Declining Indian Fisheries: Perceptions of Fisher Folk from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu

Divya Karnad and Krithi K. Karanth | Oryx
Trawl fishing in Odisha often results in more turtles caught than fish.
Bivash Pandav

Most trawl fishermen admitted to not complying with laws preventing their fishing in the prohibited zone that is within 3 nautical miles from the coast.

Although over four million people worldwide are dependent on wild-caught fish as a source of protein, marine fish are not at the top of the conservation radar. Although fish are among the most important components of marine ecosystems after plankton, they are most seriously threatened by human activities in the sea. In recognition of this fact, fisheries across the world are being managed based on estimates of sustainable harvest rates for each population of fish. However this requires intensive data collection and analysis over long spatial and time scales — conditions that rarely exist.

Currently in India we lack reliable fish population data across the spatial and time scales necessary for good management. Fishermen are left to their own devices in terms of adapting to changes in fish harvests and managing the fishery. In order to understand how sustainable Indian fisheries are, our study, published in the journal Oryx, documented fishermen’s perceptions about the state of fish populations and other marine species that were caught in fishing nets in two Indian states. We also recorded how people fish and manage fisheries in the context of existing fishing laws, and explored their willingness to use sustainable techniques.

Study Area

This study was conducted among fishing communities in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, since these states together account for 20% of India’s marine fish production. The types of fishing conducted in these two states represent diversity in ecological and social conditions of fishing on the eastern and western coasts of India. Specifically, we selected the 271 km long coastline of Ramnathapuram district, which includes the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve in Tamil Nadu, and the 301 km long coastline of the Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, which includes the Malvan marine sanctuary in Maharashtra. The types of fishing conducted here include non-mechanized gill-netting for crabs, cast netting for sardines and other small fish near the shore, hook and line fishing for squids, mechanized gill netting for mackerels, sharks and most other species, trawling for shrimp and ribbon fish and shore seines for seer fish and other species.


A pilot study was conducted in Tamil Nadu in December 2010 to refine a questionnaire. Questions focused on examining whether fishermen felt there was a change in fish harvests over time, how they responded to these changes and whether they were currently using or willing to use sustainable fishing techniques. Following this, questionnaire surveys were conducted with 352 fishermen across 23 villages in Tamil Nadu and 39 villages in Maharashtra between January and March 2011. Data on the spatial distribution of fishing effort was collected using map-based interviews in a participatory geographical information system (GIS) approach.

Laws related to the fisheries in the study regions were collated to understand how legislation might affect fishing practices. Any economic schemes provided by the government to promote fishing were also examined. Some questions in the questionnaire related directly to examining whether fishermen were aware of fisheries laws and whether they had made use of government fisheries incentives.


  1. Eighty-five percent of all fishermen surveyed reported declines in fish catch, and 69% of all fishermen reported declines in other marine species that were incidentally caught.
  2. These declines were reported to have occurred about 20 years ago in Tamil Nadu and 12 years ago in Maharashtra.
  3. Most fishermen, including 30% of trawl net using fishermen in Maharashtra, blamed trawl nets for fish catch declines. The fishermen with the most experience fishing, as well as those who owned their own gill-netting boats or had used incentives provided by the government to buy trawl boats, tended to perceive declines.
  4. In response to these declines on the east coast 10% had started targeting new species and 25% had changed the fishing gear they used. Sixty-seven percent of fishermen in Maharashtra had started fishing over a larger area.
  5. Most trawl fishermen had used government incentives to subsidize the one-time purchase of their boats and their regular purchase of fuel, but they also admitted to not complying with laws preventing their fishing in the exclusive artisanal (small scale) fishing zone that is within 3 nautical miles from the coast.
  6. Fishermen were aware that the state government’s had imposed a ban on trawl fishing (for 45 days in Tamil Nadu and up to 60 days in Maharashtra) but claimed that the weather was a better enforcer of fishing bans than authorities or themselves.
  7. Many fishermen were not aware of other fishing laws, such as the need to obtain licenses from the fisheries department in order to run their vessels.
  8. Over 50% of fishermen were willing to change to more sustainable techniques only if they could receive more profits

Conservation implications

  1. Most fishermen perceived declines in fish stocks, which is more recent in Maharashtra than Tamil Nadu. Fishermen responded to these declines by changing the way they fished: increased area used and targeting new species.
  2. Despite expectations that better education and perhaps higher income might predispose people to be more environmentally aware, experience and fishing effort were better predictors of perceptions of declines in quantity of fish caught.
  3. The government manipulates fisheries management by providing schemes that promote industrialization of the fishery but is unable to regulate fishing through laws. There are also no laws to control the number of fishermen or fishing vessels in operation at a time. Therefore, it seems that the fishery is managed de-facto by the community.
  4. The fishing community has traditionally had rules to better manage fisheries. Hence, community regulation should be encouraged and supported. Irrespective of whether fish populations were really in decline, fishermen were responding to their perceptions of decline and overfishing. Thus, changing perceptions about the fishery is also critical to ensuring the sustainability of these fisheries.


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About the author

Divya Karnad and Krithi K. Karanth

Divya is a marine ecologist interested in wildlife conservation and policy. She engages with public discourses on conservation through newspapers and other media. Krithi is Associate Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society (USA).


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