The meaning of World Fisheries Day

By Anu Priya Babu

Illustration credits: Priya Sebastian and Current Conservation
Why do celebrations break out across oceans and shorelines on the 21st of November every year and how did this emerge as the ‘World Fisheries Day’? On this day, fishing communities across nations engage in public gatherings, cultural performances, exhibitions, rallies and workshops. In sync with this worldwide revelry, our teams in Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and the Andamans organised fisheries meetings, mimes, and local events to celebrate along with the fishing communities their fisheries and coastal ecosystems. But what is so special about this day and what meaning does it hold for India’s diverse small-scale fishers? The answer took us to the proud history of fisher movements in South Asia, led by Indian fishers…
We trace events in this article to the second half of the nineteenth century which witnessed a significant shift in India’s fisheries sector, as it rushed towards an export-oriented modernisation drive fueled by changes across the world. Though this transformation brought substantial foreign exchange revenue and led to the emergence of wealthy fish merchants, it failed to uplift the lives of thousands of  small-scale fishers. Post-independence, the focus on rapid technological inputs to alleviate poverty of what was considered a backward sector, led to the mechanisation and capital intensification in fisheries. The scholar-practitioner John Kurien drew systemic attention to the role of the  Indo-Norwegian Project and its pivotal role in introducing technology, infrastructure, and social uplift programmes that aimed at ‘improving’ the lives of fishing communities. Its perverse consequences are plain for all to see. Many of the social tensions and outright conflicts between artisanal and mechanised sectors which had exacerbated inequalities and resource depletion are well known outcomes of processes that began with such bilateral fisheries development programmes.
Amidst these conflicts, the fishworkers’ movement emerged tracing its roots to the 1960s. The rise of unions and the fishworkers’ movement influenced by the National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF) marked a turning point in advocating for the rights and welfare of small-scale fishers. The movement’s initial success was reflected in the introduction of the first marine fisheries regulation laws which imposed restrictions on trawlers and established exclusive zones for small-scale fishing crafts. However, these arrangements  radically shifted with the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s allowing transnational corporations into the fisheries sector through the mechanisms of the ‘joint ventures and foreign direct investment’. This threatened to deeply alter the social and economic nature of traditional fisheries in India.
The introduction of the Deep Sea Fishing Policy by the Indian government in 1991, permitting foreign vessels to operate in Indian waters, triggered demonstrations and led to the formation of coalitions between previously antagonistic groups within the fishing industry. This newly formed coalition, known as the National Fisheries Action Committee Against Joint Ventures, mobilised nationwide protests that brought all fishing activities to a halt for a day on February 4, 1994. This was followed by a two-day strike on November 23-24, 1994. Soon the movement’s strategies were replicated on a national scale, resulting in significant disruptions and increased attention from the government and media.
Shortly after this, the fishworker movement’s demands shifted to focus on opposing the presence of transnational corporations in Indian waters, fearing overexploitation of fish resources and the sure deterioration of livelihoods. Simultaneously, the movement expanded its transnational networks, forming alliances with other fishworker organisations globally. This paved the way for the creation of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) in 1984, marking the beginning of coordinated actions among national-level fishworker organisations.
On 21st November 1997, representatives from the small-scale fisher community  from 18 countries met in New Delhi to establish the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP). The mission of WFFP was to amplify the voices of small-scale and traditional fisher people who faced a changing fisheries  landscape dominated by non-fisher decision-makers, including mechanised fisheries organisations, government bodies and multinational corporations. With an initial list of 17 draft objectives, the WFFP articulated its commitment to safeguarding fishing communities, promoting gender equity, conserving marine resources, and ensuring food security. World Fisheries Day was proposed on the same day to raise awareness about the importance of fisheries and the challenges they face. The proposal gained tremendous support from various small-scale communities from far corners of the world’s oceans to culminate in the declaration of November 21st as the World Fisheries Day!
Exactly twenty years later, in November 2017, the WFFP’s 7th General Assembly was organised in New Delhi and Dakshin had the privilege of being a partner in this watershed event. When we remember this day through creative and collaborative activities with fisher people, we approach it as a solemn occasion to recognise the struggles, achievements, and ongoing efforts of fishing communities worldwide and their diverse relations with the sea and its myriad creatures, be it sea turtles, sharks, rays, reefs or just a great plate of fish! Celebrating the contributions of small-scale fishing communities worldwide, World Fisheries Day presents two precious elements for healthy oceans and its diverse fisher peoples – dignity and hope!