Fisheries in India is a very important economic activity and a flourishing sector with varied resources and potentials. The vibrancy of the sector can be visualized by the 11–fold increase that India achieved in fish production in just six decades, i.e. from 0.75 million tonnes in 1950-51 to 9.6 million tonnes during 2012–13. This resulted in an unparalleled average annual growth rate of over 4.5 percent over the years which has placed the country at the forefront of global fish production, only after China.

The share of inland fisheries and aquaculture has gone up from 46 percent in the 1980s to over 85 percent in recent years in total fish production. Freshwater aquaculture showed an overwhelming ten-fold growth from 0.37 million tonnes in 1980 to 4.03 million tonnes in 2010. It covers nearly 95% of the total aquaculture production in the country.

The national mean production levels from still-water ponds has gone up from about 600 kg/hectare/year in 1974 to over 2 900 kg/hectare/annum at present and several farmers are even demonstrating higher production levels of 8–12 tonnes/hectare/year (Handbook of Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2013, ICAR publication, India). The developmental support provided by the Indian Government through a network of Fish Farmers’ Development Agencies and Brackishwater Fish Farmers’ Development Agencies and the research and development programmes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have been the principal vehicles for this revolutionary development. In addition, additional support was also provided by various state governments, host of organizations and agencies like the Marine Products Export Development Authority, financial institutions, etc.

Marine Fish Landings in India Report 2019, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute-ICAR

Potential of the industry

Being the biggest peninsula in the world, with its vast coastline of 7,517 km and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) of 200 nautical miles, network of lakes, rivers and numerous other inland water bodies, it can easily surpass any other nation in fish production.

Over the years, exports of Indian seafood have been on the increase with many Indian brands in the preferred list of Europe, America and other highly developed nations.

The poverty-stricken and protein-deficient population in the country can find an income source and maintain a healthy life as well from fish farming. India’s marine food exports rose from USD 1.64 billion in 2009/10 to USD 4.95 billion in 2013/14. Most of this growth stemmed from aquaculture – an industry set to advance.

Increasing domestic and foreign demand is fuelling the expansion of India’s aquaculture industry. Stronger commercial orientation is also driving change.


Most freshwater fish are transported to markets in fresh or iced condition. In India, its usually the fish traders who pick up fish at harvest and trade it off for a higher price to different markets. Fish is not generally available throughout the day in markets, its sold either in the mornings or evenings for a limited period, and this limits the reach of fish to customers.

Some of the challenges facing to reach out to the market are:

  • The low farm-gate prices for low-value species does not support their economic performance.
  • The inferior quality of fish produced in inadequately managed production systems affects customers’ acceptance and preferences.
  • The lack of adequate cold chain and distribution systems for fish as a perishable product affects availability and marketing.

Challenges to develop the fishing industry

  • The country’s sector is based and operates on a few fish species – carps, pacu, and pangasius – and increasing this base will increase fish production.
  • Overproduction based on fewer species leads to an oversupply of particular varieties of fish and this eventually leads to price drops and variability.
  • Lack of other potential aquafeed-consuming species or high-value fish in India and should be a consideration for new introductions.
  • Species diversification will help stabilize prices and increase demand for formulated aquafeeds.
  • Freshwater fish farming is still based on traditional methods – large ponds, no water exchange, no draining, and no bottom sediment removal – that often lead to conditions that promote disease.
  • The availability of water and unpredictable monsoons have a direct bearing on the country’s aquaculture production.
  • The rise of “juvenile catch” is not only resulting in fish extinction but also restraining fish farmers from a better profit.
  • “Significant quantities of ‘food’ rather than ‘trash’ fish are being diverted to the fish meal plants.

The mechanized sector contributed 2.98 million tonnes (83%) towards the total landings in 2019 which is 0.13 million tonnes more than that in 2018. The contribution by motorized and nonmotorized sectors are 0.56 million tonnes (16%) and 0.03 million tonnes (1%) respectively. The above figure also shows the dominance of the corporates industry in fishing cultivation with a mere composition of the small fish cultivators in the catch. It is important to note that out of the nine million active fishers directly dependent on fisheries for livelihood, 80% are small scale fishers.

Ineffective laws and policies in place

Each state in India has got specific laws to protect marine ecology but none of them has actually been implemented and the laws just remain on paper. There has been no comprehensive monitoring of the sustainable practices of fishing in the country. For instance, as per the government rule in Karnataka, in bottom trawling nets with mesh size more than 35 millimeters should be used and in other methods of fishing nets with mesh size, more than 20 mm should be used.

In February 2020, the government of India released a draft of the National Fisheries Policy. The draft policy aims to accelerate the development of the fisheries sector by focusing on increasing investments, infrastructure, and doubling of exports.

  • The policy emphasizes developing deep-sea fishing, mariculture, inland fisheries, and aquaculture.
  • It tries to encompass elements of the ‘Blue Growth Initiative’, the Agriculture Export Policy 2018, and the targets set under the Sustainable Development Goals. (SDGs)
  • The policy also looks at integrating the fisheries sector with other areas like agriculture, coastal development, and ecotourism.

Whereas the stakeholders like the researchers, members of fisher rights unions, and others have heavily criticised the draft policy to be a nail in the coffin of the distress of fish farmers. It would strip small scale fishers of their rights of access to commons, and also damage the environment in the long run. In fact, the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), a federation of trade unions of independent and small-scale fish workers stated that the policy is neither in favor of the fishing communities nor for protecting the oceans and the coast.

The draft policy doesn’t seem to be inclusive as it doesn’t emphasize the welfare of women and the underserved sections. It’s ironic that the government doesn’t even have comprehensive data on the women involved in the fishing sector.

The thrust has been given to culture fisheries and the policy aims at the rationalizing of schemes under Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, which is largely shrimp culture and mariculture.

Privatising the common resources: The policy aims to “enhance fishing” in the areas of inland fisheries, including high-altitude lakes in the north and north-eastern parts of India, and wetlands and reservoirs in protected areas. The state is going to take these areas under their jurisdiction and then it is going to lease them out to private entrepreneurs or beneficiaries, who are then going to enhance fish production.

According to the draft policy, the “aquaculture sector documented one of the highest growth rates in productions and providing livelihood and nutritional security in the country,” and “deserves greater attention in the form of incentives/concessions as in agriculture like income tax, power supply, loan facility, insurance covered, drought and flood relief and transportation, etc

But aquaculture is also known for causing an immense amount of pollution in the form of eutrophication of water bodies ultimately leading to habitat destruction and also destroying livelihoods.

Ecotourism a potential to work if done right: The draft proposes to “implement dedicated programmes for developing fisheries sector in islands. One of them is game fishing or recreational fishing which is increasingly being recognized as a sustainable means to connect with aquatic ecosystems and as alternative livelihood options for small-scale fishing communities. A good example in this context is of Andaman Islands, where the game fishing industry brings in a lot of foreign revenue, provides employment opportunities to local communities.

No focus on sustainability, rights or livelihoods: In the proposed policy, not much focus is on the rights and traditional knowledge of the fishworkers. The series of laws and policies directed at the development of fishing sector has merely resorted to gaining returns from marine exports. The core of the policy strategy has been simply translated into resource exploitation rather than management.

Mismatch, here and there: There is a National Marine Fisheries Policy 2017, which was notified by the central government in April 2017, a draft of the National Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy 2019 which was released in February 2019, and a draft of National Mariculture Policy 2019 which was also released in 2019. It is to be questioned that with the National Fisheries Policy 2020 draft, it is unclear what will become of the rest. It is to be clearly noted that the sectors need to have separate policies, as marine (fisheries) is not comparable to inland and capture and culture fisheries are completely different sectors.

To put in a nutshell, this policy seems to be social exclusive along with capital and ecological exclusive.

Vedprakash Singh

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