Marian D’Costa from Aiyo Patras, an online kitchen that serves delicacies from Goa and Kerala in response to orders on Instagram, is facing a major business challenge today. “It’s getting harder and harder to get fresh fish at good prices.” She says. Marian reflects what a large part of the huge fish-loving community in Mumbai and its suburbs has felt and what is very important to the fishing industry in Mumbai.
Fish was a staple food in most East Indian, Koli, and some Maharashtrian households. All types of fish, from shellfish, the larger varieties like kingfish, silver, and black pomfret, to smaller fish like anchovies and mackerel, were consumed fairly regularly. But the state has seen prices rise, demand, and supply of locally consumed fish rise over the past three years. Premature rains and rising fuel prices are having a huge impact on the fishing industry.
By and large, many factors are responsible for the change in the fishing industry, not just price increases. Marine pollution, overfishing, the e-commerce boom, the closure of fish markets during the pandemic have all played a role in determining patterns of fish consumption. People’s access to fish has changed over time, not just in terms of the fish they buy in the markets, but also what can be obtained from the oceans.
What influences the supply?
“The fishermen and fishing boat owners have not received an annual diesel subsidy for the past four years,” said Ganesh Nakhwa, a fisherman and former director of the Karanja Society, a fishing union in Colaba. Depending on the size of the boat, the subsidies can range from 50,000 rupees to 3.5 lakh rupees. The government currently owes some fishermen around Rs 14-15 lakh in subsidies alone.
“No welfare programs for the fishing industry were implemented efficiently during the pandemic, even though our income was completely cut off. It is really worrying to see the government’s reckless attitude towards the fishing industry, ”he added. The rising cost of acquiring fish has had an impact on both catches and sales prices.
According to Ganesh, the number of fishing boats in the waters has gradually decreased. The reasons range from rising fuel prices to a lack of infrastructure and government restrictions that determine how many boats can operate in certain radii of the coast. “The little infrastructure we have for parking boats is all built by the British, there have been no new facilities since then. There are no moorings for fishing boats from Mahim, Worli, Versova and Madh Island, ”Ganesh told me.
The decline in the number of fishing boats inevitably affects supply; in Mumbai, however, demand has remained roughly the same. That is why fish is now imported from Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.
The fish quality has also decreased in recent years. Rising levels of mercury in the oceans, industrial waste and plastic pollution all contribute to this phenomenon. Although there are now better storage options and methods of conservation, the quality of the catch itself has been compromised.
80% of Mumbai’s catch goes to wholesale markets across the city, as well as to Goa, Mangalore and other cities. Only 10-20% of the fish is exported to other countries. “The fish is not good enough to be exported; White pomfret and king mackerel are the most sought-after types of fish outside of India, so they are the only ones to be imported in large quantities, ”said Ganesh.
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Is consumption also to blame?
The overexploitation of natural resources by humans is one of the greatest short-term pressures affecting the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems. Our decisions have the ability to control demand and thus pressure on our oceans. Although there is still strong demand for fish, individual households are foregoing buying local, smaller types of fish that are seasonal and more sustainable. The increased demand for larger fish such as pomfret and king fish has made these species the victims of overfishing.
According to a 2019 report by Subuhi Jiwani originally published in the People’s Archive of Rural India, the time trawlers and large large boats spend at sea has also increased over the years. Vinay Deshmukh, who worked for the Mumbai Center of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) for over four decades, was quoted as saying, “In 2000 these boats spent 6-8 days at sea; this increased to 10-15 days and is now 16-20 days. ”This has increased the pressure on the existing fish population in the sea.
Most fish consumers know that all fishing activities are prohibited during the monsoon season, so they try not to buy fresh fish during this time, but this knowledge is not enough. Understanding and promoting informed, ethical and sustainable fish consumption is important.
In 2017, a monthly calendar called Know Your Fish was introduced, which updates monthly which fish can be bought depending on the season. According to Know Your Fish, it has become increasingly difficult to get the most widely consumed types of fish over the past two decades as there are fewer of them in our oceans. This happened because the number of fish caught is greater than the number of new fish added to their wild populations. This is known as overfishing.
The pandemic and its impact on female fishermen
Buying fish in the pandemic has been made much easier through e-commerce sites. This brought recovery to wholesalers and fishermen as the fish markets were completely closed.
Some fishermen started selling fish through WhatsApp networks. Juber Malkani buys fish from the Malad fish market and sells it in the Aarey colony. “I have a broadcast list of around 200 customers who shop with me on a regular basis. I started doing it in the pandemic when I worked out a good deal with one of the Versova wholesalers, ”said Juber. Juber’s success was largely due to the great fresh fish deals and word of mouth he had.
Many fishermen started going to large companies and selling at their pace. This helped them build a solid customer base by offering them home service. Huzaifa Malik, a fisherwoman in the Goregaon East fish market, was walking around the neighborhood with a basket on her head selling fish when lockdown restrictions eased. “People now prefer to buy from home every Sunday,” says Huzaifa, who drives her regular route every Sunday afternoon even though the fish markets are open.
However, this had a detrimental effect on those who did not have the ability to deliver in bulk or through online platforms. Historically, the division of labor in the Koli families was the same: men catch, women sell. But the pandemic has created an imbalance in the fishermen’s ecosystem. The big players, who were able to operate on a large scale, benefited from the e-commerce boom. With wholesalers turning to e-commerce sites for supplies, women fishermen who sold moderate amounts in the markets were particularly hard hit. These were women who served a more or less regular clientele and couldn’t win new customers like those who switched to Whatsapp or door-to-door sales.
“A lot of the women here have unemployed husbands, pay 200-300 rupees ‘Hafta’ or rent in the market, and some days don’t make enough profit. This has created rivalries among the women in the market, all desperate to buy. So they fight for the best spot or abuse each other just to get a customer’s attention, ”said Lalita Patil, fish seller at the Goregaon fish market. “The hustle and bustle of the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday markets is no longer as great as it used to be,” she adds.
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However, some consumers remain loyal to the markets. Marian from Aiyo PatrasFor example, I prefer to go to the Mahim fish market. “We get more choice and better prices in the Mahim market. Of course it’s the best in Sassoon Docks, but that’s not very convenient for us, ”she tells me.
“During the monsoons we bought dried fish from Marol to help us through the three monsoon months,” said Rita Rodricks, who has lived in Bandra for 62 years. “The fish buying and eating culture was very strong in my youth. I grew up cooking and eating fish, but I see fewer and fewer young people going to fish markets. Sure, shopping online is convenient, but the charm of Mumbai’s fish markets is somehow getting lost, ”she added.
However, the sheer nostalgia associated with the long history and romantic idea of fish markets doesn’t answer the question of whether we need fish markets at all. Will fish markets stand the test of time?