Avoid, minimise or remediate? Shark and ray conservation in an Indian trawl fishery
In 2018, I started studying shark and ray fisheries in Malvan, a fishing town on India’s west coast. I would visit the landing centre three times a week and record the sharks and rays present, which involved identifying the species (most of which have very minute differences between them), taking measurements of (often muddy and/or slimy) specimens and collecting fishing-related data from busy fishers, all in an extremely chaotic space. As difficult and unglamorous as this work could be, it was satisfying to build a robust and much-needed dataset in one of the world’s largest shark and ray fishing nations. Elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) are one of the most threatened species groups globally. These species pose a complex conservation challenge in India; most of their catch is through bycatch (i.e. incidental catch), but they contribute to the earnings of fishers and form an important food source, especially for the country’s poor.
Building a baseline dataset is just step one, it is then important to use this data meaningfully to inform conservation of these species. This is where the mitigation hierarchy framework came in. Originally used to mitigate the impacts of development projects on biodiversity, this framework has been recently adapted to mitigate the bycatch of threatened species in fisheries, and further modified as a framework for shark conservation. The framework has 4 sequential steps (avoidance, minimisation, remediation and offset), each consisting of a number of potential measures to reduce bycatch of a threatened species.
I was lucky to get a chance to work with EJ Milner-Gulland and her students, where I could apply this framework to my research in Malvan. In our study, we proposed and assessed a few hypothetical measures under this framework to reduce bycatch of sharks and rays in trawl fisheries. The landings data helped us understand how effective each of these measures would be in reducing bycatch of these species. More importantly, we interviewed fishers to understand their opinions of these measures, and their potential impact on their livelihoods.
The interviews formed a major part of our study, and I was both excited and nervous to conduct them. I was about to speak to fishers on potentially sensitive topics and I didn’t know how they would react to my questions. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive and honest most of my interviewees were when speaking to them about these issues. It really made me realise and experience, first-hand, how necessary it was to involve the fishing community in discussions on marine conservation.
Fieldwork rarely goes completely smoothly though, and these interviews had their share of challenges. It took considerable time and effort to find people willing to speak to us, only to sometimes have them disappear halfway through the interview, or have random bystanders enthusiastically interrupting to give their opinions. On the whole, I was happy by the end of these interviews, not only for the data I collected for my study, but also for the chance to let the fishers speak and hear their thoughts.
Our analysis found that ‘classic’ conservation measures like fishing closures and gear restrictions would probably reduce bycatch of most species, but fishers made it clear that these measures would have serious impacts on their earnings. On the other hand, while releasing live sharks and rays onboard may not be as effective, it had minimal economic impacts and fishers were willing to implement it. Interventions for live release of threatened elasmobranchs like guitarfish can be a good first step towards conservation, and more effective measures can be developed over the long-term. By engaging with the fishing community as well as local fishery managers, I hope that our work will help guide better fisheries management and aid elasmobranch conservation in Malvan.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it and fishing communities in India have been especially affected. Considering this research and looking forward, there is a need to rebuild the fisheries sector where rights and needs of traditional fishers align with sustainability and conservation of vulnerable marine species. Making use of frameworks like this can support this need, by supporting fishery-specific solutions to reducing bycatch while considering the socio-economic situations local fishers are a part of.
Trisha Gupta is a marine researcher and conservationist working on shark and ray fisheries in India.