According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement in force since 1994 regarding international activity in the world’s oceans, Article 55 of the document defines the legal regime of the Exclusive Economic Zone.
The article defines an area of ocean marked as an Exclusive Economic Zone (or EEZ) as –
“The exclusive economic zone is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime established in this Part, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention” (UNCLOS, 2001).
The Convention replaces the older concept of international waters apart from national rights extending for nations over belts of coastal waters through the maritime boundaries of nations. It was borne out of the desire of certain nations to extend their rights beyond their coastal belts, to exploit natural resources, protect fishing areas and check pollution levels.
Having international waters that were zones of free opportunity made enumeration, economic regulation and conservation efforts extremely difficult, and the Convention attempts to provide guidelines for sustainable use of resources from the world’s oceans. The document can be said to be primarily based on economic regulations on nation-state activity, and though conservation extends beyond the EEZs, the Convention has an important bearing on limiting the fishing industry by placing sustainable limits on fishing extraction from the world’s oceans.
The maritime boundaries of the EEZ for India
The clauses of the Convention are specific to region and each member state interprets its legal strategy for its EEZ in its own manner. In 1976 India enacted the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976 that followed its incorporation in Article 297 of Chapter III, Part XII of the Constitution with the introduction of the concept of the EEZ by the UNCLOS.
By June 1997, India had ratified to the UNCLOS III segment of the treaty, that signified its agreement with the region specific agenda of the treaty. The Act places between 2.2 to 2.8 million square km of sea under India’s jurisdiction. The boundaries however, are not clearly demarcated and are sometimes disputed, such as the critical one between Indian and Pakistani waters, that includes the Sir Creek area. The EEZ usually have boundaries that are not clearly marked, and the limits are evaluated relative to the member state’s coastal boundary. This sometimes causes clashes and overlapping of different EEZs, usually without investments in markers such as buoys throughout the boundaries.
Fishing in India is largely seen in coastal areas as a source of budget-friendly nutrition, in opposition to meat diets, although the fishing industry is currently mired in disputes and competition between local fishermen and commercial fishing. A. Mathew concluded a study for UNCLOS in 2009 that reported the depletion of the share of marine fishing output as compared to the inland fishing output in India by 2005-06. The study also noted a depletion in marine stock landings in 2005 as compared to 2000. Apart from destruction of ecosystems by practices such as fishing even during the breeding season, some significant issues that Mathew reports include threatened shark populations, reduced opportunity for sea birds, use of destructive fishing gears such as bottom trawling and increased competition in fishing due to a developing income divide (A. Mathew, 2009).
However, certain policy measures have been taken, such as fixing a cap on trawling capacity, ceasing introduction of more trawler fleets by coastal states along with registration of mechanized fishing vessels, discouragement of environmentally harmful practices, and demarcation of ‘EEZ’ that limit access areas and limit fishing to resource-specific vessels (A.Mathew, 2009). The question that reigns is how the EEZ has been utilized by the Indian government in relation to fishing activities.
With regard to the EEZ, Mathew reports that certain measures have been instituted by the Government of India. The measures that have been adopted include (A. Mathew, 2009) –
Legislation has been enacted by the Centre over the regulation of fishing and fisheries by Indian fishing vessels operating in the EEZ.
Fishing within areas under the EEZs cannot occur without the mandatory approval of the Central government.
Enforcement of the Maritime Zones of India (Regulation of fishing by foreign vessels) Act, 1981, that prevents fishing by a foreign vessel within a country’s EEZ unless a licence or permit is obtained from the Central Government to the contrary.
The Comprehensive Marine Fishing Policy, 2004, that establishes guidelines for sustainable fishing with legislative support in this regard, and also towards the interests of small-scale traditional fishermen.
N.G.K. Pillai and U. Ganga in their paper ‘Sustainable Management of Marine Fisheries of the Exclusive Economic Zone of India’, 2011, report how for the Indian government, the unrestricted growth of fishing fleets and over-exploitation of fishing resources was a major issue since the 1980s, leading to a trend in thought towards sustainable methods. The major goal of sustainable fishing, the authors cite, is the prevention of over-fishing, or the moderation of over-fished stocks such that they are eventually replenished, and also fishing operations should be engineered to minimize damage to ecosystems (N.G.K. Pillai and U. Ganga, 2011).
Other than excessive offshore fishing, the Indian Ocean also has its fair share of piracy, with hundreds of attacks between 2008 and 2012. The year 2011 alone witnessed 237 attacks (The Indian Express, 2017). Piracy is most common close to countries with a food or resource crisis, such as Somalia. There has been a sharp decline in piracy however, since international navies stepped up patrols in an ongoing battle.
Another related issue is poaching and illegal trade in marine goods such as sea horses and sea cucumbers (A. Vashishtha, 2014), which are prised for commercial reasons. These problems require states to build international co-operation in maritime conservation such that imbalances are not caused to fishing economies due to extraction from the oceans. The UNCLOS offers a ratified basis of co-operation sanctified by legal processes and the resolution of disputes as based on the terms of the agreement. The agreement could be useful as a powerful tool in achieving international co-operation over maritime problems.
Part XII of the UNCLOS is titled ‘Protection and Preservation of the Marine Environment’ which obliges states to protect the environment, along with comprehensive clauses throughout the agreement for the protection of marine life (H.S. Schiffman, 2017). Marine conservation in the treaty is addressed in a region-specific manner, as mentioned earlier, and states have a right to work out their policies around clauses given in the treaty. The treaty and the demarcation of EEZs ultimately aim towards sustainable management of marine ecosystems. India’s position with its fishing industry is such that depleting fishing stocks imply that it cannot do without a sustainable approach, and meeting the sustainability criteria of the treaty in consort with domestic policy might be a positive practice in this regard.