Wildlife Week 2019: Indian fisherfolk transitioning away from tradition is affecting fisheries nationwide

Commercial, industrialized fishing operations seek out migrant labour to fill their large manpower needs.


India’s vast coastline — more than 8,000 kilometres long — is a rich fishing ground. It supports a thriving marine fisheries industry, which contributes to the country’s food security while supporting about four million fisherfolk and their families.

The face of India’s marine fishing, however, has been changing over the past few decades. Once dominated by small-scale and artisanal fisherfolk who fished mostly for subsistence, marine fishing has now become commercial and industrialized with bigger vessels such as trawlers and purse seines catching larger volumes of fish at one go. Often, this transition from traditional to commercial fishing has led to the disgruntlement of the local fishing communities.

Wildlife Week 2019: Indian fisherfolk transitioning away from tradition is affecting fisheries nationwide

Migrant fishermen often work in poor conditions aboard fishing vessels. image credit: Juda M

In some parts of the world, commercial large-scale fisheries use migrant labour from different parts of the same, or a different, country. These migrant workers — sometimes trafficked and enslaved — make for cheap labour and have been known to live in deplorable conditions aboard the fishing vessels. 

The Thai fishing industry, for example, is replete with stories of horrifying practices. Media reports have shed light on how labour used aboard Thai fishing vessels frequently hail from other countries like Cambodia, lured across borders by traffickers. These migrant workers often have little prior experience fishing, are physically abused by the fleet owners, and spend days or months in appalling conditions.

In India, too, the rapidly expanding industrialized fishing operations along the Indian coast seem to be seeking out migrant labour to fulfil their large manpower needs. The conditions aboard these fishing vessels are similar to the conditions on the Thai fishing vessels that use sea slaves, said Divya Karnad, a graduate student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, USA, who is also affiliated with the Foundation for Ecological Research Advocacy and Learning (FERAL), Pondicherry, India.

According to Karnad, the migrant labourers frequently work long hours without formal contracts, live in severely unhygienic conditions, suffer from frequent wounds and infections, and receive little or no medical care, personal space, safety equipment or community support. However, Karnad said she hasn’t heard any reports of the men being physically abused or enslaved, so the situation seems much better than that of Southeast Asia.

Also read: Marine ecologist Divya Karnad, 2019 Future of Nature awardee, on working towards sustainable fishing 

Also read: Ashoka University professor bags prestigious 50,000 Euro Nature Conservation Award

Mongabay spoke with Karnad about the little-known bonded migrant workers of the Indian fisheries industry.

What is the focus of your research and where do you work?

Divya Karnad (DK): I’ve been working on fisheries management, primarily in southern Maharashtra on the west coast of India, in the Konkan region. I study the differences between the ways the government fisheries department manages the region’s fisheries, as compared to how the fisheries are managed by the fishing communities themselves.

A huge catch of Sardines being loaded into weighing baskets. Photo by Rudolph.A.furtado

A huge catch of Sardines being loaded into weighing baskets. Photo by Rudolph.A.furtado

When did you first find out about bonded migrant labourers in India’s fishing industry?

DK: Actually, I had heard about this before starting my PhD research in 2013, but I really got into the topic during my PhD research. When I started conducting my fieldwork I found out that for certain types of fishing, local labour was not being used. Instead, they were using labor from outside. This was often because the local fishermen did not want to participate in that particular type of fishing — they did not want to use a particular type of fishing gear or they had some issues with the way that the income structure was set up.

What kind of fishing were the local fishermen not willing to participate in?

DK: In that region, it is primarily mechanized fishing vessels such as purse-seine vessels. This technology is used quite commonly — and controversially — on the east coast, but it is relatively new to this part of Maharashtra where I work.

Each purse seine vessel takes about 20-30 people each. These mechanized vessels use fish-finders (devices that use reflected pulses of sound energy to locate schools of fish), GPS and other digital technology to find where the school of fish is, or they just wait for reports from small-scale fishermen. For example, they might go to the fish market one day and see that somebody has made a big catch of sardines or something. Then they realize that sardines are schooling in a particular place, so they can go directly there to fish, instead of having to search.

Once they locate the school of fish, they put the purse seine net — which is essentially like a bag — around an entire school of fish, and close the top of the bag to catch them. Very often each catch is so huge that they can’t lift the entire catch into the boat. And that’s why they need so many people.

Purse seine operations often use multiple boats. The larger vessel is used to carry the catch, while the smaller vessel(s) are used to set the net. The large vessel will anchor one end of the net while the smaller vessel(s) will go around the school, dropping the net in the shape of a ring. Once the net is set, the bottom can be scooped upward to form a purse. If a large school of fish is caught, the catch needs to be hauled in a little at a time, since the entire net might be too heavy for the men on the vessels to haul in. Many vessels lack the type of hydraulic equipment necessary to haul very heavy nets.

Once this kind of fishing was adopted in Maharashtra, the locals opposed it. They say that with purse seines, you can get a huge catch at one go, and take away the entire school of fish without leaving much for others. So one person gets all the profit. They also give ecological reasons that because you’re taking out the entire school, you’re also taking the juveniles and so on, as a result of which, there won’t be enough fish next year.

Pole and line fishing, like being done the fisherman in the picture, is a selective and therefore more sustainable way to catch tuna as only fish of a certain size are caught, leaving juveniles to grow to spawning age and replenish the stock in the future.

Pole and line fishing, like being done the fisherman in the picture, is a selective and therefore more sustainable way to catch tuna as only fish of a certain size are caught, leaving juveniles to grow to spawning age and replenish the stock in the future. Image: NetDNA

Where does the outside labour come from?

DK: Based on what I saw and heard, the primary source of migrant labourers is the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In addition to that, I’ve heard that people also come from the interiors of Maharashtra, Bihar and some other states. But personally I haven’t met them, mainly because they spend most of the time aboard the vessel, and aren’t allowed to come out and interact with people.

Is the use of migrant labour in Indian fisheries all that unusual?

DK: The use of migrant labour for fishing is a relatively recent phenomenon (decades-old) because fishing used to be characterized by family ownership and labor, in much smaller vessels.

What are the working conditions aboard the fishing vessels like?

DK:  Now, according to local culture, only men are allowed aboard fishing vessels in the Konkan. So I have heard about the living conditions of the migrants second-hand, from my male colleagues.

The fishermen from Andhra Pradesh say that they are bonded for at least one fishing season. In Maharashtra, the fishing season starts mid-August and continues till May or June of the next year. During this time, migrant labourers are stuck on the vessel. They can get off the vessel once in a while (as far as I know), but they can’t go home during this period.

The conditions that the migrants report aboard fishing vessels in India are similar to the conditions in the Thai fishing vessels that use sea slaves. Long shifts that involve fishing, mending nets, repairing engines, drying fish are a feature of life on board these vessels. Constant wounds and infections are common. Overcoming them without medical treatment is taken as a sign of machismo. The migrant fishermen, whom I interviewed in their villages in Andhra Pradesh, say that they cannot even bathe while they’re on the fishing vessel. They often stay on board for 20 days or so at a stretch, and may get off for a few hours after that. But they can’t stay onshore because the locals oppose their staying in the village.

My male colleagues, who have been on fishing vessels, also report very poor hygiene standards on board the fishing vessels. The vessels are not equipped with living quarters. The crew have to take turns sheltering in the small onboard cabin that houses the steering, or in the space below deck, which they sometimes share with the fish. Only sea water is available for bathing and laundry, and due to the constant chafing that accompanies using salt water-soaked clothes, such luxuries are usually foregone on fishing trips.

The migrant folks also say that they have to live on whatever food they pack or provisions they buy on the first day of fishing. Basic supplies (rice, dal and other non-perishables) are purchased by the owner, everything else comes out of the migrants’ pockets. However, these food staples are usually supplemented by a portion of the low-value fish catch.

Fishermen in Maharastra. image credit: Vivek Joshi, Wikimedia Commons

Fishermen in Maharastra. image credit: Vivek Joshi, Wikimedia Commons

How safe are these vessels?

DK: Fishing on most vessels in India is extremely dangerous because most vessels are poorly equipped with safety features. That there aren’t more accidents at sea is a credit to the skill of the fishermen. Often they have to cook on open fires on the deck or in the hold, communication is limited to the two-way radio range unless they are close to land, in which case they may be covered by the mobile phone network. There are very few state emergency response teams, compared to the number of fishing vessels out every day, so fishermen have to depend on each other for rescue. Being a migrant under such circumstances is a disadvantage because there is no community that will keep tabs on your whereabouts.

Similarly, when crews of such migrants are caught by authorities for violating fishing rules (which vary by state) or crossing international boundaries (of which they may have no specific knowledge) they often have no recourse.

No one reported being physically abused, and the situation seems much better than that of Southeast Asia. But these men work without formal contracts, and there is no accountability on the part of the boat owners or the agents, who bring the migrants, to treat them well and keep them safe.

How far into the sea do the vessels usually go?

DK: Legally, purse seine vessels are supposed to go beyond territorial waters, which is 12 nautical miles. But to go there and start searching would take a lot of fuel and would be completely economically unviable for them. Because of that they’ve modified the vessels and made them smaller, which they call mini-purses. These mini-purses are not regulated by any law because the law only pertains to the purse seines. They use these mini-purses within territorial waters, quite close to the shore in fact. If you stand close to the water’s edge, you can actually see them.

How much do the migrant workers earn?

DK: The fisherfolk in Andhra Pradesh told me that the reason they choose to work in fisheries of the west coast of India is that the payment structure is more like a salary. When they agree to go, they get a down payment of 10,000-15,000 Indian rupees ($150-$225). Once they go, they have to be on the vessel for the entire fishing season, and that’s how they get bonded. Then every month they get a standard salary, whatever it is that they have negotiated for, which again depends on their role on the fishing vessel. Whereas if they were fishing in Andhra Pradesh itself, they would only get a percentage of profit, which is very variable, and they didn’t want this variability.

But while migrants report being paid an advance upfront, the implication is that their subsequent wages are low. These low wages, however, are mostly saved and sent home, because the fishermen usually have nowhere to spend the money.

To the fishermen’s wives, this is an improvement over the amount of money that would reach the fisherman’s family if he worked near home. Some of the workers’ wives I talked to said that when the men fished locally, they would simply drink away the money that they earned. In fact, at the entrance of the Vishakhapatnam port, there is a wine shop. So as soon as they get their pay, they can go directly to the wine shop. The women said that “at least as a migrant worker we know that we will get a steady income, and we get the big lump sum amount right at the beginning which is very useful.” So for the women, this arrangement is economically more stable.

Vendor at Margao Fish Market. image credit: Aaron C, Wikimedia Commons

Vendor at Margao Fish Market. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Are there children among these migrant labourers?

DK: The migrants are usually men. They generally do not take responsibility for travelling with young children, so only older, male youth, who may be useful for fishing will be included in their group. But I’ve heard about children working in vessels in some places, although I’ve not seen it myself. People I met said that they went to these vessels at the age of 16 or 17. So technically they are children, but in the fishing communities, they are probably not really considered children.

How did you trace the families of these bonded migrant workers?

DK: In this particular part of Maharashtra, the locals said that while they own the purse seines, they don’t know much about it themselves. So they import the knowledge and technology of purse seines along with these migrant labourers. The workers from Andhra Pradesh would be onshore for a while because they make these purse seine nets, and help repair them and so on before they can go fishing. I met some of those people when they were on shore, and I asked them where they were from. They broadly told me that they lived somewhere in Srikakulam district, near Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. So I went to those areas and asked around.

What did you discover?

DK: If you compare the houses of fishing villages in Maharashtra versus Andhra Pradesh, people in Maharashtra’s fishing communities seem to be much better off. They generally have bigger houses, more pakka houses [solid, permanent houses built of wood, bricks, cement or other materials].

The fishing communities I spoke to in Andhra Pradesh also told me that in Srikakulam and north of Vishakhapatnam mechanization came to the villages very recently, and that catches in Andhra Pradesh has been declining at a very rapid rate, which is why they prefer to migrate to the west coast, where the fisheries appear to be doing better. This is what they told me, but I don’t know how true it is.

How difficult was it to investigate this issue generally, and particularly as a woman?

DK: The main issue was that I couldn’t talk to the people on board fishing vessels. That is a big barrier. Going to the villages was easier because the fishing communities are quite approachable. It was also interesting to talk to the wives of the migrants and hear about their perspective.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

DK: Very often these migrant labourers come to do jobs that the locals don’t want to do. The other place that they go very often to is Orissa and Kolkata. When they go there, they report being asked to fish very close to the border. Often, when fishing boats are caught at the borders, these migrant workers are the people that get caught because they don’t really know where the border is. In that way too, they are exploited.

This story has been republished with edits to style from Mongabay-India.