Rising costs, falling catch deflate trawl boom in India's Maharashtra

Fishing boats at Versova
The Times of India
,
Mumbai

Rising costs, falling catch deflate trawl boom in India's Maharashtra

MUMBAI: Sunil Foka is one of the few fishermen in Versova to take his boat out in recent weeks.  

As in much of the state, the 300-odd trawlers in this prosperous village on the city’s northwestern shore have been grounded by high diesel prices and an export backlog. But Foka gave up his trawl nets a couple of years ago for the more traditional gill net. The earnings are not as high as in export-oriented trawl. But neither are the costs of fuel and labour. 

As for the catch of needlefish he just landed, he’ll sell that in local markets.

“One can manage,” Foka said.

Maharashtra’s trawlers have had a bad couple of years. The pandemic hit export demand last year and cyclones hit catch in 2019.  But their problems predate the current crisis. For several years now, rising input costs and depleting fish stocks due to overfishing have left the once-booming sector with shrinking margins.

The number of trawlers in the state has fallen from 5,613 in 2012 to 4,290 today—still many more than the optimum number for sustainable fishing.

Run down Versova
A trawl boom in the 1990s and 2000s transformed Versova into a prosperous community. Multi-storey buildings have sprouted across the area / Credit: Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar

While some boats may be under repair, fewer new boats may be being built due to increased costs and the expiry of a government scheme in 2012, said observers. The scheme offered soft loans for the purchase of new boats. New wood boats now cost upwards of Rs50-60 lakhs — double from a decade ago — and fibreglass boats even more. Some fishermen, like Foka, have moved back to dol or gill nets, or expanded to allied businesses.

“It’s become harder to cover the costs, especially for smaller fishermen,” says Ramdas Sandhe, chairman of Maharashtra Rajya Macchimar Sahakari Sangh Limited. 

Trawling rose to dominance from the 1970s onwards, when central government subsidies helped traditional dol and gill net fishermen convert to mechanised boats and, a few decades later, to upgrade to higher-power engines. Trawls scoop fish that dwell close to the seabed—a destructive practice known as bottom trawling—including large quantities of shrimp in mid-sea waters. The trawl boom transformed villages like Versova, which was within easy reach of urban and export markets, and grew state fish production from the 1980s to the 2000s. 

But with too many boats chasing too few fish off the northwest coast—including more heavily subsidised fleets from Gujarat—returns began to diminish. Some upgraded to high-speed engines to chase schools of mackerel. Still, year-on-year growth in state catch has been declining since 2000, according to an analysis by fisheries economist M Krishnan and others. 

They found that state fishing incomes were buoyed largely by rising export prices. The price of crustaceans such as shrimp and lobster, for instance, rose by 400% between 1997 and 2016. 

“Fishing beyond the sustainable threshold may give you a high current income, but it eats away your future,” said Krishnan.

Fishermen fixing nets
Fishermen repairing nets on the shoreside / Credit: Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar

Even in well-off Versova, some are feeling the pressure. Boats that used to get good catch near Mumbai now have to go as far north as Gujarat or as far south as Ratnagiri, increasing days at sea. Wages and diesel prices have risen, while state fuel subsidies that offset a portion of the cost have not been paid out for three years. (The state government recently approved payment of the pending dues.)

Some fishermen in Alibaug have returned to dol-nets but Versova’s Rajendra Hire doesn’t see that as an easy option, especially since the ONGC platform near Mumbai restricts their fishing grounds. Dol-nets also catch fish that need to be dried in the sun — there’s little space for that any more in a now built-up neighbourhood. 

Instead, Hire opened a shop to sell fishing nets more than a year ago. “It helps supplement my income,” the trawl-owner said.

Historically, government has subsidised fish quantity not quality, says marine fisheries expert Divya Karnad. New central government policies are now focusing cold-chain systems to improve post-harvest fish quality. But they are also incentivising construction of deep-sea fishing vessels to compete on the international high seas.

“Everyone is recognising that trawlers have gone as far as they can go,” said Karnad. 

A version of this story was first published in The Times of India on 14 Feb. 2021. This version has been edited for length and clarity. This story was supported by a reporting grant from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

Banner image: Fishing boats docked at Versova, a fishing village in northwest Mumbai with easy access to urban and export markets / Credit: Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar

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