MUMBAI, India _ On most early mornings, Bhaucha Dhakka, or New Ferry Wharf, is packed as trawlers unload tons of mackerel, shrimp and ribbonfish for export. But on a week in early February, the fishing dock was far less busy - less than half the usual number of boats had arrived.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the trawl boats in Maharashtra state in an unexpected way: New Covid-19 safety rules in China, India's largest seafood destination, have delayed shipments and depressed fish prices. With payments stuck and diesel prices rising, multi-day trips have become unviable for many.
More than half of the state’s 4,290-strong trawl fleet has been grounded since January, according to Ramdas Sandhe, chairman of the Maharashtra Rajya Macchimar Sahakari Sangh Limited. This has been the second bad year in a row for fishermen after cyclone-hit 2019, he said.
The state is not alone: Most trawl boats in neighbouring Gujarat have been docked for the past few months for similar reasons. China accounts for 25 percent of the volume of India's overall seafood exports but 50 percent of the volume for west coast states, including Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, according to Jagdish Fofandi, the national president of the Seafood Exporters Association of India.
“The whole issue has boiled up because of Covid-19,” he said.
Global lockdowns last year resulted in lower export prices at the beginning of the fishing season in August, he said. Then came China's new rules for testing seafood imports for Covid. The protocol delayed clearance at Chinese ports and other transit points, in turn, delaying payments to Indian exporters.
Normally, it takes 25 days from shipment to payment but the current turnaround is closer to 50 days, said Fofandi. “Some are still waiting for dues from October.”
Exporters are now sitting on Rs2,000 crore of stock in cold storage facilities on the west coast, he said, as they wait for pending dues. In turn, their payments to fishing boat owners have been delayed.
“Fishermen have taken the brunt of this crisis,” he said.
The ripple-down effect is evident at Mumbai's New Ferry Wharf. Less than a quarter of the 1,000-odd registered boats have gone to sea - an exceptionally low number even in this traditional lean season, said a local observer of the government export authority.
Fish prices have plummeted. Export rates for mackerel or bangda had fallen from Rs400 a kilo last month to less than Rs200 (US$2.75). The price of ribbonfish, which has little domestic demand, has almost halved to Rs35 a kilo. Boat owner Piyush Solanki said he was unlikely to make any money after covering the cost of food and salary for 10 people, thousands of litres of fuel, and several tons of ice.
With diesel prices now over Rs80 a litre, he added, "There is no point in sending the boats out."
Trawl boats are not the only ones affected by the export issue. Dolnet boats that catch pomfret, a high-value fish, saw a 35 percent drop in prices.
The lag in payments from exporters has hurt some fishermen in Vasai, said Anand Mastan, a boat owner there. Usually, payments from the August-December season are cleared by early January. But this year, "the accounts are not yet settled," he said, adding, "That has never happened before."
Some fishermen have gone to moneylenders to cover the cost of weddings this season, he said.
Experts say the crisis highlights the importance of diversifying the export market and cultivating domestic ones. With so much stock to clear, exporters are looking to other markets, including in Africa, said Fofandi.
The domestic market helped blunt the damage to Vasai’s dolnetters. The decline in pomfret prices was partly offset by the high volume and quality of the August-December catch, said Mastan, which he attributes to last year’s lockdown allowing fish to breed longer. But dolnet boats also catch a lot of small low-value fish for local consumption.
“The local market has been good,” said Mastan, “So we were saved.”
Reporting for this story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network.
Banner image: Trawl boats docked at Bhaucha Dhakka, or New Ferry Wharf, in Mumbai / Credit: Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar