“There is no fish in the ocean”: Declining catch worries fishers in southern Karnataka

  • Declining fish catch since August 2019 has triggered a wave of worry amongst fishers across the economic spectrum in southern Karnataka.
  • Climate change, unsustainable and unregulated fishing methods have both been blamed for this decline.
  • Small-scale fishers are the most affected, and are now seeking support from the government.

January 18th, 2020. It is a hot Saturday afternoon in Sasihithlu, a small fishing village in southern Karnataka. At 12:30 PM, the sun is directly above us, glaring through a largely cloudless sky. Surya Salian, 62, gathers his cast net for a final throw. He enters the still blue water until it is waist-high. He swings his arm and throws the circular net. It forms a shimmering translucent circle in the air for a few seconds, then drops into the water. After a few minutes, he pulls it out. It has one small fish, a silver biddy, wriggling. He throws it on the white sand, next to three other fish caught a short while ago.

“This might be the year of famine for us,” he said, after a moment.

Surya Sailan waiting after casting his net. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

January 19th, 2020. It is balmy and breezy at 4 AM in the Arabian Sea. A purse seiner, a big boat that goes out about 15 nautical miles into the ocean to catch Indian oil sardines, is ready to head out. Most of the crew on the ship is from Odisha, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. They left because their land did not offer them a living, and they arrived here, on the west coast, in south Karnataka, working on big fishing boats, hoping for a better life. After six hours, the ship returns, empty-handed. The crew members earn nothing for the day.

Since August 2019, fishers across the spectrum, from the small-scale ones to owners of giant trawlers, echo a similar lament. There are no fish in the ocean. Although the official fish catch data for 2019-2020 will be released only after March 2020, officials from Central Marine Fisheries of India (CMFRI) have confirmed that there has been a significant decline in fish catch since the post-monsoon season.

“Usually, the post-monsoon period is peak fishing time. There is some cause of concern that the peak season did not do well,” said Sunil Mohamed, principal scientist and head, Molluscan Fisheries Division, CMFRI, over a telephone conversation.

There has been a decline in coastal marine fish production in India over the last few years. CMFRI data reveals a 9% decline in overall fish catch in 2018 as compared to the previous year. The 2018 annual fish landing data from the institute also showed a 54% decline since 2017 of the Indian oil sardine (Sardinella longiceps), a pelagic fish found abundantly in the Arabian Sea, particularly the coastal waters that cover Karnataka.

Eyes peeled for Indian oil sardine on the crow’s nest in a purse seiner. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

“We have seen a major decline in the Indian Oil sardine since 2016,” said Mohamed. “For a long time, it formed 30-40% of fish catch. It reduced to 15%, and now barely makes it to 5%,” he said.

Reasons for the decline in fish catch

Experts have given a variety of reasons for the decline of fish catch.

There’s climate change; the rise in sea surface temperature is changing the nature of oceans, which in turn affects the phytoplankton production, a primary food for several pelagic fish in the ocean, including Indian oil sardines. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change released a report last year stating that there will be an unprecedented rise in the frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea due to anthropogenic warming of the oceans.

Secondly, there are unsustainable methods of fishing. Bull (or pair) trawling involves tying a net between two mechanised boats and dragging the net for several kilometres. It sweeps the ocean bed completely, taking everything with it. Light fishing involves attaching powerful LED lights at the end of nets, dropping it in the water to attract shoals of fish and catching large spawning adults. While bull trawling has been banned by the Karnataka state government since December 2016, LED light fishing has been widely criticized in both Karnataka and Goa, and banned in Goa. However, state officials and trawlers themselves admit that the ban has not had much of an effect.

Both bull trawling and light fishing are in operation during the fishing season. On January 19th, this visiting correspondent heard murmurings at the Mangalore Harbour about a trawler named Blue Whale returning after a successful journey of light fishing, with a haul of spearfish and yellow-tailed tuna, worth 12 lakh rupees.

A bed of purse seine nets. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

“Yes, illegal fishing is still happening,” said Manjula ShriShenoy, assistant deputy director at the department of fisheries, Mangalore. “In December, we caught two boats. We found generators for light fishing, higher horsepower (HP) [the limit is 350 HP], and mismatching registration certificate RC. We fined them INR 40,000 and 65,000 each. But there are more. But we are too short-staffed to do continuous surveillance.”

The fisheries department currently has a 40% occupancy. “Out of 43 seats, we have 25 lying vacant. None of our field officers are from Dakshin Kannada,” she said. “We don’t even know how many boats head out every day, and they come back at 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM. We don’t have the staff to monitor all this,” she said.

The Coastal security police and the Indian Coast Guard have a mandate to patrol the territorial and EEZ waters, respectively, for illegal fishing. Both, however, declined to give an official comment.

Overcapacity of boats

In 1986, the Karnataka state government introduced the Karnataka Marine Fishing (Regulation) Act, 1986, in an attempt to regulate the rampant rise of fishing boats. The act requires a license for every boat and gives the state fisheries department the authority to search the vessels. Over the years, several rules have been formed by the state government, capping horsepower of engines, minimum legal size to bring about regulation in fishing.

According to records provided by the fisheries department, there are 1285 trawl boats, 57 purse seine boats, and 1487 mechanised gill nets and other boats registered in south Karnataka. But both department officials and the local trawler association admit that there are more than the registered number of ships. “About 100-125 boats are added every year, many not registered” said Nithin Kumar, president of Dakshin Kannada Trawler Association.

The Mangalore harbour. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

“Even with registration, one doesn’t even need to be a fisherman to have a boat,” he scoffed.

Amidst all this, the traditional, small scale, artisanal fisherfolk suffer the most.

The “original” fishers of Dakshin Kannada

“Madam, please make sure you emphasise on the word moola. It means “original,” and we are all the original fishermen of Dakshin Kannada,” said Chandrasekhar Shriyan as I jot down the name of their newly formed union. It is called Dakshin Kannada Karavali Moola Meenugarara Sangha, translated to South Karnataka Coastal Original Fishermen Union.

The union, with 1200 members covering 14 villages across the coast of south Karnataka, was formed on December 26th, 2019, as a result of growing discontent amongst small scale fish workers of the region.

“We are the Mogaveera, the original tribe of fishermen, born to protect the seashore,” explained Shriyan. “And we are being pushed to the brink of desperation. There is nothing in the sea for us. The capitalists are taking everything.”

“And the government is not helping,” he added.

No fish no money no security

Sharath Kumar, 38, has been fishing since he was 11 years old. He doesn’t own a boat but works on other people’s boats. “I do everything–gill netting, traditional, purse seining, trawl…anything you ask for I’ll do.” But he has not been successful since December 26th. “There is no fish in the sea, and if there is no fish, we don’t earn anything for the day,” he said. “I just play rummy all day. Thinking of running away,” he said with a laugh.

Venkatesh, 42, owns two boats–a motorised craft with an outboard engine of 15HP, which is kept by the beach, and a non-motorised traditional canoe, which he takes into the river. When there is nothing in the sea, he takes his traditional craft on the river and hunts for clams. When there is nothing in either, he jumps on a trawl boat. On a trawl boat, for every lakh worth of fish caught, he receives INR 1000. But the season since August has been bad.

Venkatesh on his traditional boat looking for clams in Nandini River in Sasihithlu. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

“We haven’t gotten anything in the sea since December 26th,” he said, echoing several others. “My monthly expense is at least INR 5000. I need to meet that to keep going.”

Shirish Kerkura has similar sentiments. “You know, earlier we used to get a lot of fish, but not great money,” said the 40-year-old fisherman. “Today, the catch is less, but the fish price is higher. We catch fish once a week and the money gets adjusted for the rest of the days. We roll with it.”

“But it has been awful since late December. They need to do something.”

“A fisherman’s income entirely depends on the catch of the day,” said Shobendra Sashithlu, president of Sasihithlu Fishing Cooperative Society. In existence since 1932, the cooperative currently has 464 active members from the village. At least 150 of them have taken loans from the cooperative, for education, health matters, marriage, life things, said Sasihithlu. “And at least 25 have been unable to return the money.”

“Macchi nahi hai paani mein”, he said in frustration. (Hindi for “There is no fish in the ocean”).

Support for women fisherfolk

Remela M Mendela, 65, sells fish for a living. On January 17th, Friday, she woke up at 3:30 AM, made a cup of tea. She collected her baskets that she had made ready the night before. With four fellow fish sellers, she climbed onto a tempo they had taken on hire. She reached Malpe harbour, nearly 50 km away at 4:30 AM. She bought fish worth INR 21,000. She then headed to another market place about 20 km away by 9:30 AM, sold all her fish, and returned home by 8:30 PM.

Her net earnings: zero.

Remela M Mendela at Sasihithlu. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

“Whatever I earned was spent on travel and food for the day,” she said.

In 2015, a subsidy was introduced for women, providing them with fish baskets, insulated iceboxes and stools to sit on. “That was a good subsidy, but it lasted only a year,” said ShriShenoy. “They should bring it back.”

But apart from this, there hasn’t been much support for women fisherfolk. They have to buy their gear, pay their own fare for transport, and sometimes work in dilapidated conditions to get by.

According to a report by The Hindu, in 2012, the National Fisheries Development Board and the Karnataka state government proposed the construction of “ten modern fish markets for women” in the three districts of coastal Karnataka, intending to boost a marketplace for small scale fish workers.

We visited the market structure in Padubidri, another fishing village in south Karnataka. Women fish sellers dominate the market. It was sanctioned at an estimated cost of 76.92 Lakhs, with 90% funding from the central government (National Fisheries Development Board) and 10% from the state government (Karnataka State Fisheries Department). The property belongs to the panchayat, who has hired a contractor for four lakhs for nine months, who runs the show.

Fishers from neighbouring villages come in the morning and display their fish ready for auction, giving a minimum selling price. The women then begin the auction. They buy the fish and then proceed to sell it either in the market itself or carry it in their basket to a bigger market or walk for door-to-door delivery.

Fish sellers sorting their buy after auction at Padubidri Fish market. Photo by SupriyaVohra.

Tulsi Kotiyan, 42, bought 25-30kg of fish worth INR 5500. She is hoping to sell the fish in the morning hours itself. One of her fears is that if she purchases the fish at a high price, and if the same fish is caught in the sea by the big boats, then the value of her fish goes down.

She is one of the 25-30 women who sit at the market to sell the fish. She has to pay INR 20 per day to sit at her designated area. She received an insulated icebox from the state government. She gets her own plastic baskets.

She said the cleaning is not good, the water is stagnant, and the toilet facilities are terrible. The place, while an essential marketplace for small scale fish workers, could do with better management

Support for the elderly fish workers

A few weeks ago, Salian went out to sea on his boat. A big wave surged towards him, and he toppled over, hurting his rib cage. The nearest government hospital was 20 km from his village. “I had to spend INR 8000 for my treatment at a private hospital,” he said.

Chandravati, 63, used to sell fish. But over the last few years, arthritis has gripped her. Her husband, Chandaya Mandan, 75, has not gone fishing for the last five years. They both receive INR 1000 per month under the Sandhya Suraksha Pension Scheme, a state government endeavour for the senior citizens of Karnataka. “But it is not enough,” said Chandravati. “All our money goes towards medical expenses.”

Chandravati at Sasihithlu. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

Every year, the central and state government doles out welfare schemes and subsidies that aim to enhance capacity for fishing, and improve the socio-economic condition of those working in fisheries. Given the current scenario, do these subsidies do anything for the welfare of the small scale fisherfolk? We find out in the next story.

Read more: Marine subsidies are a mess, say small scale fishers of southern Karnataka.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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