- Date: March 08, 2021
- Author: Emma Barnes
Along the Arabian Sea coastline of Kerala, India, fishing is a common livelihood. From squid to shrimp, seafood from the state is a significant part of India’s total marine catch. But high rates of industrial fishing mean risking overfishing, bycatch, and related ecosystem damage. Dr. Vineetha Aravind, a resident of Kerala (or “Keralite”), is committed to balancing the fishing industry with the conservation of the marine biodiversity on which her community depends.
Growing up in Kerala, Dr. Aravind earned master's and doctorate degrees in fisheries science before working in other industries and countries as a teacher and psychologist. Even while working outside of the fisheries field, she remained interested in conservation and the benefits of environmental certifications of consumer goods, like seafood.
After learning of an opportunity to become directly involved in improving the sustainability of her state’s fisheries, Dr. Aravind was inspired to return to fisheries work. She chose to attend a training workshop in 2018 hosted by WWF, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—a non-profit dedicated to sustainable fishing practices—and India’s Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute.
WWF and partners saw an opportunity for improvement in Kerala’s fisheries. But instead of starting projects that would need to be monitored from distant offices, the training program was designed to build knowledge of how to tackle environmental challenges within local fisheries by certifying the people who live there. Once passing the course, attendees could become sustainability consultants for the MSC, run trainings themselves, and further expand the local oversight while sharing conservation progress.
Dr. Aravind found particular use in getting directly involved in the fieldwork part of the course. “We assisted the trainers throughout the pre-assessment process, and it was learning by doing which was quite effective,” Dr. Aravind said. “The training helped me to understand the MSC standards in detail and has been quite helpful in managing fishery improvement projects (FIPs).”
As a result of this experience, Dr. Aravind was the first person to be certified for this conservation auditor role in the entirety of India, regardless of gender.
Now, Dr. Aravind is lead coordinator for shrimp and cephalopod (squid, octopus, and cuttlefish) fisheries that are working to improve their sustainability through FIPs. Fisheries, especially ones with multiple species, can have a range of challenges on the path to sustainability, but for Dr. Aravind’s projects, “the most relevant threat that these fisheries face is that of trawl fishery, which always poses the risk of bycatch.”
Trawling involves pulling a net along the ocean floor to catch low-lying species. The practice often inadvertently catches wildlife that fishers don’t want, like turtles, juvenile fish, sharks, and crabs, or starfish. When unintended catches end up in trawl nets, they can be injured or killed— a particularly common problem in the tropical shrimp fishing industry.
But Dr. Aravind and her collaborators have a solution to make bycatch a problem of the past for Kerala. “As first steps, trials have been done on board commercial trawlers using square mesh cod-ends,” Dr. Aravind said. “Square mesh cod-ends are bycatch reduction-style nets that have been found effective in trials conducted in other states in India. Compared to the presently used diamond mesh cod-ends, the square mesh has a much cleaner catch.”
Transitioning to this new net style will help fishers only catch the species that they want and leave non-target wildlife safe in the ocean.
Bycatch is an issue that needs to be addressed across all oceans. WWF is not only committed to training community members on improved fishing management methods through programs like the one resulting in Dr. Aravind’s success but is also working to develop, test, and implement alternative fishing gear and raise consumer awareness about sustainably caught fish.