Natural systems, terrestrial or marine, are fundamentally similar in terms of the overarching principles that govern them. When a natural system is subjected to food production for human consumption, care must be taken to not exceed the limits of that system. Unfortunately, most food production systems today are based on industrial models that enhance efficiency in the short term but are often in direct conflict with ecological principles and therefore not very sustainable in the long run. While agricultural systems are faced with challenges such as the effects of intensive monoculture, rampant use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and potential threats from the introduction of GM crops, oceans and fisheries are largely plagued by unsustainable models of exploitation, destructive practices, overfishing and consequent declines in fish stocks.
Fish is one of the best and cheapest sources of animal protein for human consumption and accounts for about 17% of global animal protein intake. With the world’s population expected to hit 9.7 billion by the year 2050, oceans that have always provided food security and livelihoods for humans, are under tremendous stress trying to meet the demands of an increasing population. The need for newer, decentralized and more holistic models of food production is being felt now, stronger than ever before. However, this requires a paradigm shift in the way we perceive natural systems, resources and rights of people to access them and development itself. While such a systemic change might seem overambitious at this stage, small steps to identify and preserve practices that are environmentally sustainable and socially just, can and must be taken.
One such practice is the live-bait pole and line tuna fishery of Lakshadweep. The Lakshadweep Islands, India’s only coral atolls are home to about 65000 people. The pole and line fishery first came here from the Maldives, about 200 years ago. This technique is found in very few places in the world and is considered highly sustainable as it targets the resilient skipjack tuna through harvest methods that do not damage the marine habitat and cause very little by-catch of other species. An offshore fishery, it keeps fishing pressure off the sensitive coral reefs that constitute these islands. Additionally, being labour-intensive, it provides employment to many islanders.
Typically, large scale fisheries are intensive, often destructive practices, that supply to large export markets and can cause distributional inequities on ground, whereas small-scale fisheries are less intensive, ensure the food and livelihood security of the producers first and cater almost exclusively to local demand. While Lakshadweep’s pole and line fishery may be small-scale in terms of quantities harvested, it is not a subsistence fishery. A majority of the tuna caught through this fishery is converted to Lakshadweep’s indigenous, dried tuna product called masmin and is exported to Sri Lanka, making it a commercial, export-based fishery. Despite this, it has sustained for all these years – due to the inherent merits of the technique and the fact that the export trade leaves enough fresh tuna behind to ensure ample supply for local distribution. While other oceanic and reef fish are also consumed, tuna forms the major part of the diet of these islanders. Masmin acts as a substitute for fresh tuna during the monsoon when it is difficult to go out to sea. Generally, every household consumes fish on a daily basis, often in all meals of the day. Thus, we have here, a rare example of a commercial food production system that ensures food and livelihood security for its producers and others, without adversely affecting the environment.
In all fairness, the continued practice of this fishery in these islands has been circumstantial and can be at least partially attributed to the lack of other expansion and diversification opportunities. At the same time, being an isolated island system, it has been guarded from destructive global trends for many decades. Now however, the influence of larger external factors is increasingly being felt. Declining baitfish stocks (used to catch tuna), infrastructural limitations and stagnating prices for Masmin are posing operational challenges to the pole and line fishery. Meanwhile, an export-based coral reef fishery is also steadily emerging, the proliferation of which could be detrimental to the health of this coral archipelago. Active efforts must be taken to buffer potentially unsustainable transitions and strengthen existing models through proper management. Towards this, Dakshin Foundation has been running a community-based fisheries monitoring programme in Lakshadweep since 2014 involving local fishers in voluntary monitoring of their fishery. This approach helps large-scale generation of important data that can feed into sustainable management plans. But more importantly, it decentralizes knowledge generation and enables fishers to see patterns in their fishery over time, thereby reducing their reliance on external agencies. It seeks to empower fishers with the knowledge that can help them engage in a meaningful dialogue with policy makers and other stakeholders.
In spite of difficulties, the Lakshadweep Islands present a refreshingly different picture, in a time when stories of overfishing and fisheries collapse are becoming increasingly common. It is true that the Lakshadweep model has been possible due to its unique socio-ecological setting, making it an outlier, a bright spot in a darkening ocean. So is it to be left at that? Is it just a positive story to celebrate and feel good about? The Lakshadweep story is one example. But bright spots do exist, in marine as well as terrestrial realms. It is the need of the hour to find more such examples from other parts of the world; to acknowledge and encourage them. But we also need to take a step further and try to understand what makes these models successful; to learn from the outliers and draw context-specific parallels that can be applied in other places. In some cases it could be a sustainable technique that does not put pressure on the stocks or ecosystems; in some others it could be the will of local communities to utilize their resources well. Wherever possible, initiatives that empower local communities through participatory monitoring and management should be tried out. Systems with potential should be supported to overcome their challenges, stay viable and become an example. We need to enable more success stories, bring newer narratives to the fore and build a stronger case for sustainable and equitable food production models. Only a combination of such actions can help us ensure healthy ecosystems, livelihoods and most importantly, good food for all!
First published in the newsletter People in Conservation (May 2017 to November 2017).