The Andaman Islands are one of the few places in India where individuals from multiple communities are involved in commercial fishing activities. At the same time several different types of fisheries came into existence since the 1900s. The previously pristine nature of marine ecosystems in these islands and their extensive fringing coral reefs, created a space for multiple fisheries targeting different types of marine organisms. However, these fisheries have not had a stable history of existence. Many fisheries have peaked and then subsequently declined either due to unregulated fishing pressure, changes in policy, poor management, or a fall in demand for the product. It is worthwhile trying to record this cycle of “boom and bust” fisheries and understand the conditions that allow for new fisheries to start, peak, and then decline.

One of the first commercial fisheries to start in these islands was the shellfish fishery; and two species were mainly targeted, namely Trochus niloticus and Turbo marmoratus. Trochus or ‘top shell’ has a conical shell with alternating red and white bands, while Turbo or ‘turban shell’ has a thick green shell with white patches. Both shells were used in the mother of pearl industry. The fishery started in the 1920s, with licenced Japanese fishers being allowed to skin dive and hand pick the shells off reefs that were 10 to 25m deep. Despite several rules and regulations managing the fishery, including demarcation of shell fishing zones, a minimum size limit, and several closed seasons, the stocks of both species dwindled over the years. In fact, surveys in 1978 by the CMFRI and in 2010 by the ZSI failed to record any specimens of Turbo. In 2001, Trochus and Turbo were placed under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, thereby banning collection of these species across India, and this resulted in the closure of the fishery. Sea cucumbers belong to a group called Holothurians, and there was an active fishery for this group since 1975. Sea cucumbers were handpicked from reefs, boiled and dried, to produce an end product called bêche-de-mer that were exported to Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries. Products from the Andaman Islands fetched 10-15 times more money than those from mainland India, due to their high quality. As a result of a clause in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Shell Fishing Rules, 1978, extraction of sea cucumbers was banned in areas demarcated as ‘Shell Fishing Zones’, which covered nearly all of the area where these organisms were located. There are no clear estimates of the quantities of holothurians extracted from the Andamans, and extensive poaching is partially responsible for this. In 2001, Holothurians were also added to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, effectively protecting them from any form of extraction in India.

The first reported landing of sharks in the Andaman Islands was in 1967. Despite the poor local demand for sharks, they were targeted predominantly for their fins and livers. Shark fins were and continue to be exported in large quantities to Southeast Asian countries, while oils from their livers are used for pharmaceutical purposes. The catch rates of sharks in these waters show a declining trend between 1984 and 2005 and fishermen support this trend with observations of reef sharks rarely being encountered nowadays. Some laws and regulations have attempted to regulate this fishery, and a nationwide ban on shark fishing was introduced in July 2001. Six months later this ban was lifted, following protests by shark fishermen across the country. In these islands, a ban on shark fishing from April 15 to May 31 was introduced in 2009, giving shark populations a chance to recover from fishing mortality each year. While the shark fishery is still active in the Andaman Islands, the stocks of coastal species have greatly reduced and fishermen are fishing in deeper and deeper waters in order to catch sharks.

The three fisheries described above have “boomed and busted” due to a combination of factors like poor management, policy changes, and unregulated fishing pressure. Foreign poachers target all three groups to maximise their returns, and in turn deprive local enterprises of profits. With this in mind, several groups advocate the delisting and reopening of the shellfish and sea cucumber fisheries, as they feel that these stocks have recovered appropriately. However, without adequate monitoring of these fisheries and scientifically sound management practices, these fisheries could once again boom and go bust. In order for fishers to self-regulate, a system of equitable profit distribution may go a long way in sustaining these stocks. In the case of the shark fishery, species level catch monitoring, studies on life history patterns, population structure, and abundance could help provide information about the future of these stocks and the direction the fishery is taking. At present, several other fisheries, like those for crabs, lobsters, and groupers, are booming. It only remains to be seen how long these fisheries will last and when they will go bust.