The Hindu (Mumbai)

The troubled waters of Kerala’s fishing industry

Kerala has 14 fishing harbours and 12 landing centres, where boats bring in their catch.With reduced fish catch and a lessthanro­bust infrastruc­ture, workers face uncertaint­y. K.A. Martin explores Kochi’s harbours which used to be the hub of the seafood


There used to be about 650 boats that would call at the harbours in Ernakulam district from Thoothoor in Tamil Nadu, which is not the case now.


Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi

K.S. Naushad, 47, from Mattancher­ry in West Kochi has been working at the Thoppumpad­y fisheries harbour as a helper for about 30 years, rising at 4 a.m. to be at work in half an hour. He would bring freshwater and provisions to boats travelling out to sea for a few days to a month, ferry ice for a fresh catch, and run small errands for any of the transporte­rs or exporters in the harbour.

In the 1990s, when Thoppumpad­y was referred to as the ‘Gulf of Kochi’, work was aplenty and the pay was good. He was on the cusp of adulthood, and things, he believed then, could only get better. Now, he wonders about the future.

“The fish catch has fallen drasticall­y in recent years bringing down the volume of work at the harbour,” says Naushad. Workdays are no more than a few times a month, with employers now picking from a pool of workers.

The scarcity of work has forced Naushad to switch to selling cooldrinks to make a living and look after his family of four. “I still find occasional work at the harbour, it is not enough for my family’s daily requiremen­ts,” he says,.

Auxiliary sectors

More than 4,000 workers like Naushad who work in the fisheries sector and about one lakh people engaged in auxiliary sectors now have little work at the harbour and landing centres at Munambam, Chellanam, Kalamukku, and Thoppumpad­y in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. They share the same sense of livelihood uncertaint­y with their counterpar­ts in other districts on Kerala’s 590kilomet­relong coast, with 14 fishing harbours and 12 landing centres.

Brokers, retailers, water suppliers, ice factory workers, and many more, have their fortunes tied to the trade. The clatter of plastic crates and rickety wheelbarro­ws with iron shovels and ice in them is not as loud as it used to be.

Fishermen who venture out on trawl boats, on ordinary mechanised country boats or twoman fibre boats, and those manning longliners and gill net boats make these harbours their base of operation. Ordinarily they earn a living that takes care of daily needs; sometimes they make enough to live life well for a few days, when the sea relents.

According to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), of the total 3.05 million tonnes of marine fish landings in the country, Kerala accounted for 5.55 lakh tonnes in 2021 and 3.61 lakh tonnes in 2020. Numbers from the State Fisheries department also show that Kerala plays a key role in seafood export, accounting for 2.18 lakh tonnes worth ₹8,285 crore, accounting for 1215% of India’s exports, in 202223.

The economic importance of the fish landing centres is evident also in the business turnover in the local market. According to CMFRI data, the value of marine fish landings (fish, shellfish) in Kerala at the landing centres in 2021 was estimated to be ₹11,639 crore. The value of the catch at retail centres rose to ₹14,304 crore. The landing centre cost of the fish in 2020 was ₹7,789 crore and at the retail level the value was estimated to be ₹9,727 crore by the CMFRI.

A variety of factors have been affecting the activities at fish landing centres . These include poor physical infrastruc­ture as well as drastic changes in the rain pattern triggered by weather disruption­s.

Lack of modern facilities such as chilling plants, decreasing depth of approach waters, poor sanitation and waste disposal facilities, lack of space for activities like net mending, and poor arrangemen­ts for drinking water supply are increasing­ly driving away fishermen from neighbouri­ng States such as Tamil Nadu from the landing centres and harbours in Kerala.

This has a direct impact on the economies that are built around the harbours considerin­g that more than two lakh workers in the auxiliary sector depend on these fishing harbours and boats that reach them with their catch.

The conditions in what used to once considered the El Dorado by the sea is fast deteriorat­ing even as there is a fall in volume of fish catch. Charles George, who represents traditiona­l fishermen’s union Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi and also the AllIndia Deep Sea Fishermen’s Associatio­n, says there used to be about 650 boats that would call at the harbours in Ernakulam district from Thoothoor in Tamil Nadu.

“These fishermen are now being attracted by facilities being opened up in Tamil Nadu and the decreasing frequency of their calls at fishlandin­g centres in Ernakulam and the falling business at these harbours are forcing fishworker­s to look for other avenues,” he says.

The number of boats before the COVID19 outbreak was between 150 and 200 at Kochi, bringing business worth about ₹4 crore daily. The harbour slowdown heightened during the pandemic years, when measures were in place to prevent the spread of disease. Today, there are about 50 boats, because recovery was hard.

Livelihood­s at stake

Raw material from the harbour provides jobs to thousands of shrimp peelers in neighbouri­ng Alappuzha district too. Mostly sourced by exporters, wild caught shrimp used to rule the roost before the arrival of farmed Vannamei shrimp from Andhra Pradesh.

C.G. Subhash, a peeling shed operator, says exporters are now processing farmed shrimp at their source in Andhra Pradesh and work has dwindled considerab­ly in its traditiona­l stronghold in Kerala.

Pushpa Joseph used to find regular employment at one of these subcontrac­ted peeling sheds in the past.

“Over the past year I have been forced to shift to dairying and I take up dailywage work under the MGNREGA scheme,” she says.

“This is a direct fallout of the closure of the peeling sheds that used to be about 200, employing about 20,000 people, mostly women, on a daily basis,” says George.

P.A. Charles is an autoricksh­aw driver in West Kochi. He used to find regular employment at the newly developed Chellanam fisheries harbour till about two years ago. But the fortunes of the fishermen have sunk low.

The fall in fish catch that has plunged the fishing harbours into trouble is also visible at Kalamukku, considered the busiest in Ernakulam considerin­g the large number of boats that call at the landing centre and the location of the facility close to the heart of Kochi city.

K.V. Vijeesh depends on a variety of activities at the harbour, including ice vending to support his family of three. He is also into procuring fish for surumimaki­ng (surumi is fish paste in demand in some of the SouthEast Asian markets) for export purposes and says there is a visible slackening of the work pace at the harbour unlike previous years. The year 2023 has been witness to a significan­t fall in fish catch, he says. This has affected the business at the harbour and the number of work days created.

P.V. Jayan, a traditiona­l fisherman in Kalamukku, says the government had neglected the harbour for about two decades. But he is happy that the government has finally paid it some attention and decided to allocate funds for improving facilities. “Around 1,000 fishermen in about 200 boats depend on the harbour. Similarly, more than 5,000 workers in different sectors work here to earn a livelihood. Around 100 inboard engine boats, 300 small boats, scores of nonmechani­sed canoes arrive at the harbour daily,” he says.

Changing weather, unchanging facilities

Though business has been down at the harbour for about three months, the recent fortnight has seen a revival in activities with fish catch from deeper waters.

Jackson Pollayil of the Independen­t Fish Workers’ Federation says what is driving away fishermen and boat owners from Kalamukku is the lack of facilities. “The approach waters need to be dredged and the government must immediatel­y build an auction hall as well as an access road for vehicular traffic,” he says.

About 90% of the fish landing at Thoppumpad­y goes as raw material to the European Unionappro­ved processing plants in Kochi and neighbouri­ng Alappuzha district’s Aroor and Chandiroor, says P. Noushad, a fish broker, who has a 30yearlong associatio­n with harbour activities. But he says things have changed drasticall­y over the years. The number of longliners bringing in tuna, trawlers hauling in an assortment of big fishes, and gillnet boats has dwindled. Their combined numbers are around 25 now, he says.

There are several facets to the failing fortunes of fishing harbours in the State, including Munamabam, north of Kochi.

Warming of seawater from rising temperatur­e is driving traditiona­lly caught nearshore fish species away into cooler and deeper waters. The El Nino effect is evident in the heating up of the surface waters, say scientists at the Advanced Centre for Atmospheri­c Radar Research at the Cochin University of Science and Technology.

The heating up of the surface waters deprive artisanal fishermen and those using mechanised traditiona­l canoes of their daily catch of commercial­ly and nutritiona­lly important varieties such as oil sardines and Indian mackerel. About 80% of these boats are grounded now, either waiting for the rains to start or for mending nets and fishing gear, says union leader George.

While the boats landing big fishes are seen slowly deserting harbours such as Thoppumpad­y and Munambam, smaller boat operators are hit by changes in the catch pattern preventing them from engaging their full capacity. Most of the boats that now call at the Thoppumpad­y harbour are small ones, operated by local fishermen, who depend on daytoday fishing ventures to earn a livelihood.

Fisheries Minister Saji Cherian said at a recent meeting that the government would take care of the needs of the fish landing centres such as the one at Vypeen, near Kochi city, and these efforts were part of a concern for the overall developmen­t of the coastal area. He said the government had sanctioned and allotted money for acquiring 12 cents at a cost of ₹2.51 crore for improving the approach road to the fish landing centre at Vypeen.

 ?? H. VIBHU ?? Vital to economy: A view of the activities at the Munambam fishing harbour. As per the State Fisheries department, Kerala plays a key role in seafood export, accounting for 2.18 lakh tonnes worth ₹8,285 crore, which formed 1215% of India’s exports in 202223.
H. VIBHU Vital to economy: A view of the activities at the Munambam fishing harbour. As per the State Fisheries department, Kerala plays a key role in seafood export, accounting for 2.18 lakh tonnes worth ₹8,285 crore, which formed 1215% of India’s exports in 202223.
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