Supreme Court: In a special leave petition combined with three writ petitions challenging the State Government’s ban on using of purse seine fishing nets within its territorial waters, the division bench of A.S. Bopanna and Sudhanshu Dhulia, JJ. passed a restricted interim order allowing purse seine fishing within the Exclusive Economic Zone (‘EEZ’) in Tamil Nadu. The order accompanies several conditions for vessels, sailors, boats, individuals/companies engaged in purse seine fishing.

The fisheries department of Tamil Nadu Government had banned the use of purse seine fishing nets within its territorial waters (22 Kms from the coastline) vide order dated 25-03-2000. The Madras High Court has already dismissed the challenge against it through order dated 05-02-2019. Another Public Interest Litigation (‘PIL’), i.e., Fisherman Care v. Govt. of India, 2021 SCC OnLine Mad 1616, filed before the same Court was also dismissed.

The Petitioners submitted thatthe fishing season will end by February 2023. Hence, they seek permission for fishing with purse seine fishing nets beyond the territorial waters in the State to avoid huge losses against large investments. The matter involves a conflict of economic interest among fishermen and the protection of biological diversity.

The Court noted that the Union of India has not imposed any restrictions on fishing beyond territorial waters within the EEZ. Coastal States are also divided on this issue since Gujarat, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka, Goa and West Bengal do not restrict purse seine fishing within territorial waters, while Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have banned the same.

While dealing with the instant matter, the Court opined that interests of all the parties need to be protected. Hence, the Court allowed purse seine fishing beyond the territorial waters of Tamil Nadu within EEZ with the following conditions:

  1. Only fishing vessels registered with the State Government of Tamil Nadu and under Section 11 of Marine Products Export Development Authority Act, 1972 will be permitted.

  2. Fisheries Department will permit only those boats which have an approved Vessel Tracking System (‘VTS’) installed, which needs to be kept running while the vessels operate.

  3. These vessels will be allowed to operate only twice a week on Monday and Thursday, while the other restrictions of non-fishing period still apply.

  4. Permitted vessels shall leave the coastline at or after 8 a.m. and return to the designated place on the same day by 6 p.m..

  5. It is mandatory for all the sailors to keep their biometric card/photo ID.

  6. It is mandatory to provide VTS code to the Fisheries Department, Marine Police, Coast Guard and the Indian Navy.

  7. State Fisheries Department shall give a colour code to these purse seine fishing boats.

  8. Registration numbers of vessels have to be prominently displayed on the boat. Each vessel’s tracking data for all the trips has to be submitted to the concerned Assistant Commissioner or other designated officer on the same day to ensure that the vessels have fished only outside the territorial waters of Tamil Nadu.

  9. Boats will be allowed to land/dock at the designated centre earmarked by the Fisheries Department.

  10. The State fisheries department has to display the permissions granted to individuals/companies along with the respective registration number of each of the vessels for the purpose of purse seine fishing on its website.

While passing interim orders, the Court also noted the Tamil Nadu State Counsel’s reference to State of Kerala v. Joseph Antony, (1994) 1 SCC 301 and Kerala Swathanthra Malaya Thozhilali Federation v. Kerala Trawlnet Boat Operators’ Assn., (1994) 5 SCC 28, wherein the Court has made adverse comments against Purse Seine Fishing. It clarified that the present restricted interim order is made after considering subsequent development since 1994 and the Central Government’s stand. The Court also kept the aforementioned judgments open for deeper consideration after receiving additional inputs based on the report of the Committee to be set up by the Central Government.

[Fisherman Care, Registered Association v. Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries, Government of India, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 82, decided on 24-01-2023]

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For Petitioners: Advocate Gopal Sankarnarayanan and Advocate Sirajudeen;

For Respondents: Advocate Mukul Rohatgi.

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