In pursuit of a $500 million harvest, India is gearing up for a deep dive

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Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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Every year, an estimated Rs3,000 crore ($500 million) worth of tuna and other deep sea fish swim out of Indian waters and into the nets of fishermen in Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.

India doesn’t like this, but can do little, because fish are unmindful of the wishes of nations—and the country just doesn’t have enough deep sea fishing vessels to harvest the lucrative catch.

Now, India’s agriculture ministry (that controls the fisheries department) is working to urgently expand the country’s deep sea fishing fleet and relax regulations governing these vessels.

An expert committee appointed to review deep sea fishing practices has suggested that India needs to quickly add 240 tuna long-liners, 15 purse seiners and 15 squid jiggers (different types of fishing vessels) to its current deep sea fleet of 908 ships.

A shortage of these vessels has meant Indian fishermen have rarely been able to work in waters beyond 500 meters, which is rich in tuna and squids that command a high price in the international market, a report (pdf) submitted by the committee said.

As a result, most of the migratory tuna is currently harvested by vessels from Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, essentially resulting in a revenue loss to India. Tuna is among the most valuable fish in the world today.

“Based on the available resource potential and the price that tuna fisheries commands, it is estimated that the tuna and tuna-like resources in the Indian EEZ (exclusive economic zone) are valued at approximately Rs3,000 crore, or $500 million,” the report said.

India’s deep sea fishing policy was introduced two decades ago in 1991 but it has never been able to utilize the deep sea waters to its benefit.

“Poor entrepreneurship in deep sea fishing, lack of endurance, use of old and outdated technologies, absence of R&D (research and development) inputs in modernization of the fishing fleet are some of the hurdles yet to be crossed by the marine fisheries sector to make India a true deep sea fishing nation,” the report said.

And although the number of deep sea fishing vessels have increased significantly—from 180 in 1991 to 908 today—lack of skilled manpower means India is having to rely on foreign vessels and crews.

“As India is presently lacking in adequate expertise or resources to exploit water beyond 500 meters, hence technology transfer through acquisition of foreign fishing vessels and, or, joint ventures/leasing, etc. may be considered for this area till the domestic capacity is fully developed,” the report added.

Moreover, operations of deep sea fishing vessels are governed by multiple ministries such as ministry of commerce, ministry of shipping and ministry of agriculture, making it difficult for companies running such vessels to get the required clearances.

Even though India is the second-largest fish producing country in the world after China, it accounts for just a tenth of China’s total catch. Part of this is because Indian fisherman have concentrated on near-shore waters, which have now, in some cases, been over-exploited.

It’s time for India’s fishing industry to move into deeper waters.