The Sustainable Ocean

Paradox or Possibility?

Oceans, natures, cultures

It was early April when I met S. Palayam (57), a resident of Urur Kuppam, a fishing village in the city of Chennai on the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu in southern India. This was a few days before India’s infamous COVID-19 surge in 2021 – when physical meetings in open spaces seemed possible. Palayam and I were diligently masked as we took a stroll down the coast at sunrise and spoke about how Urur Kuppam’s fishers traditionally caught kola meen or flying fish.

“Before we start fishing, we’d tie coconut leaves to a float, and leave it for an hour to attract small fish,” he explained. “An elder on the boat would then apply manjal (turmeric) and kunkumam (vermilion) to a couple of these fish as a mark of devotion, and request them to gather their shoals before releasing them. In a few minutes we’d be surrounded by flying fish! Some would be caught through nets, and some would jump right into our boat. But we’d catch these with specific nets during specific times of the year, and know our limits.”

Artisanal fishers, including those at Urur Kuppam, catch fish in different ways using motorised or non-motorised boats, or directly from the shore, with a host of gear like gill nets, shore seines, cast nets and hook-and-line. Fish is sold in the local market and also dispersed in the neighbourhood. Catch is diverse, but uncertain. On good days, fishers would harvest a range of species including mackerel, sardine, trevally, wolf herring, lady fish, mullet, shrimp, squid and crab. On some days, there could be nothing. Based on the extent of operations and ecological impact this can be described as a small-scale fishery.

Artisanal fishers of Urur Kuppam using a periya valai (shore seine). Photograph by Swaminathan for Kaani Nilam (Ek Potli Retki) Archives.

Urur Kuppam is one of 44 marine fishing villages along Chennai’s ~19 km coastline. Fishing embodies the politics, identities, social relationships, rights and resilience of these communities. For them, the oceans and coasts are common property resources that have been locally governed, wisely used and enabled conviviality between nature and culture. Village-level panchayats negotiate decisions to ensure equitable access to the sea, politically empower fishers, and are the frontline for defending the commons. While fishing has been the primary livelihood for generations, it also embodies local ways of knowing nature; the institutions evolved to sustain the economy of small-scale fisheries are also meant to sustain and protect the oceans.

This doesn’t mean that relationships between fishers and their environment are unchanging. Rather, the system is dynamic and adaptive, entangling fish and fishers in complex ways. But India’s new fisheries policy could overturn this way of life.

An ill-conceived policy

Overfishing and declining fish stocks have emerged as international conservation concerns in recent years, with implications on food and livelihood security especially in the global south. In this context, the Draft National Fisheries Policy (2020) seeks to address looming concerns of unsustainable fishing practices, safeguard jobs, and attempts to integrate seafood production through a restructuring of the supply chain from catch to post-harvest storage technologies. Although the Policy makes several recommendations, two aspects are of concern to this essay.

First, it promotes fish farming in freshwater and brackishwater ecosystems and states that “[l]arge land blocks…may be earmarked for development as aquaculture zones”. In parallel, it seeks to work with panchayats, or local governance bodies, of fishing villages to promote mariculture at sea and in intertidal zones as a “safer” alternative livelihood. The Policy rides on India’s rise in fish farming exports over the past decade to justify this recommendation.

Is this shift to fish farming viable for the artisanal fisher? Although Urur Kuppam is located on the coast, it is nestled between high-end residential areas and the Adyar River which drains into the Bay of Bengal. Palayam recalled a time when the river’s estuarine waters had mullets and shrimp that attracted barracuda, barramundi and trevally – and supported the livelihoods of fishers in Urur Kuppam and other villages. The river is now notoriously polluted with municipal sewage and untreated effluents, and Palayam wondered if the Policy would be effective in dealing with these historical and material injustices even as it sought to uplift the small-scale fisher.

“Can you grow anything in this water? Who authorised those large buildings along the other side? Why do they have the right to pollute the river? You can’t spot a single fisherman along the river now. The river has to be dredged and cleaned. Fish can then naturally spawn in the estuary. We know this! There’s big money in fish farming, but it’s not in tune with nature.”

The Adyar River as seen from Urur Kuppam. A high-end hotel and residential buildings are located on the other bank. Photograph by author.

Further, the Policy views the “prevalence of traditional fishing practices” as a constraint, and advocates training small-scale fishers in “modern” fleet for deep-sea fishing of high-value species like tuna. Much like the technologies of aquaculture and mariculture, the technologies of deep-sea fishing would yield more fish of significant market value and translate to a rise in incomes for artisanal fishers.

But abandoning small-scale fishing practices isn’t just a technological shift – it also destabilises the commons hitherto governed by village institutions. Techno-managerial solutions to environmental crises such as declining near-shore fish stocks evade fundamentally political questions, and create the impression of conquering old natures by creating new ones of self-sufficiency. By being growth-focused and overbearing in its push for technologies, the Policy looks at small-scale fisheries as obsolete systems that are in dire need of “development” rather than expanding the capabilities of small-scale fishers. This means it defines fisheries to serve commercial interests, brutalises the small-scale in this redefinition, and depoliticises artisanal labour through technologies that would discipline the environment (and the fishers themselves).

The National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers criticised the Policy because it is capital-intensive and increases the scope of private investments which can disempower small-scale fishers in the long-term. This is how the Policy converts fisheries from systems of collective ownership to spaces exploited by capitalism. Curiously (or not), the Policy overlooks – and potentially exacerbates – the greatest impact that capitalism has had on fisheries: the class inequalities between artisanal fishers and large-scale commercial operators.

Capital and consumption

India is one of the world’s top ten seafood producing countries, but there is no explicit data on the extent of seafood harvested in small-scale fisheries. This caveat reveals the underbelly of the blue economy, and the premise of blue growth.

“Ours is a traditional livelihood, and our fishing practices have been handed down over generations. We catch fish near the sea surface. But the larger boats catch big sharks, rays, sailfish… even turtles! If all the fish that reproduce in the deep sea are caught by these modern vessels, what is left for us?”

Palayam was referring to mechanised trawlers, which make up bulk of the fleet in Tamil Nadu’s large-scale fisheries. Trawlers were introduced in India in the 1960s in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the Indo-Norwegian Project. Trawling was seen as a method of catching shrimp for export markets in the global north. The use of trawlers was also justified to develop India’s capacity for seafood self-reliance because trawlers by design didn’t specifically target shrimp. Rather, it was an intensive technology that could catch all marine life along the ocean floor, irrespective of size or species, eventually making it a beast that would bite off more than it could chew.

“This is why there have been calls to ban trawling. Only if they stop can we get any fish, because they traverse the whole sea, including places where we catch fish. There’s no unity between small-scale fishers and large-scale fishers. Instead, we are forced to compete with them.”

Deep sea red shrimp caught by large-scale trawlers in Chennai. Photograph by author.

Trawlers are an exemplar of how capitalist development has been exclusionary and caused a breakdown in small-scale fisheries. As fish are commodified and enter circuits of capital accumulation, the oceans are appropriated for the profits of seafood industries. A vast amount of these commodities appears in seafood markets, but they’re not valued equally. Species of high market value like seer fish spread to restaurants and supermarkets. Species of low commercial value such as silver bellies are part of bycatch. These “trash” fish that would otherwise be discarded are processed as feed in aquaculture and poultry units – through which an uncanny waste economy now metabolises meat production.

Alongside a growing appetite for shrimp and chicken, the linkage between trawling and (animal) farming shows how the relationship between fishers and oceans have been unmade and remade based on capital flows aided by consumer society. Seafood dependencies malignantly grow in laissez-faire networks that disempower artisanal fishers and make intensive means of fish production inevitable.

Is sustainability impossible?

Boats at Urur Kuppam. Photograph by author.

Overfishing manifests as a definitive crisis of the Anthropocene, of human control over the oceans. But the case of Urur Kuppam contests this popular narrative of an undifferentiated humanity exploiting nature. Even as the climate impacts of trawling are felt globally, there are particularly palpable risks for small-scale fishers of the global south as they lose their agency as political actors that govern the oceans. This beckons a radical retelling of this epoch as the Capitalocene, by calling out capitalism as the wicked driver of environmental rifts.

So how should we respond to the Capitalocene’s crises – by giving up seafood? It starts with asking what oceans have meant for different people. It is incumbent on academics, activists and artists to democratise environmental narratives and collect the experiences of vulnerable groups when writing and thinking about the oceans. The coping mechanisms for our environmental anxieties should lie outside the market – in spaces of resistance – and not within the structures that produced and universalised the crises that overpower our imaginations. Consumption in the Capitalocene is about forging new alliances to support small-scale fisheries. Collective action in the Capitalocene is about empowering artisanal fishers to reclaim the commons. Sustainability is possible, and it starts by negotiating a politics of the environment that is anti-capitalist.

Dhruv Gangadharan is a geographer affiliated to the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE, Bengaluru) and member of the Biodiversity Collaborative. He read an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. The views expressed here are personal. Catalysed and supported by the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India. The author thanks Pooja Kumar (The Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai) for her comments that enriched this article, and Purnasneha Sundar for her support.