Trawling for trouble along the Karnataka coast

As dawn breaks over India’s west coast, an eerie calm embraces Bundar, Mangaluru’s fishing harbour. No one is out at sea, labourers have returned home, and the trawlers lie idle.

Just some months ago, there was cacophony all around. The crew and captains of these 12,500-odd deep-sea fishing vessels were busy navigating their boats to the harbor front, securing anchor and offloading their catch to the labourers waiting on a platform.

Each kind of fish was transported to a different vehicle, or sometimes to an auctioneer waiting a few paces away. Prized catch, such as seer and pomfret, were carefully stored in ice boxes; common fish, such as oil sardine and mackerel, were off-loaded more casually. After an hour or so, the harbour front was packed with thousands of baskets of unpreserved, foul-smelling fish in varying stages of decay.

The threat of Covid-19 has brought work to a standstill. But soon — weather and pandemic willing — the fishermen will be back at sea. And once again, the spotlight will be on the low-value bycatch (LVB) or "trash fish," as they are known. These will be loaded on to trucks and transported to the fish meal and fish oil companies (FMFO) located at various points along the 320-kilometre Karnataka coastline.

Trawler workers unload trash fish
Multi-day trawler workers unload their ‘trash fish’ catch onto the Mangaluru fishing harbour / Credit: Sibi Arasu

At these FMFO companies, the putrid cargo will be turned into powder, packed in 10-kilogram, 50kg and 100kg sacks and dispatched to fish-feed processing factories, mostly in coastal Andhra Pradesh. Here they will be mixed with wheat and vegetable proteins to make feed for shrimp, catfish and other aquaculture produce.

The feed will then be sent to the commercially run fish and shrimp farms dotting the Indian coastline, especially the east coast. The fish and crustaceans farmed using this feed are exported to countries such as the US, UAE, China and Japan.

At first sight, it seems like a rather enterprising way to cash in on what is essentially the unwanted add-ons that the ocean offers fishers. The problem, though, is that the quantum of fish caught for the FMFO industry is ever-increasing, while "good" fish in the ocean are depleting.

“We don’t have firm numbers yet, but we estimate that a sizeable portion of fish caught in Indian waters are now being directed to FMFO plants. Combining this with the amount of fish exported, only a rather small portion of India’s catch seems to be left for the domestic consumer,” says Amalendu Jyotishi, professor at Amrita University, Bengaluru.

Of India’s output of 12.59 million tonnes (mt) of fish, 1.38 mt of fish and fish products were exported, valued at over 45,000 crore rupee in 2017-18.

Jyotishi, an institutional economist tracking fishery economies for the last five years, points out that as demand for fish from FMFO companies increases, trawlers haul in fish indiscriminately, threatening the availability of widely consumed low-price fish in Indian waters.

Factories for trash fish

One of the reasons behind the depletion of good fish is that baby or juvenile fish are not allowed to grow before they are netted alongside trash fish.

“The problem is that trash fish includes juvenile fish, which doesn’t get a market price,” says Prathibha Rohit, principal scientist and scientist in charge at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Mangaluru.

The FMFO companies first came into India in the 1970s. It was seen as a value addition to the fisheries sector since the inevitable bycatch — the unwanted fish and other marine creatures trapped by commercial fishing nets alongside the sought-after species — were otherwise thrown overboard. For owners of trawl boats, which too were a new introduction to India then, this provided an easy extra source of income.

Rohit points out that in 2006-07, a good catch of sardine on the Karnataka coast and the ensuing surplus of fish led to a surge in the number of FMFO companies.

“The problem was that the sardine increase was cyclical and not permanent. When the fish catch came down, the FMFOs, which had invested in building their units, started asking for more and more trash fish,” she says.

Crates of trash fish
Carts of ‘trash fish’ stacked up at the Mangaluru harbour / Credit: Sibi Arasu

Today, far from being a value addition, the FMFOs are the only source of stable income for trawlers. To meet the increasing demand from the industry, more and more trawlers are sweeping the ocean floor. Combined with declining fish stock and extreme weather, this practice is leading to unsustainable fishing in Indian waters.

India has an estimated 50-72 FMFO concerns, out of which, most are in Karnataka. According to data available from CMFRI, there are 32 fish meal plants and 23 fish oil extraction plants in the state.

The phenomenal growth in the fish meal industry is represented by the sharp increase in trash fish catch at Bundar. From just 3 percent in 2008, the share of trash fish in trawl catch had zoomed to 26 percent in 2011. The price of trash fish, too, increased from 4 rupee per kilogram in 2008 to 16 rupee in 2012.

“When our factory was set up in 1989, we used to handle about 100 tonnes of raw fish per day; now we handle up to 500 tonnes,” says Rakshith Kundar, a partner at Janata Fish Meal and Oil Products, Udupi. “Fish meal as an ingredient in feed cannot be replaced because of the amino acid profile of the fish as well as other unidentified growth factors,” he adds.

He points out that however great the growth in FMFO, it cannot compete with human consumption of fish because the rates for the latter are significantly higher. “We are not in a position to decide how fish is caught; we want it to be sustainable too.”

Big fish vs small fish

It was in the late ’60s and early ’70s that the modern trawlers became a feature of Indian fisheries. Introduced as a technological intervention to improve the economy of the fishing industry, the trawlers now dominate Indian fisheries, pushing small-scale fishers into the twilight.

“Many people who used to be small-scale fishermen have also either bought trawlers with loans or ended up working in trawlers. Also, given the investment — each trawler can cost over 1 crore rupee — we need to maximise catch,” says Ibrahim Bengare, a trawl boat owner and member of the Mangaluru trawl boats fishermen’s association.

“In my 40 years in this business, the last few years have been the worst; so, trawlers are also trying to do whatever they can to make ends meet.”

A woman sorting fish
A woman tries to sort out fish that she can use from a cart of trash fish / Credit: Sibi Arasu

According to CMFRI data, Karnataka has 2,847 multi-day trawlers (which can remain out at sea for more than two days), more than double the optimum fleet size estimate of 1,312 for sustainable fishing. Similarly, the number of boats that use purse seine nets (vertical nets with rings that hold them down) is more than 50 percent over capacity and motorised crafts are 200 percent over capacity.

Banned fishing techniques are also used regularly. Among such measures are bull trawling, where two boats have their nets tied together to sweep the sea for kilometres, grabbing entire shoals of fish, and light fishing, in which the trawlers attract fish using a bright light and catch them in droves. Given this excessive capacity to fish, it is no wonder that marine fish stock is depleting, as any ecological process is bound to if not given enough time to recuperate.

“We are trying to keep tabs on excessive fishing, but given our staff shortage and lack of resources, it is impossible for us to do this,” a senior offcial at the department of fisheries in Mangaluru says, requesting anonymity.

“Nowadays, the fishers are also running engines that exceed the stipulated horsepower. So even if the sticker says 350 horsepower, in reality it turns out to be much more. How can we possibly keep track of all this? It is up to the fishers also to try and self-regulate to some extent at least.”

The fish meal and fish oil producers’ association of India will be working with CMFRI to set up a fisheries improvement programme, says Kundar of Janata Fish Meal and Oil Products. The department of fisheries and the CMFRI will define the minimum size of different fish varieties to ensure that juveniles are not caught. Again, while this is a sound policy, its actual implementation remains to be seen.

“There is also international pressure to regulate the subsidies that contribute to potentially destructive fishing, but it’s a vicious cycle because, without the subsidies, fishing itself might become untenable,” says the official.

A double-edged sword

According to data from a study published in the journal Marine Policy last year, fishing subsidies worth US$277 million are given to the sector in India every year. Of this, it is estimated that a total of $174 million contributes to over-fishing. The states of Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka provide the highest subsidies, and the total amount of subsidies increased by 23 percent in 2017-18.

Those in favour of subsidies stress that they are critical for the livelihoods of the fishing community and, if withdrawn, would lead to destitution.

Freshly unloaded trash fish
Freshly unloaded ‘trash fish’ with the trawler that brought in the haul in the background / Credit: Sibi Arasu

Mangaluru-based fisheries economist Ramachandra Bhatta agrees that fishing has to be made tenable, but stresses that there is a problem if subsidies lead to “illegal, unreported and unregulated” fishing.

“At a time when over 50 percent of marine fish production is going towards non-edible consumption, it is important to rethink subsidies, most of which go into fuels for multi-day trawlers. As it exists now, subsidies are only leading to over-fishing and the small-scale fishermen are not benefited in any way,” says Batta, the senior scientific consultant at the National Academy of Agricultural Research Management (ICMRNAARM), Hyderabad.

The CMFRI has found that if withdrawn, subsidies will affect the net operating income of trawlers by 12-36 percent but have only a “marginal” impact on the income of small fishers. In its fisheries management plan for Karnataka, it has suggested a phased withdrawal of the subsidies that are leading to over-fishing.

With the depleting fish stock and increasingly unsustainable fishing, Indian fisheries, especially in coastal Karnataka, are at a crossroads.

“If fishing takes a hit then Mangaluru and Karnataka’s entire coast will suffer,” trawl boat owner Bengare says. But he adds that neither his children nor the offspring of his fishermen friends are looking at fishing as an occupation.

“I think after our generation, there won’t be any one from Karnataka who will be fishing for their livelihood,” he says.

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and originally published in the Hindu Business Line on May 16, 2020.

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