Let us Proudly Commemorate International Year of Small Scale Fisheries & Aquiculture - 2022

Maharashtra: Pollution, climate change driving bombil & pomfret away from city coast

“Did you get any rani fish?” Celine D’Souza, 37 asked for her favourite from across the relatively quiet Goregaon fish market on Thursday morning. “Like a stuck record, every time you come, you ask the same. Why don’t you buy surmai, pomfret, halwa instead?” asks her regular fish-monger Vishaka Bhoir, 49 stubbing off a bidi. “I’ll give you a price you can’t say no to,” she lures. Celine’s clearly not amused. She ignores her calls and heads to a stall across selling shark and tuna. Checking for freshness under the gills she picks up a shark, gently presses it and stares it hard in the eye. “My children and husband make such a fuss since I buy sardines, shark or tuna all the time. Pomfret, halwa and or surmai is beyond our means given the exorbitant prices.”

Prices weigh heavy on the mind of Santosh Singh the manager (operations) of Gajalee too. He admits speciality sea-food outlets like his face the worst brunt of vanishing varieties like pomfret and Bombay duck. "More than 50% of our orders are about some or the other item made with these two. With them getting difficult to come by prices have gone through the roof. We can only pass on some of it to our customers, unlike other places like Delhi and Bangalore, the customers in Mumbai are sensitive to prices. In the process of striking a balance between trying to keep our nose above water and not losing volume of business we have to do a really tight rope-walk," he told DNA.
Admitting how procuring produce has become a tough task. "Earlier we’d get our fish from just one landing site. Now we have to go to several every morning. Its literally a fight between sea-food outlets who are all looking for bulk quantities of the same high-end popular varieties like surmai, pomfret, Bombay duck and crabs." He wonders where the fish have all disappeared. It's a question that plagues many like Palghar resident fisherman Bharat Tandel, 42 too. “We go far into the sea(SEE MAP), yet often don’t get sizeable catch. If we don’t make enough after paying for diesel and khalasis, what’s the point?”
He remembers narrowly missing being captured by Pakistani coastguard last month. “Our GPS broke down. Coming back with nothing wouldn’t do. Since we started getting good-sized mackerel we kept going ahead.” Luckily for Tandel and eight others on board, there was still sufficient day light to see the Pak coast guard boat moving in on them and they weren’t too far from where Indian waters begin. A quick dash back saved them in the nick of time. “We would’ve been in prison for God knows how long,” he says folding his hands in prayer.
As they sit repairing nets, others like Samuel Patil, 28, visiting from the neighbouring Satpati village wonders why repeated representations from fishermen asking the government to declare a fish famine have fallen on deaf ears. “If they officially declare it we can ask them to write off loans taken for boats by fishermen like me, at least.” A suggestion the cash-strapped government seems loathe to listen. It simply waves the rule book. Maharashtra fisheries minister Madhukar Chavan told DNA, “Like I said in the assembly, a famine can only be declared if the current yield is less than 50% of the past five years’ average.” He admits being aware of the sharp drops in both the kind and quality of catch. “We’re in touch with fishermen’s co-operatives and fisheries experts on how there isn’t enough high-yield varieties like pomfret and Bombay duck, always plentiful off the Maharashtra coast.”
Echoing Chavan, principal scientist at Mumbai’s Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Dr Vinay Deshmukh informed DNA how the silver pomfret production of 24,000 tonnes/year in the 1980s has fallen to less than 3,000 tonnes/year. Bombay duck too, which saw a production of 76,000 tonnes/year two decades ago has fallen to almost 15,000 tonnes/year.
According to him, pollution (“Mumbai releases 300 MLD of untreated sewage into the the sea daily”), habitat degradation and climate change (“As the sea’s warming up sardines and mackerel are moving north. While they have all but vanished from the South Western coast, they are now being found in abundance even off the Gujarat coast where they wouldn’t earlier.”) have played havoc with sea-food production.
“But what compounds this problem several times over is rampant over-fishing. Our coasts have a natural capacity to produce 5.2 lakh tonnes of fish annually but we are going on over-exploiting.” He should know what he’s saying considering CMFRI has data from not only the 189 landing sites in the state but the 8,214 fishing villages across the country for over six decades. In fact he wonders why there are over 5,700 trawlers off the Maharashtra coasts when it is equipped to handle only 2,700! “These boats literally scrape the ocean floor. This means total destruction of habitat on one hand and catching young ones means there simply aren’t enough to breed and replenish stocks,” Deshmukh points out and adds, “What’s worse they want to fish almost right through the year.”  
Deshmukh’s views are in keeping with a 2006 warning by World Fisheries Centre, Kuala Lumpur. “If we continue exploiting the sea at current rates, we will just not have any fish left at all by 2046!” Fishermen like Ramdas Sandhe from the Akhil Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti of course feel differently. “A fisherman invests Rs 40 lakh to buy a trawler and average daily running costs come to Rs 20,000 a day. Which fisherman in his right mind wouldn’t try to make up for those expenses?” he asks.

A senior bureaucrat in the state fisheries department says large-scale corruption is a major factor responsible for the gulf in the  positions taken by Sandhe and Deshmukh. He alleges the National Cooperatives Development Corporation (NCDC) officers inflate loan demands by fisherfolk and pocket the difference. “Once catch falls to a big low like in 2004, decibel levels of protests rise. Conveniently ahead of polls, the government writes off loans,” explains the bureaucrat who adds, “Obviously the number of trawlers keeps increasing. Despite disastrous effects on marine ecology and yield, the state fisheries commissionerate keeps gloating about growth citing number of trawler licences issued.” Sandhe on his part trounces such allegations pointing out how the state often ends up allowing NCDC funds to lapse and returns large chunks of it.  Given the dynamics at work, sustainability seems a far cry for fishing which seems stuck deep in troubled waters. Celine may have a really long wait ahead for that flash of golden pink at her fishmonger’s stall.
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