Small scale inland open water fisheries of India
What is the status of inland fisheries in India? Read these situational analysis reports to know about inland fisheries, the life of the fisherfolk, governance and tenure in inland fisheries and threats to the sustainability of inland fisheries.
Fishing in an irrigation canal in Kerala (Image Source: Martin Pilkinton via Wikimedia Commons)

What are inland waters 

Inland waters refer to lakes, rivers, brooks, streams, ponds, inland canals, dams, and other land-locked freshwater sources. Whilst most inland  waters are freshwater, areas having daily or sonal fluctuations in salinity (e.g. estuaries, deltas, some coastal lagoons) are also classified as inland waters. Some areas are permanently brackish water or even hypersaline. 

Inland fisheries in India

Inland waters are a rich source of fish. Das, B. K., Parida, P. K., DebRoy, P., and Roy, A. (2022) in the Vulnerability to Viability, Global Partnership (V2V) Working Paper 2022-8 titled 'A situational analysis of small-scale inland open water fisheries in India: From vulnerability to viability' inform that the inland fishery resources of India are one of the richest in the world and include freshwater and brackish water. 

Inland fisheries produce more than 8.4 million tonnes of fish and support the livelihoods of 23.12 million inland fishers in the country. The inland open water fisheries sector is largely small-scale in nature and includes culture-based fisheries, natural stocking and harvesting, enclosure culture (cage and pen culture) and capture fisheries. 

Freshwater inland fisheries cover 1,95,210 kms of rivers and canals, 3.54 million hectares of minor and major reservoirs, 2.4 million hectares of ponds and lakes and about 0.8 million hectares of flood plain lakes and derelict water bodies. The estuaries, lagoons and mangrove swamps form a part of the brackish water.

  • Riverine fisheries

These include 14 major, 44 medium and a number of small rivers and streams which form a combined length of 29,000 km and provide one of the richest fish genetic resources in the world. The major river systems of India include the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganga, Narmada, Tapti, Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery and Mahanadi, which harbour multiple varieties of fish and support fisherfolk using multi-gear fishing methods in the area. The fisherfolk derive an average monthly income from of around 5,500 Rs from riverine fisheries. 

  • Canal fisheries 

Canals are the second most important (26 percent) source of irrigation covering 17.0 mn ha in India and cover a total length of 1,26,334 kms. No standard technology is available for canal fishery in India. Conflict of interest between agriculture and fisheries is the major challenge in canal fisheries in the country.

  • Wetland fisheries 

Floodplain wetlands (locally known as beel, baor, haor, ox-bow, chaur) receive floodwater from the rivers or from their catchment areas during the southwest monsoon season and are a major source of small scale fisheries (SSF) in India. 

Wetlands associated with the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins cover an area of 3.40 lakh hectares and are important fishery resources for the states of Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Meghalaya. 

Beels are rich, diverse and highly productive aquatic ecosystems and provide breeding and nursery grounds for a number of aquatic organisms including fish and play an important role in inland fish production of the eastern and north-eastern regions of the country. 

  • Reservoir fisheries 

Reservoirs are the man-made impoundments built across rivers or streams and form an important source of fish and  support the livelihoods of fishing communities besides providing several socio-cultural and ecological services. 

Kelkar, N. & Arthur, R.I. (2022) in the report 'A review of governance and tenure in inland capture fisheries and aquaculture systems of India' by The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) classify inland fisheries by modes of fishing and physical boundaries of the waterbodies where they operate.

The table below provides an overview of the different types of inland fisheries:

The details of the nature and type of these fisheries has been described in the report here

The inland fisherfolk

In inland open water fisheries, fisherfolk depend on freshwater resources for livelihood, nutritional security, domestic life and transport. While the economic benefits provided by inland fisheries to its fishers vary from state to state,  fishing is normally done on a subsistence scale and upholds the household nutritional security of the fishers.

Most inland fisherfolk have to depend on other sources of income such as farming, daily wage labour etc to make ends meet as poor educational levels, the seasonal nature of their occupation and small operational holdings of units of land available for any sort of farming activities, which hinders their capacity to maximise their income.

Activities such as net-making, boat building, engine repair and maintenance also provide additional employment opportunities for the fisherfolk, with a direct relation to food and livelihood security of backward and marginal fishing communities.

The monthly income of inland fishers is also low ranging from ₹ 2,500 to ₹ 10,000. Women fishers also play an important role in fishing, post-harvest, fish trade, and ancillary activities and their participation in fishing activities is as high as upto 56 percent.

Institutional and policy context for inland fisheries

Kelkar, N. & Arthur, R.I. (2022) in the report 'A review of governance and tenure in inland capture fisheries and aquaculture systems of India' by The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) inform that while marine capture fisheries management is a shared responsibility among state and central governments, aquaculture and inland capture and culture-based fisheries are state subjects. The legislation and policies to govern them vary from state to state. The ownership and revenue rights to inland waters rest with the respective state fisheries departments. 

While state laws and policies share many common features, there are also important differences that reflect the different local contexts within which inland fisheries operate.  For example, the Protection of Human Rights Act (1993) includes rights to life, liberty, equality and dignity. These rights, guaranteed by the Constitution of India and embodied in international covenants, are inseparable from fishing rights. First and foremost is the recognition of the “minimal right to water”, which is also recognised in the draft NFP (2020) and relates to access rights of members of local fishing communities. 

Management of inland fisheries is supported by several scientific organisations under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research that address different facets of inland capture fisheries and freshwater aquaculture management. The focus of both state policies and the associated scientific organisations over the past five decades has been on freshwater aquaculture growth while inland capture fisheries tend to be neglected although their importance is recognised for the key contributions that they make to the livelihoods of the rural poor across India. Rather the focus has to been more on technological solutions offered by aquaculture. 

Draft National Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy (NIFAP), 2018

Kelkar, N. & Arthur, R.I. (2022) in the report 'A review of governance and tenure in inland capture fisheries and aquaculture systems of India' by The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) inform that different interpretations of state-level or local rights have created challenges in implementing legislation and providing effective governance and policymakers are increasingly feeling the need for a policy at the national level for inland fisheries in recent years. 

Thus, during 2018 and 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India, sought to develop an overarching framework to provide guidelines on developing legislation and policy, in the form of a National Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy (NIFAP). This followed the National Policy on Marine Fisheries (NPMF) of 2017 and attempted to align its objectives with the NPMF’s seven pillars of management, namely, sustainable development, socio-economic upliftment of fishers, principle of subsidiarity, partnership, intergenerational equity, gender justice and a precautionary approach.

Governance of inland fisheries

Kelkar, N. & Arthur, R.I. (2022) in the report 'A review of governance and tenure in inland capture fisheries and aquaculture systems of India' by The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) inform that due to historical land-centric ownership, water and fisheries tenure was either subsumed under private riparian lands or maintained largely through customary and ad hoc access. There has been a trend in fisheries now of formalising customary rights and regulating access, and entrusting tenure decisions with the state fisheries departments. 

However, in practice the role of state government agencies tends to be restricted to acting as trustees and retainers of inland fishery resources and their direct involvement in management is limited.

Because of this private interests and cooperatives also appear as important formal institutions governing inland fisheries in India. These institutions interact  via systems of licences and lease contracts for use rights that are allocated through auction.

Thus there are state held rights, collective rights, individually held rights and open access fisheries.

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Challenges to sustainability of inland fisheries

Das, B. K., Parida, P. K., DebRoy, P., and Roy, A. (2022) in the Vulnerability to Viability, Global Partnership (V2V) Working Paper 2022-8 titled 'A situational analysis of small-scale inland open water fisheries in India: From vulnerability to viability' inform that the key drivers of change in inland fisheries include climate change, migration of traditional fisherfolk in search of better income generating opportunities and changing food habits of people that have increased demand for fish leading to overfishing.

Direct factors that influence sustainability of inland fisheries include:

Climate change: Has led to increase in dry spells, rise in temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns, extreme climatic events. This has led to declines in fish production, introduction of invasive species etc

Human and social factors: such as damming for hydropower generation, increase in demand for fish, industrialisation, agricultural expansion, encroachment and land use changes, poor access and control over inland resources among fisherfolk have led to overfishing, over exploitation of open water resources, disturbances in the natural habitat and breeding and migration pathways of fish, pollution of water resources due to industrial effluents, sewage from urban areas thus affecting the survival of fish negatively.

Poor governance and management factors: such as introduction of alien species through stocking and ranching, use of destructive fishing gear leading to overexploitation.

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Emerging issues and challenges in inland fisheries include conflicts in water use, encroachment and siltation of water bodies, loss of connectivity of wetlands with their parent water bodies, loss of biodiversity, increase in input costs for fish production etc.

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