The Supreme Court (in an interim order) recently allowed purse seine fishing outside the territorial waters (12 nautical miles) of Tamil Nadu, and within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ – 200 nm), alongside imposing stringent conditions.


What is purse seine fishing?

  • It uses a large vertical net (2,000 metres in length and 200 m in depth) to surround dense shoals of pelagic or midwater fish in the open ocean.
  • The purse seine fishers claim that it is simply a more scientific way to catch fish, particularly from the first layer of the sea.
  • Also, it does not exploit other species, since it focuses on shoaling fishes only.
  • The scientific community also notes that climatic conditions, including the El Nino phenomenon, are responsible for the declining catch of fish in the last ten years and Purse Seine Fishing cannot be blamed solely.
  • Around 17 lakh small fishermen use purse seine nets and thus supporting livelihood of many people.


What was the case related to Purse Seine Fishing?

  • Tamil Nadu government had vehemently objected to purse seine fishing, beyond the 12 nm border. It had referred to a 1993 decision of the SC in State of Kerala vs Joseph Antony, which had upheld the ban on purse seine fishing beyond the territorial waters as it affected the livelihood of traditional fishermen.
  • A petition was filed in apex court by Fishermen Care Association to stay a 2020 Tamil Nadu government order which had banned the large nets – famously known as Purse Seine Fishing-used to catch fish in the deep sea, within its territorial waters.
  • The petitioners argued that there had not been any prohibition on purse seine fishermen operating beyond territorial waters for the past 30 years, when purse seine fishing was introduced in 1954. The State did not have any jurisdiction outside the nautical limit of its territorial waters and cannot restrict them from fishing there.
  • The SC hence allowed to do purse seine fishing outside the 12-nm limit off Tamil Nadu on the basic principle of ‘living and letting live’ with certain restrictions as follows —
      • The purse seine fishing would be allowed only twice a week.
      • Only vessels registered under the marine fishing regulation law would be allowed.
      • Installation of tracking devices and prescribing colour codes for boats doing Purse Seine Fishing.
      • The fishing crew carrying Purse Seine Fishing also need to mandatorily carry identity cards.


Which conventions Supreme Court should have referred in its Purse Seine Fishing order?

The top court to enable recovery of depleted fishing stocks should have taken guidance from the following obligations arising from the multilateral and regional conventions:

  • Under Articles 56 of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the coastal states have sovereign rights to ensure that the living and non-living resources of the EEZ are used, conserved and managed, and not subject to overexploitation.
  • Access to the EEZ by foreign fleets is also solely within the coastal state’s discretion and subject to its laws and regulations.
  • Under Articles 61 of UNCLOS, the coastal States must determine the total allowable catch (TAC) in the EEZ, in order to prevent overexploitation.
  • The Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna 1993 (SBT) is also focused on TAC and the catch quotas put sustainable fishery use into practice to maintain maximum sustainable yield (MSY).


Other Limitations of SC Recent Order Related to Purse Seine Fishing

  • Merely restricting the purse seine fishing to two days is not sufficient without regulating the fishing methods used.
  • The huge size of the purse seine nets allows maximum catch for the purse seiners, in turn leaving behind insufficient catch for traditional fishermen.
  • The ecological arguments against purse seine nets are that it is a non-targeted fishing gear and catches all sorts of fishes which come in the way of the net, including juveniles, at-risk varieties, including turtles, etc.
      • It has also been linked to concerns about the decreasing stock of small, pelagic shoaling fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies and trevally on the western coasts.
      • Also in 2021, Kerala recorded a catch of just 3,297 tonnes of sardines, a sharp decrease from the haul of 3.9 lakh tonnes in 2012.
  • Against international norms — Several regional organisations either prohibit the use of large drift nets or at least call for their prohibition, such as the 1989 Tarawa Declaration of the South Pacific Forum.
      • The 1989 Convention for the Prohibition of Fishing with Long Drift Nets in the South Pacific also goes far in restricting port access for drift net fishing vessels.
      • The UNGA has also passed resolutions calling for a moratorium on all large-scale pelagic drift net fishing vessels in high seas.
      • These conventions can hence be implicitly relevant in terms of preventing overfishing in general and the conservation of fishery management in the EEZ as well.


What is the Union government’s stance?

  • The Fisheries Department of the Union government had recommended the lifting of the ban on purse seine fishing in a report submitted by an expert committee recently.
  • The expert panel also refused to accept that purse seine fishing caused “serious resource depletion”. It thus recommended purse-seiners to fish territorial waters and the Indian EEZ subject to certain conditions.
  • The Union government had sought six months to prepare a uniform national plan for purse seine fishing.


Way Forward

  • The Court’s final judgment needs to look into non-selective fishing methods by purse seiners.
  • A party under Article XX (b) of WTO rules can take measures to protect human, animal or plant life if it involves “conservation of exhaustible natural resources”.
  • Automatic identification systems to identify the boats engaged in purse seine fishing could be set up.
  • Also, the number of boats sent for purse seine fishing should be decided based on the availability of fish and the concerns of the traditional fish workers should also be addressed.
  • The government can also bring in certain regulations. For example, those not using mechanised boats and using only small boats should be allowed to operate within five nautical miles. But in the deep sea, it should be permitted to catch shoaling fishes using purse seines, as it is an internationally used scientific method.



Despite the best conservation measures and regulation of fishing methods, it will be a challenge in dealing with the limitless character of the seas which renders a common resource such as fish available for exploitation by all. The theory of Garrett Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, which says ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all’ should convince all fishermen, especially the purse seiners of Tamil Nadu, that they must cooperate in complying with conservation measures.


SourceThe Hindu


QUESTION – What is ‘purse seine fishing’? Discuss the recent Supreme Court judgment against the method of deep sea fishing and why is it being criticised by environmentalists?