and local livelihoods. So, how has the unprecedented pandemic affected small-scale fisheries across India? And in which ways have small-scale fishers coped with this change and tried to overcome the current challenges?


Fisheries in India are important for food and nutritional security. Even though the industry contributes to only about 1.03% of India’s gross domestic product, more than nine million active fishers directly depend on fisheries for their livelihoods, of which 80% are small-scale. They supply a significant amount of fish and other seafood products to the coastal communities, and small-scale, inland and marine fisheries provide employment, income, food and nutritional security, particularly for the most vulnerable populations.


Since the lockdown was announced on March 24th, the Indian fishing industry has been negatively affected, with impacts on individuals’ well-being and food security. Even before the COVID-19-induced lockdown, many fishers have been struggling. They face a number of cyclones each year, including the most recent and very severe Cyclone Amphan, which either affect the number of fishing days or halt their fishing activities altogether. The lockdown imposed by the Indian government also means a restriction on fish harvesting, causing unemployment for those working directly as fishers and related sectors, as well as a disruption in the distribution of food for human consumption.


Since mid-April, India’s government has allowed the fishing sector to operate during the current pandemic. Nonetheless, the industry has had to follow strict measures such as physical distancing and specific hygiene practices. As mentioned in Hakai Magazine, “a large part of the sector [was] unable to function, reeling under the shock of losses in money and staff. A recent report published by India’s Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in Kerala estimates that the marine fisheries sector has incurred a monthly loss of 896 million US dollars”.


Even small-scale fishers who have been able to return to their activities are still facing some constraints. The lack of transportation has reduced the fishers’ ability to sell their catches in urban markets. Also, consumers have growing concerns about the spread of the virus, which in turn contributes to a decrease in the number of customers in the markets.


The Indian fishery economy depends largely on cash in trades, in which money is lent to fishers on a daily basis by traders or moneylenders. Many fishers, especially small-scale, lack the required documentation to apply for governmental support or to obtain official loans. Another challenge is that customers are now trying to bargain for lower prices. Because of this, fishers have experienced a drastic reduction in their income and are facing difficulty to sustain their families.


K. Bharathi, President of South India Fishermen Welfare Association, stated that fishers who return from fishing have been stuck with their catch due to restrictions imposed on the fish supply chain on land. He added, "They are allowing the movement of vegetables, milk and even fish feed in inland farms, but not fish”. International exports have also been severely affected, as some products, such as frozen shrimp, which contribute to 70% of India’s seafood export, have seen a decrease in demand from the United States and Europe due to their own lockdowns.


The effect on the fishing industry is expected to be long-term, exacerbated by the annual government order, which imposes a “uniform ban on fishing by all fishing vessels in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone.” This ban is to ensure safety at sea, as the waters along the coast of India tend to be tempestuous during the monsoons. On the East coast, the ban is in effect from April 15th until June 20th, and from June 1st to July 31ston the West coast. Siddharth Chakravarty, from The Research Collective, mentioned in a article that “Small-scale fisheries, both in the inland and marine sector, are finding it hard to continue fishing”. This situation is reflected by the loss of income and food insecurity. Needless to say, fishers in coastal communities across India are going through a difficult period.


John Kurien, analyzing the impacts of COVID-19, called attention to the potential that small-scale fisheries have in the post-lockdown scenario. “Taken together as an integrated package, a decentralised small-scale fishery will greatly enhance coastal incomes, create decent, safe and sustainable employment, and greatly increase the role of fish as nutritious food for local human consumption. These are vital ingredients for a post-lockdown fishery development strategy”, he wrote. 


On a whole, small-scale fishers in India are facing a range of issues, from harvesting to marketing, organization, and safety. Many of these have been on-going, but there are a few that are strongly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As evident from above, COVID-19 has brought to the surface a spectrum of distributive, economic, market, social, and well-being injustices to small-scale fisheries.


Written by Paula Struk Jaia and Vanessa Eyng

Paula Struk Jaia is a Memorial University international student who has been hired as part of the COVID-19 Job Initiative, a joint effort between OFI Module I, Too Big To Ignore, and the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program. Vanessa Eyng and Mirella Leis have supervised the group of students throughout the writing process.

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