In the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, a small fishing village named Marianad (land of Mary) has significantly contributed to the development of the state’s fisheries sector. It was the birthplace of Kerala’s first cooperative society for fishers, which later became a model for cooperative movements across the state. The community upholds a unique fishing management pattern, emphasising traditional methods through informal regulations and cooperation. Marianad does not have mechanised fishing vessels, with motorised and traditional vessels dominating the industry. Moreover, fishers have reported instances of local opposition, including boat seizures, in Marianad and surrounding villages against introducing mechanised vessels into traditional territories. A fishing committee group manages the landing centre.

However, the fishers of the village are currently expressing concerns, primarily due to the introduction of ring seine fishing in the coastal belt of Marianad, Muthalapozhi and Anchuthengu, forming a continuous stretch of the area now open to ring seines. Ring seine is a method of fishing that involves encircling fish with a large net deployed from a boat, then hauling the net, closed, with the fish captured inside. The fishers claim that the ring seiners receive local support and assistance, particularly from the community in Muthalapozhi, where these vessels are based. There is a fear that the operation of ring seiners could lead to the overexploitation of fish resources and pose challenges to the livelihoods of the local population.

How ring seine works

The ring seine gear is a specific gear for capturing shoaling pelagic fish. Ring seine fishing involves locating fish using visual cues, deploying the net in a circular shape around the school and then hauling in the catch. Its circular design, with floats on top and a weighted line below, along with the use of purse rings and lines, creates a closed area called a “purse” around a school of fish. The mesh size of the net varies based on the targeted fish.

In Kerala, two commonly used ring seine gears are small meshed choodavala/discovala (less than 250m length, 30-70m depth, 8-12mm mesh webbing) for anchovies and perchlets and large meshed thanguvala/ranivala (800-1000m long, 80-100m wide, 22mm mesh size, weighing about 1.5-2 tonnes) which is mostly used to capture oil sardine and mackerel. Fishers modify the gear for enhanced performance, and the gear has different names in Kerala. Medium-sized boats, fitted with OB engines of 9.9 horsepower (hp) to 25 hp and above, are being used as carrier vessels, along with the larger vessels.

  • The fishing villages of Marianad-Anchuthengu belt in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district, known for traditional and cooperative fishing practices, is experiencing increased use of ring seine fishing.
  • Ring seine fishing, which uses large nets to capture pelagic fish such as sardines and mackerel, is associated with higher catch volumes but also with non-selective fishing and the capture of juveniles.
  • It creates divisions within the fishing community, with some supporting the new technology for economic reasons, while others oppose it due to its environmental and social impact. The need for formal regulatory intervention to address these issues is becoming apparent.

Initially, ring seine operations began with small canoes, later transitioning to larger plank-built boats and fibre and steel boats. Technological development and capitalisation continued in the sector, resulting in improved catches and reduced travel time. In Kerala, ring seiners can be classified into two main categories: motorised ring seiners (using outboard motors, OBM) and mechanised ring seiners (using inboard motors, IBM). Mechanised ring seiners primarily target mackerel, sardine and pomfret, while motorised ring seiners focus on sardine, anchovy and occasionally shrimp.

Ring seine worries artisanal fishers

The need for high fishing effort, high catch from a single trip by ring seine and the non-selective nature of the fishing, worry the fishers. As stated above, ring seining mainly targets pelagic fishes like mackerel, sardine and anchovy. The CMFRI report shows that mechanised ring seines accounted for 71% of Kerala’s landing of 127,000 tonnes of oil sardines, followed by outboard ring seines (22%) in 2017. In the case of mackerel landings, the contribution of ring seine was 32%. This means that ring seine, the major gear used along the Kerala coast, contributes 50-70% of total annual landings in the state. The outboard fibre boat and fibre catamaran are the predominant craft-gear combinations in this area, with relatively low fishing effort and catch per trip compared to inboard ring seine. Therefore, fishermen in the area fear the entry of ring seine, which threatens the exploitation of unexploited fisheries in the area and the livelihood opportunities of the local community.

At present, the small-scale traditional fishery in the Marianad village, with the support of cooperatives, provides fishermen with a decent livelihood. They typically operate for three to seven hours, leaving quality time for other activities. However, traditional fishers in other areas of Kerala are performing poorly in catch per effort and per unit of energy. The large-scale expansion of ring seine and trawl systems is considered a major reason for poor catch efficiency in the small-scale traditional fishery.

The non-selective nature of the gear system also worries the fishers. Such gear systems lead to the catching of juveniles when gears of 8-10 mm mesh size are used and operated at shallow depths touching the bottom in inshore waters. Experimental observations showed that the juvenile incidence in small-meshed units is in the range of 32 -48%, and that of large-meshed units is 5-12%. The exploitation of young ones and juveniles of pelagic fish such as sardine, mackerel, and anchovy by ring seine units was noticed in earlier studies.

Another major factor that triggers the entry of the ring seine in unexploited waters is the poor economic performance in areas where these gears are now operated. Fishers in new destinations are attracted by the better economic performance of ring seines, as the returns per fish worker in the newer areas using ring seines surpass those of traditional fish workers using other gear types. This economic advantage also attracts traditional fishers to transition to using ring seines. Further, the social controls in operating a new fish vessel are also weakened, facilitating the entry of ring seine in new waters.

Vessels of high capital promote casualisation of fishers. This is because, with the advent of new capital-intensive high-return fishing vessels, the small-scale artisanal fishers tend to join the crew as workers, leaving their own small-scale fish vessels. From the fishermen’s side, the advantages are utilising his fishing skills, a regular return by supplying his labour power, and the advantage of avoiding the transaction costs of organising fishing activity with his own vessel.

However, non-owner fish workers in large vessels are considered casual labourer, losing their prestige and potentially being robbed of their vessel ownership. The efforts to organise the 30-40 fishermen under one fishing vessel are fraught with high transaction costs and attrition. The fishers are often attracted to the fishing vessels by addressing their immediate concerns like repayment of credit and advancing loans on the contract that he would continue for a fixed period. This advancement of credit- sometimes in lieu of assurance on his continued labour participation- facilitates the entry of larger fishing vessels.

Local resistance and the way forward

Though most of the fishermen are concerned with the entry of larger fishing vessels, the fishers remain divided as it provides jobs to some. This renders a collective opinion making a difficult task. With some local fishermen emerging as shareholders of newly entered large fishing vessels, coastal areas are divided on the desirability and the course of action to be taken. Informal non-institutional regulations are effective in certain cases of common property resource management, as in fisheries. But in the long term, it may need the intervention of formal agencies with the involvement of all the stakeholders, including fishermen, to arrive at an effective management regime.

Ring seine fishing plays a crucial role in meeting the demand for seafood, but at the same time, the fishermen in the Marianad’s concern about the influx of ring seine has an economic and social basis. For regulatory purposes, ring seines come under the motorised or traditional sector category. Ring seine is considered a traditional method, but it is usually larger than most traditional methods operating in Thiruvananthapuram.

Further, ring seining is a legally recognised method, so limiting its entry is impractical. Its size and engine capacity vary widely. Informal non-institutional measures can help in some cases, but on a long-term basis, the role of formal institutions—rules and regulations—also becomes critical. This poses a challenge. Mutual cooperation and consensus are required to manage the fisheries in this situation.