Honnavar Fishing Communities Fear Threat to Livelihood

Fishermen at Honnavar port. | Photo: Tanya Savkoor

Small-scale fishermen are worst affected by declining catch

Tanya Savkoor

Honnavar (Karnataka): As the sunset casts a rose-gold shine on the Sharavathi river, fish sellers at the market at the port get ready to pack up for the day. There is hustle-bustle all around, as two fisherwomen chat about their day in Konkani. “As the days go by, the catch has become lesser and lesser. How are we going to do business like this?” one of them is heard saying. These words aptly sum up the condition of fishing communities in Honnavar, Uttara Kannada.

The livelihoods of the fishing communities of Honnavar are threatened as a result of the declining catch and the negligence of the government. According to latest data by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, marine fish landing in Karnataka during 2020 saw a 25 per cent decline, as compared to last year. 

According to the CMFRI Annual Report, which is released in March every year, Karnataka contributed 3.75 lakh tonnes of marine fish landings in 2020, which is 13.74 per cent of the total fish landings in India. The decline in fish landings is a major concern to the fishing communities, who are one of the major contributors to Uttara Kannada’s economy. 

Honnavar fishing harbour. | Photo: Tanya Savkoor

Why is the fish catch steadily declining?

The Covid-19 pandemic, increase in diesel prices, and cyclonic weather (Tauktae hit the coast in May 2021) resulted in a sharp decline in the number of fishing days for over two years. However, the CMFRI data reveals that Karnataka has seen a 24 per cent decline in fish landings compared to the average landings of the last five years. 

According to marine resources economist and the former dean of College of Fisheries, Mangalore, Ramachandra Bhatta, there are several factors posing a threat to the fishing industry of Uttara Kannada. “Unethical fishing practises are the most prominent issue, which not only result in declining fish catch, but also directly impact small-scale fishermen in the district,” he said.

One of these unsustainable methods is light fishing, in which harsh LED lights are either suspended below water or held above the surface to attract a large number of fish during night time, and huge nets, called seines, are deployed to catch them.

Fisherman Gnanendra Mesta shows the LED lights and 20kv generator used for light fishing. | Photo: Tanya Savkoor

Another unethical method is bull or pair trawling, in which a large net is suspended between two mechanised boats and dragged underwater to catch everything under the surface. Both these methods result in overfishing, which is a major environmental threat, as even the juvenile and spawning fish are taken out. Meanwhile, small-scale fishermen who use traditional fishing methods are left with a meagre catch. 

Fresh catch on a purse seine boat at Honnavar. | Photo: Jagadeesh Tandel

Both, light fishing and bull trawling have been banned in Karnataka by the Centre in 2017 and 2016, respectively. However, they continue to be openly used. Ganapati Tandel, a purse seine fisherman, admits that the ban has not had much effect on their business. “There is a lot of corruption in the industry, because of which these bans don’t work. Businessmen who have invested in fishing vessels bribe State officials who come for checking, and get away with illicit activities,” he said. 

Ramachandra Bhatta said that guidelines on the size of the mesh of fishing nets are also not followed. Nets with a small mesh are used, which results in juvenile fish also being caught. “Enforcement of laws is the need of the hour. The government has to be more involved in the issues of the fishing industry,” he said.

Seine nets being prepared at Honnavar port. | Photo: Tanya Savkoor

Climate change is another major issue for the fishing industry. Microplastics and sewage dumped into the ocean are consumed by fish, which results in declining quality of the catch. Rising temperature of the surface of the sea level is resulting in a mismatch in the production of microalgae, which is the primary food for a majority of the fish. 

Bhatta also addressed shrinking space as one of the issues of the fishing industry. Non-fishing activities like trade ports, tourism (hotels and resorts), and factories/industries along the coast, are some of the reasons for the reduction of space on land for the fishing industry. 

Other issues 

Apart from the socio-economic losses due to the aforementioned reasons, fishing communities are also facing other issues.

The construction of a private port in Tonka, Honnavar taluk, has received a lot of flak from the fishing communities of the district. According to them, the port is being built on a site where the endangered Olive Ridley turtles lay eggs. However, the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), Chennai, told the Karnataka High Court that no nesting grounds were found during the survey.

Ongoing construction of the private port in Tonka. | Photo: Tanya Savkoor

A purse seine fisherman, Jagadeesh Tandel, said that the 45-hectare construction site is also making it difficult to manoeuvre large fishing vessels, “A lot of boats have capsized at that site. The boat owners have incurred huge losses,” he said. The case for this port is still pending in the High Court.