India’s critical role in combating the global poaching crisis
India is calling for a 25-year transition period to curb the global overfishing problem, an agreement being negotiated ahead of next month’s World Trade Organization meetings in Abu Dhabi. But a transition period is not necessary. In addition to the environmental benefits of more sustainable fishing practices, this is an opportunity for India to advocate for fishermen and citizens across developing coastal nations. The sooner it is put into practice, the better. Here are three reasons why.
First, the effort required to catch fish in and around the Indian Ocean has been declining for many years, indicating severe pressure. “Per capita fish catch has declined from 3.0 metric tons in 1980 to 2.3 metric tons in 2019,” said Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan and M. Krishnan, an Indian economist and fisheries expert. If overfishing continues at current levels, India’s fishing stocks will continue to deteriorate with devastating environmental and economic impacts on coastal communities.
The WTO agreement aims to reduce subsidized illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which is particularly harmful. Time is crucial because recovery after poaching is often impossible. Few today remember the stunning collapse of North America’s pollock fishery in the Aleutian Basin of the central Bering Sea. If it still existed, it would be one of the largest fisheries in the world.
Large foreign subsidized fishing vessels are dredging the bottom of the Indian Ocean regions. The WTO agreement could be a useful tool to stop this. For example, in January 2021, two Indian fishing associations alerted officials to the presence of 10 Chinese fishing vessels in the Arabian Sea. It takes just one of these vessels to transport more than 500 metric tons of fish — hundreds of times more than the catch of an artisanal Indian fisherman, according to Bradley Soule, a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard and Interpol.
Second, while some countries engage in massive annual fisheries subsidies to stimulate the unrestricted fishing targeted by the WTO agreement, India is not one of them. India provides only about $300 million annually in subsidies to small-scale Indian fisheries, an amount that pales in comparison to the huge annual fisheries subsidies of $7.3 billion provided by China, $3.8 billion provided by the European Union, and $3.4 billion provided by United State. Nothing in the WTO Agreement would prevent India or any other country (whether developing or otherwise) from continuing to subsidize its fishermen as long as such subsidies do not lead to IUU fishing.
Third, India wants to be seen as a global leader of developing countries. Many coastal countries are developing countries with communities that depend on fishing for their livelihoods. An estimated 600 million people depend for their livelihoods, at least partially, on fisheries and aquaculture. Indian leadership halting the damage caused by subsidy-based industrial fishing would be a notable demonstration of good stewardship. For example, coastal communities in South America also fall victim to large foreign-subsidized vessels that overfish in their waters.
Among the fishermen in India are highly skilled individuals who have an impressive knowledge of the sea. But there are reports that these skilled artisanal fishermen have been turned into unskilled labor on foreign fishing vessels. The longer overfishing continues, the more devastating the consequences will be for local fishermen and their communities.
To the extent that Indian subsidies go towards IUU fishing activities, the Modi government can redirect them in other ways to the benefit of coastal communities and in the long term. For example, about a third of India’s fisheries subsidies go to fuel. The number of multi-day fishing vessels, many of which receive fuel subsidies, exceeds the optimal fleet size by about 60 percent. Redirecting funds toward safety and navigation equipment, insurance premiums, and funding R&D in fisheries management would benefit coastal communities in the near term while helping them build sustainable fisheries management and practices.
Rapid adoption of a WTO agreement to reduce harmful fishing subsidies is critical for India to reverse the alarming decline in its fish stocks and protect India’s vulnerable fishing communities. It also serves as a unique window for India to assert its role as a leader of the Global South on emerging environmental issues.
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(tags for translation)India