Last year, during the monsoon session of its legislative assembly, the Goa government admitted that fish populations in the state’s marine waters were fast depleting. The decline was sharpest in tarlo (Indian oil sardine), a Goan staple, which has long been one of the most commercially important fish in the country. While the state government vowed to crack down on illegal techniques such as the use of LED lights by fishermen to attract swarms of fish, the simple fact of consumer demand couldn’t be denied. A major reason for the depletion of fish populations is over-fishing, thanks to rising consumption. For marine researchers Pooja Rathod, Mayuresh Gangal and Chetana Purushottam, this was the target to hit. “If a consumer is aware of the declining status of India’s fish stocks, how these fish are caught, where their fish is coming from and the time of breeding, we believe that they will make informed choices about their seafood,” says Rathod.
In April this year, the trio launched Know Your Fish (knowyourfish.org.in) to encourage consumers to consume seafood responsibly. “We are based out of Maharashtra and Karnataka,” says Rathod, “We came up with Know Your Fish during conversations about oceans and sustainability and wondering what we could do to include the public into this conversation.”
They did this by creating a seafood consumption calendar that marked out the breeding periods of different kinds of fish, so that their consumption can be avoided during these times. “In order to come up with seafood recommendations of what is ‘safe to eat’ and what ‘to avoid’ for all of the west coast of India, we wanted to be certain that they are scientifically sound and practical. As a first step, we examined over three decades of scientific literature archived by government research institutes such as Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and also looked into breeding biology and the current status of Indian fisheries,” says Rathod.
Consumers can sign up to receive monthly fish recommendations on their phones. As part of their effort to promote sustainable consumption of seafood, the initiative has also partnered with restaurants and hotels in Maharashtra and Goa that display the Know Your Fish calendar along with their menus.
Given the critical state of the marine ecosystems, the initiative comes as a step in the right direction. Two years ago, the World Wildlife Fund revealed in the Living Blue Planet Report that the marine vertebrate population across the world’s oceans had declined by 49 per cent between 1970 and 2012, with the stock of commercial fish such as tuna, mackerel and bonito having fallen by as much as 75 per cent.
Climate change and loss of marine habitats such as coral reefs, sea grasses and mangroves are major drivers of this loss, as is over-fishing caused by the ever-rising global consumption of seafood. Rathod says, “India has multiple species being targeted. Many times, if a certain target species goes down, the fishery industry shifts to something else. Thus, the scale of decline often goes unnoticed. Hilsa on the east coast and sharks in Indian waters have faced massive declines.”
As the Goan government has found out, sometimes the realisation dawns very late. Think about this the next time you crave the strong flavours of bangda curry in June or the satisfying crunch of crispy-fried bombil