How Bengal’s aquaculture boost is damaging marine ecosystems

Fishermen in India
How Bengal’s aquaculture boost is damaging marine ecosystems

Fishing for Catastrophe, a report published by Changing Markets Foundation in October last year, revealed that every year billions of sea fish are dried, pressed and ground into oil and fishmeal. The majority of this material is then fed to other farmed fish or supplied to aquaculture producers. Based on findings in India, Vietnam and Gambia, the report presented damning evidence that the production of fishmeal and oil for use in the global aquaculture industry is destroying natural fish stocks, marine ecosystems and traditional livelihoods as well as undermining the food security of vulnerable communities. In 2016, 69% of fishmeal and 75% of fish oil were used for seafood farming globally.

The demand for fish is growing more rapidly than the human population. Aquaculture currently accounts for roughly half of global fish consumption, and researchers claim that farmed fish are expected to contribute to an increasing share of global consumption, reaching about 60% of the total in 2030. the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 33% of stocks are fished at biologically unsustainable levels.

India is one of the world’s leading aquaculture producers and holds a dominant role in global fisheries, owing to its approximately 7,517 kilometers of coastline. India exports 1.05 million tonnes of marine fish every year. It is also the world’s second-biggest exporter of prawns.

Fish drying
Workers dry fish at a landing site in Sagar Island before sending them to fishmeal factories.

According to government data, West Bengal has 405,000 hectares of brackish water, making it the largest area in India for potential shrimp production. Statistics from the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) show that the production of shrimp in West Bengal reached 76,534 tonnes in 2017-18, up from 28,000 tonnes in 2007-08. And with aquaculture production increasing in the state, the demand for fishmeal is also rising. As a result, trawlers are engaging more in bottom trawling, and even smaller fishers are forced to catch small aquatic creatures to feed local fishmeal factories.

Soula Harbor
Soula Fish Harbour in East Medinipur. Trawlers here return from deep-sea expeditions with huge amounts of trash fish.

Sanatan Bhuiya, a local fisher of Haripur in East Medinipur district, said, “Trash becomes cash for us." Previously, local fishers didn’t get any buyers for small bycatch, what's become known as trash fish. But now agents buy trash fish from fish landing centres directly. “They take everything and send it to local fishmeal factories at Juneput, and we get 20 rupees per kilogram,” Bhuiya said.

Heap of trash fish
Trash fish arrive in nets at Sagar island in South 24 Pargana district. There are around 30,000 marine fishers in South 24 Parganas who are struggling to survive.

There are six fishmeal factories in East Medinipur district. However, many fishmeal units have been developed in North and South 24 Parganas in past decades. In West Bengal, significant quantities of fish as food rather than trash fish are being diverted to the fishmeal factories.

Workers sorting trash fish
Workers sort trash fish at a landing site in Sagar island, South 24 Parganas.
Trash fish include molluscs and crustaceans
Trash fish include small molluscs, crustaceans and echinoids. Due to trawling in the Northern Bay of Bengal, large numbers of rare bottom-dwelling aquatic creatures are caught in nets.

“Some small fishers took this as an alternative to compensate their earning, but damages are done by trawlers. They have put their [small fishers] livelihoods at risk," said Debasish Shyamal, president of Dakhhin Banga Matsajibi Forum.

“Government is always pushing to increase production numbers without thinking about the environmental consequences. Moreover, Union Minister for Finance Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget speech said the government aims to raise fish production to 200 lakh tonnes by 2022-23, while there is nothing left in the sea, many species [have] vanished, and illegal trawling [has] overexploited the natural fish stock,” Shyamal added.

Small fish caught up in nets
The Marine Fishing Regulation Act has limited the size of mesh used in trawling nets to 35 mm, but ignorance remains about the small mesh sizes of fishing nets used by both traditional fishermen and trawlers, which capture bycatch fish in huge numbers.
Sorting out dried trash fish
Workers dry trash fish at Dahasunamoi fish harbour in East Medinipur before selling them to fishmeal factories.

Banner image: Researchers claim that demand for fishmeal is visibly accelerating the decline of fish stocks in India and fuelling overfishing.

An original version of this story appeared in Youth Ki Awaaz on 10 March 2020. This version has been edited for clarity. Reporting for it was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network.

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