Last month, the Indian government created its first ministry for fisheries. Although it clubs fishing together rather oddly with animal husbandry and dairy, the move fulfills a long-standing demand of the country’s fishing community and becomes the latest, and potentially the most important, of India’s slowly growing efforts to better regulate and manage its fisheries. Fishing has transformed over the decades from a small-scale artisanal practice into an increasingly industrialized sector. The widespread adoption of mechanized boats helped hike India’s fish catch from an estimated 0.53 million metric tons in 1950 to 3.83 million metric tons in 2017.Until recently, this growth was largely unregulated, leading to over-capacity of fishing boats, inter-state conflict, and overfishing of some species.
(…) The Indian oil sardine (Sardinella longiceps) is a staple food in this state and a mainstay of its fishing industry. Catch of this small fish boomed through the 2000s, driven by intensified fishing. The fish had also expanded its range northward due to warming waters, giving other states a bigger catch than before. But after a record-high catch of 390,000 metric tons in 2012, sardine landings in Kerala plunged to 45,000 tons in 2016. Scientists commissioned to study the problem found that the crash was caused mainly by environmental factors, including an El Niño one year, but also by overfishing. Fishers constantly exceeded the maximum sustainable yield of the fishery between 2010 and 2013, the scientists found, and were catching an increasing number of juvenile fish. The crisis prompted the Kerala government to implement a range of measures, beginning with a ban on fishing juvenile sardines in 2015. The sardine catch started rebounding in 2017, which many observers attributed to these measures. The state also speeded up a slew of other long-pending recommendations, Mohamed said. In 2017, new laws set up a system of village and district councils of fishermen, scientists and officials to manage local-level fisheries. The state also amended the laws to get control over net manufacturers at the factory level, and expanded restrictions on catching juveniles to cover 58 species of fish, up from 14 species. The sardine crash prompted changes beyond fishing regulations in Kerala. It had led to a bust in the Indian fishmeal industry in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; sardines are used in high-quality fishmeal supplied to the aquaculture industry. Demand from expanding fishmeal plants helped drive overfishing of sardines. After the crash, larger fishmeal companies formed an association and committed to following minimum legal size standards in procuring fish. This sudden sense of responsibility didn’t just arise from the emergency, however. Indian seafood exporters have to increasingly fulfill responsible-sourcing requirements in many international markets. One-third of the U.S.’s farmed shrimp comes from India, for instance. “With traceability standards coming in, we have to ensure sustainable practices,” Showkat Showry, head of the Indian Fishmeal and Fish Oil Exporters Association, told Mongabay.