KKLB – For the love of fish

By Meera Anna Oommen

Safed Balu beach (Photo credits: Kartik Shanker)
Long before the idea of Dakshin was born, two of us founders were on our way to survey a remote turtle camp on the west coast of Great Nicobar. A little after we circumvented the perennially choppy seas of the lighthouse at Indira Point, we stopped for a break at ‘safed balu’, a beautiful beach named for its spectacular white sand contrasting with the backdrop of the green rainforest. Our fisher friends, compatriots of the indomitable Chalapat Rao from Campbell Bay, generously shared their lunch with us: rice, dal and fish. So memorable was this meal that nearly 25 years later, we still try to recreate it, albeit with little success. The secret, we believe, was the quality of the fish. As most fishing boats in these parts do when they round the pointy corners of islands, a trolling line was set to trail our dhungi with the hope of capturing one of the pelagic predators that frequent the upper water column. Though the Spanish mackerel we caught was cooked and consumed within minutes of its demise, its memory has lingered forever in our minds.
Over the years, a question we increasingly get asked is how we can bring ourselves to eat fish and promote its consumption given all that we know about overfishing, trophic cascades and imminent fisheries collapses. Often this comes from urban elite proponents of conservation and marine recreationists, particularly the ones that take expensive vacations to dive in coral hotspots to appreciate the beauty of fish and other marine life. We too love to look at fish and to study fish. However, we are an organisation that works not just to preserve fish and charismatic species and the beauty of the marine world, but one that also works towards the well-being of fishers as well as their cultural affiliations, rights and worldviews. Several million marginalised people in this country depend on fish for their sustenance and their livelihoods and their fisheries support the nutritional demands of millions more. Moreover, fish is a resource that has been consumed since time immemorial, is tasty, protein rich and integral to the well-being of coastal people. Often, it mediates our social and cultural relationships to the ocean. Therefore, instead of encouraging people to stop consuming fish, we feel that it is both appropriate and practical to work with communities to regulate its use.  
Like terrestrial systems where the preservation of wildlife without encouraging their use in any form, has become the norm (e.g. the bans on hunting or harvesting of terrestrial wildlife), marine conservation too is increasingly borrowing from these ideas to shift people away from the use of ocean resources. Dakshin’s #KhaneKeLiyeBachao (KKLB) campaign was initiated as an antidote to this form of anti-use conservation with its narrow set of do’s and don’ts. It reminds ourselves and others that sustainable use is one of the three central tenets of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and a legitimate objective that ensures justice and equity for communities who live on fishing. 
A number of our programmes and activities at Dakshin explicitly focus on this or adopt occasional thematic elements to convey the possibilities related to sustainable use. We aim to devise regulations for improved fishery through community-based and participatory monitoring of harvested species, consultations on co-management and even the sharing of recipes that are long forgotten (click here to see an example). It is hoped that our #KhaneKeLiyeBachao campaign along with the larger Fish for the Future initiative, can leverage the untapped potential of local communities and engage them in developing and establishing integrated monitoring and management models across the Indian coastline, empower fisher communities to manage their own resources and to sensitise resource managers to the possibilities of adopting participatory processes in marine resource governance. Most significantly, it hopes to facilitate locally empowered decision-making, the benefits of which will continue to accumulate in the long term and enable the sustainable use of fishery resources and coastal commons. It is hoped that these campaigns can showcase a suite of practical middle ground solutions that are far removed from the extremes of either total protection or unbridled exploitation. 
Several of India’s fisher communities already have their own traditional small-scale fisheries that are broadly  sustainable and profitable. For instance, the pole and line tuna fishery in the Lakshadweep islands is a largely sustainable model for the extraction of skipjack tuna and the trade of processed masmin (a.k.a Maldive fish). Our work in these islands, which is spearheaded by Naveen Namboothri and the Sustainable Fisheries team, works with the community by supporting their initiatives where they are needed most. In Maharashtra and Odisha, we assist with related themes such as reduction fishery. In the Andaman islands, efforts are on to work with fisher groups belonging to different settler communities to make sustainable use a reality. Anand Rao, representing the next generation of fishers from Chalapat Rao’s own family in Great Nicobar, is now a champion of fisheries governance with Dakshin’s SeaChange team. He too loves a good fish curry.