In the following pages, I introduce five—incomplete—fish chains from the coastline of Tamil Nadu, India, which were encountered in the course of my research.Footnote 7 They are incomplete in the sense that I have come across these chains during my work along the coastline, and generally have a better understanding of their workings on the beach—than inland. These five chains vary according to their dates of origin (from pre-colonial times to the present), their volumes and monetary values, their visibility, as well as their geographical ranges—from local to national and international. The last category consists of what is commonly known as Global Value Chains—the dominant type in current supply chain research. I highlight chain dynamics, also including one example of what could be called an “interrupted chain.” Finally, I trace the contours of legal pluralism affecting these chains. Table 1 provides an overview of the five cases and their characteristics.
Besides dividing supply chains according to destination and value, Table 1 provides an indication of when these supply chains arose according to three time slots: the pre-colonial era; the 1960s (coinciding with the Blue Revolution in fisheries), and the post-1990s (coinciding with the era of economic liberalization in India). It comes as no surprise that my international fish chains all have a relatively recent origin—this relates to the recent acceleration of globalization processes and India’s position therein. The table also contains two vacant cells: although the local fish market does deal with higher value species; such chains have been left aside for reasons of brevity. The non-inclusion of low-value species for the international market on the other hand is reflective of the nature of fish flows from India, which still tend to concentrate on high value species.
Case 1: Interrupted international chain
The marine species involved in this chain consists of a variety of sea snail (taxonomic class Gastropoda) inhabiting the inshore seabed of the Coromandel Coast. In the mid-1990s, local fish merchants introduced a simple hoop net to the small-scale fisheries of the Coromandel Coast in Tamil Nadu for gathering sea snails (Bavinck 1996, 1998, 2014), providing them for free to fishers willing to put them to use, and offering them a reasonable price per kilo. This métier required few fishing skills and could be carried out by small inshore fishing units. Produce was shipped to markets in the Middle East, thereby integrating the métier into a global value chain. Many of the region’s fishers, however, protested against the use of the net, arguing that it interfered with the marine food web and would contribute to resource depletion. Moreover, it was argued to be socially unfair (Bavinck and Karunaharan 2006). The operation of this fishery thereby became a prime governance issue at the fisher level. A series of fisher councils, locally known as ur panchayat, that constitute the hub of customary law along this coastline (Bavinck 2001) prohibited the use of the net in their waters, while other councils refused to interfere. This resulted in conflicts between fishing villages, which could only be solved through decisive action of the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department in combination with the police (Bavinck 1998, 2014). While the Fisheries Department, which is the governmental agency authorized by the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Regulation Act (1984) to regulate fishing gear, in this case, joining hands with the police, it took a law and order approach, supporting the viewpoint of the dominant fisher group, which wanted to prohibit this particular fishery, but not formulating any legislation of its own. As a result of this one-off combination of regulatory efforts from different sources, the sea snail fishery, and this supply chain, did not develop in a major way, except in a few landing centers where ur panchayat control is relatively weak (Bavinck 2014).
Legal pluralist dynamics thus interfered in an early phase of this supply chain, motivated by concerns over ecological and social sustainability (Parlee and Wiber 2015). Local merchants had probably aimed to establish a form of “captive governance” of the chain by providing gear in exchange for produce, but backed off because of fisher action.
Case 2: Expanding national chain of sardine (genus: Sardinella)
This supply chain centers on various sub-species of sardines, which are traditionally a mainstay of the small-scale fishing sector along the east coast of India (Bavinck 2001, 94ff). There are two variations. Case 2(a) concerns a local supply chain. In the 1990s, most fishing households in the Coromandel Coast region had invested in sardine nets (Tamil: sudaivalai) and were operating them throughout the year. Although pelagic species such as sardines have a large geographical range and a seasonal availability, the human dimensions of the fish chain at this time were generally short and straightforward: fisher women or small traders generally sold fresh sardines to consumers on the local market at relatively low prices.Footnote 8 The sardine fishery therefore played a key role in the food security of the local agricultural and urban population. No urgent resource problems manifested themselves at the time, and the coordination issues that did arise were generally solved by individual market actors. Nevertheless, ur panchayats kept watch over the fairness of the village auctions in which fishers sold their catches. With limited economic interests and well-established procedures, governance activity was typically low key, dominated by fisher councils, and of Gereffi’s market type. With sardine fisheries not connecting to state priorities of any kind, governmental authorities played no role in this supply chain. Legal pluralism interactions thereby fit best in Bavinck and Gupta’s type 1 (indifference).
By 2017, in response to innovations in technology and fresh fish markets, the scene had changed, however. This leads us to case 2(b). While individual small-scale fishers continue to provide local markets with sardines, their catches have gone down due to the operation of newly introduced ring/purse seine units. The ring/purse seine fishery was brought to the east coast of Tamil Nadu from the neighboring state of Kerala around the year 2000 and has gradually been moving up the coast. Operated by collectives of small-scale fishers bundling assets and labor power, but also invested in by fisher elites, these units target schools of sardine and other schooling fish, landing large quantities at any one time. These landings are generally procured by large merchants who ship them to cities across the country (but mainly to Kerala), as well as abroad. Although a substantial portion of these catches serve low-income consumers, another segment is actually being channeled to fish meal plants and ends up in the upcoming poultry and aquaculture industry. With these large merchants, or their local agents, as well as local auctioneers, providing credit for the purchase of relatively expensive ring/purse seine fishing gear, fishers are “tied” into certain marketing channels at the local level. The subsequent movement of fish to various national market centers seems to take place largely on the basis of the market or the relational modes of governance (personal information K. Subramaniam) and is barely subjected to regulation.
Similar to the case of sea snail nets (case 1 above), ring/purse seine technology is highly contested along the Coromandel Coast, with many ur panchayats actively opposing the use of the gear on the ground of ecological depletion as well as social unfairness. Making use of their range of control instruments, with excommunication from the community as the ultimate sanction, these panchayats prohibit their village fishers from applying the gear and have also put collective pressure on the state government to ban this kind of fishing. The government of Tamil Nadu initially complied and issued a notification (GO 40, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries Department, date 25 March 2000) completely prohibiting the use of ring/purse seines. It makes no effort to implement the law, however, with as ironic consequence that fishing harbors like Cuddalore, which I have studied in some detail, now possess a large fleet of illegal ring/purse seining vessels that regularly leave port for fishing. Here again, the main challenge posed to the fish supply chain is located in the harvesting phase. In addition, however, there is a social movement of consumers in Kerala who, relying greatly on sardines for consumption, decry the transfer of catches to fish meal plants and demand government action in order to protect consumer interests (personal information S. Saleem). In this case, legal pluralism has been reflected in conflicts at the level of fishers and consumers, as well as between customary and governmental authorities. These spread up and down the chain, affecting its performance.
Case 3: Historical niche chain centering on chank (species: Turbinella pyrum)
The chank fishery of the Gulf of Mannar dates back to pre-colonial times (Hornell 1914), and is linked to North Indian ornamental, religious, and other markets (Sen and Sinha 1965:37). Due to its crucial role in Hindu ritual, it is also known as “sacred chank” (Lipton et al. 2013). According to Sen and Sinha (1965), who conducted field research on the processing of chanks in West Bengal in 1961, “Conch [chank] shells are procured by merchants of Calcutta [Kolkata] from Madras [Chennai] through Madrasi agents and sold to the village artisans” (ibid.:37). The main dynamic in this fishery appears to be market demand.
This fish chain requires governance of a stable kind, primarily directed at curbing fishing effort within ecological limits. In parallel to the pearl fishery that took place along this coast, the colonial and then the Tamil Nadu government regulated the profession and monopolized the trade until the 1980s. Now, although divers continue to be licensed, they are free to sell their produce to the highest bidder (Sridhar 2018). The diving technology is still extremely simple, however, with divers operating from small boats with only a mask and a pair of flippers. Although there have been attempts to introduce scuba diving equipment, ur panchayats are prohibiting the use thereof (van Haastrecht and Schaap 2003).
The chank supply chain thus has an old history of strict governmental regulation that is supported by the ur panchayats in an instance of mutual support (Bavinck and Gupta type 4). Although ur panchayats play an additional role in curbing technical innovation, in recent years, market actors appear to have gained traction in the supply chain. The precise nature of governance within the supply chain requires further study, however.
Case 4: High volume/high value chain focusing on shrimp (family: Penaeidae, including species Fenneropenaeus indicus)
The shrimp fishery of India is an example of high dynamics, precipitated by a sudden integration, from the 1960s onwards, into a high-value, international market (Kurien 1978) with an almost insatiable demand. Although small-scale fishers target shrimp too, the very substantial fleet of small trawlers—that was initiated by government during the onset of the Blue RevolutionFootnote 9—is the main supplier. The trawl fishery of India now counts almost 30,000 craft (CMFRI 2007) and still focuses largely on shrimp. The movement of trawler fleets from one Indian state to another has caused significant social tensions, as has their incursion into the fishing grounds of small-scale fisher populations (Bavinck 2001; Scholtens et al. 2012). These dynamics are additionally impacted by rising fuel prices as well as competition from the aquaculture sector. Governmental authorities have been exerting influence on the shrimp fisheries through subsidies on fuel and craft, as well as through state-wise bodies of fisheries regulation, such as the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act of 1983. But fisher bodies too influence the shrimp fisheries. Ur panchayats have thus desperately tried to limit trawl fishing in inshore waters, while also regulating the use of, for example trammel nets (Bavinck and Karunaharan 2006). Trawl owner associations, on the other hand, have strived to keep inshore fishing grounds open for their operations (Bavinck 2001).
From the time of landing, shrimp supply chains diverge from other fish chains, with a separate category of merchants, frequently linked to one of many export houses, taking charge. With exports to the European Union, but also to other international markets, being carefully monitored as to food safety, the processing industry in India is becoming ever more tightly regulated and licensed. Although integrated shrimp supply chains, running from harvest to export, have been attempted in India, lead export firms now generally focus on the trade chain itself, with various forms of governance—market, relational, and captive—being applied. International buyers establish relational or market governance connections with export houses.
Legal pluralism here is characterized by strong conflict between customary and governmental authorities over fishing rights, a struggle won by the newly established category of trawler fishers. The supply chain is now also infused by a web of regulations emanating from foreign seafood importers (and their governments), as well as by standards imposed by national agencies and private parties.
Case 5: Upcoming global supply chain focusing on tuna (tribe: Thunnini, including yellowfin and skipjack)
The recently formulated “National Policy on Marine Fisheries” (2017) provides an indication of the direction in which the government of India would like its fisheries to proceed. After concluding that “the fisheries resources from the near-shore waters are fully utilized,” it suggests that “the deep sea and oceanic waters offer opportunities of increasing the catch” (Government of India 2017:14). One page down, it states that “In terms of revenue, some of the high value species like tuna […] are yet to be optimally harvested” (ibid.: 15).
In fact, tuna fisheries have been in the cards for two decades already. While I was doing my first fieldwork in Chennai in the mid-1990s, a small fleet of tuna longliners, leased from Japan by a Calcutta-based Indian company, had anchored there, much to the dismay of the local boat owner association (Bavinck 2001:249ff). Its discontent resulted in a demonstration against the government’s deep-sea policy in general, and against these longliners in particular, which contributed eventually both to a revision of governmental policyFootnote 10 as well as to the departure of this small fleet from Chennai.
Two decades later, in 2017, the government of India has made a new attempt to launch an indigenous, capital-intensive tuna fishery, linking this initiative to the resolution of the long-drawn fishing conflicts between trawler fishers from Tamil Nadu and the small-scale fishers of Sri Lanka (Scholtens et al. 2012). This time, the effort is focused on converting the trawl fishing vessels now plying Sri Lankan waters into tuna longliners that would take to the deep sea. Whether this program will be successful is still to be seen. It is clear, however, that governmental authorities view the deep-sea tuna fisheries as an important new opportunity to link up with high value international markets, particularly in Japan. To do so successfully, however, requires large investments in post-harvest facilities, as the quality standards of high-value tuna are necessarily strict. As it is now, the Indian fishing fleet (both large-scale and small-scale) does land tuna, but often of sub-optimal quality (John and Pillai 2009).
The global value chain of tuna is very well regulated. Not only has substantial effort been put into the regulation of the deep-sea fisheries itself, through intergovernmental organizations such as the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, such organizations have also fostered a regulatory framework to which signatories, such as the government of India, are tied. IUU-fishing is an important concern, and rules to limit bycatch are implemented. Certification is an increasingly important practice exercising influence on tuna chain governance (Miller and Bush 2015).
Contrary to the sardine fishery discussed in case 3, the tuna fishery chain is long, of high monetary value, and extremely intricate. The governance challenges are diffuse and of a serious nature. On the one hand, international agencies are pushing for a management regime that prevents overfishing of tuna stock. On the other, agencies at various scale levels keep watch over hygiene, food quality, and sustainability. At the local level, boat owner associations are making their own decisions on which fishers are allowed to make use of harbor and market facilities (cf. Bavinck et al. 2015). Coordination of governance effort between actors is an important concern.