Between March 25 to 28, 2020, the first week of an unprecedented lockdown ordered by the central government to flatten the Coronavirus curve, several fishing boats that had gone out to sea along India’s 6000 kilometer coastline, arrived at various fishing docks and jetties along the coast with fresh catch.
Most of them had left before the 21-day lockdown was announced at 8:00 PM on March 24, 2020 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trawlers and purse seine boats are out at sea anywhere between 3 to 12 days, depending on their sizes. Normally as the fishing boats dock, hundreds of tonnes of fish are immediately unloaded, auctioned, packed in ice, shipped off for export, or sold into the domestic market. On any given day the docks are bustling with wholesalers, retailers, and small-time fishmongers who buy their stock for the day, and travel to various parts of the city, town or squat in village fish markets.
But this week was different. When tonnes of fresh catch arrived, the docks were empty. The labour that unloads the catch had left, the ice factories and refrigeration facilities, an essential service in the value chain of the fishing industry, had been shut down, and the wholesale and retail buyers were missing.
What followed was a heart-breaking story of colossal food wastage and livelihood loss. Hundreds of tonnes of fresh, wild marine fish were thrown back into the sea—seer fish, croakers, mackerels, squids, shrimps, as well as numerous low value fish that support the fishery industry were dumped along the docks and into the sea. The staggering loss could amount to nearly “ten thousand tonnes of fish, according to calculations by the National Fishermen’s Forum,” says Ganesh Nakhwa, president of the National Purse Seine Fishermen Welfare Association (NPSFWA), based on losses reported by fishers from Maharashtra’s coastal districts.
While Nakhwa highlighted the issue on his social media handles, videos of distraught fishermen throwing their catch back into the sea or dumping them at the docks began to emerge from different parts of the country’s coast. From squids at Malpe in Karnataka, to prized corakers along the Gujarat coast and much-loved mackerels and seer fish at Mumbai’s Bhaucha Dhakka.
What led to this colossal wastage of an essential food commodity?
“Had the fishermen been notified of the possibility of a lockdown, they would not have ventured out into the sea. While the lockdown is essential to control the surge of the coronavirus, fish is categorised as an essential commodity, and being highly perishable, the preservation and distribution of fish depends on the survival of the value chain. The loss could have been prevented,” says Nakhwa, pointing at the lack of planning in shutting down ice factories and refrigeration facilities that are critical to the survival of the fishing industry.
Moreover, the exodus of the labour—tthe loaders and unloaders, factory workers, transporters and fish cleaners who are mostly daily wagers from the northern states of UP and Bihar—had left the fish landing at the jetties in peril. “It is a huge crisis for the fishing community, all the essential allied services are shut and fishing has completely stopped,” says Thiruvananthapuram-based Peter Thomas, general secretary of the NFF.
Why was fresh fish dumped?
Explaining the events that led to the dumping and wastage of fresh fish, Nakhwa says: “The complete lockdown was ill-planned and came so late in the day that the boats had already gone out fishing. They had no idea what was coming when they returned with a good catch. We are stakeholders in the food industry, but we were caught unawares.”
While the fishing community faces the immediate losses, another bigger worry looms large. Will the lockdown mean an end to fishing--an essential food for millions of people along India’s coast?
Is fish an essential commodity?
Fish is listed as an essential commodity, and it provides nutritional security to a large number of Indians. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO 2011-2012), urban Indians consume about approx 3 kg fish per capita/year, while in rural India the consumption is marginally higher at 3.25 kg per capita/year. These figures are a national average, and given India’s food diversity and consumption patterns of fish, the average figures don’t represent localised data. For instance, a closer look at the numbers show that the coastal villages in Odisha, Goa, and Kerala consume 5.2, 18.48 and 27.12 kg of fish per capita/year. Moreover, this survey was published in 2011, when the country’s fish production was at 5.3 million tonnes. In 2019-2020, India’s fish production stands at 13 million tonnes. Which basically means that Indians are eating more fish than ever before.
This is even more true for coastal communities, for whom fish is an important source of protein. A study published in the journal Plos One titled ‘A Global Estimate of Seafood Consumption by Coastal Indigenous Peoples’ (2016) shows that globally, coastal indigenous populations consume 15 times the amount of fish in comparison to inland communities.
In India, for the 1.6 crore strong workforce that the fishing industry employs, including inland fisherfolk, allied workers and women who are involved in selling fish and make up a third of the workforce, will also lose their primary source of food. What is clear is, fish provides food to millions of Indians, in addition to providing nutritional security to local communities.
What happens now?
Does that mean fish will disappear from the markets and your plate until the lockdown is lifted?
For now, that seems very likely. The domino effect of a pause on fishing will be felt on fish products, fish feed and seed essential for fish farming, shrimp and aquaculture farms and even aquariums. A memorandum to this effect was sent to the Minister of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, by the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF).
But there is some hope. Since the state governments are stepping in to ensure food security and relief, on March 31, 2020, the Maharashtra government said that fishing activities can resume, with required social distancing maintained between fisherfolk and consumers. This follows a Central government notification allowing movement of all goods, essential and non-essential. But even if fishing boats go out to sea, the supporting services to ensure the fresh catch reaches your plate, are under lockdown.
For the fishing community of India, the picture still looks grim. Some good news arrived just as we were publishing the story. The Central government is extending the relief package to the 1.6 crore people employed by the fishing industry, a third of which are women.
The real good news for the community, will be a return to fishing. While that seems some time away, enterprising fishermen like Nakhwa are looking for solutions. “Even though the state government has given us the go ahead for fishing, the absence of a cold chain, and the lockdown on export means an end to trawler fishing,” he says. To keep operations lean and manageable, he is mobilising his community to relook the business and switch to small scale fishing to tide through the pandemic. “This means we employ minimal labour, making it easier to maintain social distancing protocols. The local government, corporations and gram panchayats should look at throwing open community grounds for selling fish so people don’t crowd. Fish is necessary to maintain food security of a large population, and we will have to be ingenious,” says the Mumbai-based fisherman.
The pandemic is urging us to relook at our food systems. The writing on the wall is clear: Our plates may look different in the future.