Many Mumbaikers would prefer to see the spectacularly ugly Bombay Duck, or Bombil, on their plate rather than in the sea. When marinated in spices and batter-fried, the fish becomes a succulent dish called Bombil Fry. Crisp on the outside and soft and buttery once you tear into it, this Mumbai delicacy can be found in most seafood restaurants. But the fish is increasingly difficult to find in Mumbai’s seas — an issue that is especially apparent during this year’s extended rainy season. Come monsoon, procuring fish locally is a headache for seafood restaurants in Mumbai. The rainy season is when several species of fish spawn; in order to protect ecosystems and the future livelihood of fishermen, there’s a seasonal fishing ban along the Indian coastline. Only traditional fishermen are allowed to go out, but choppy seas affect what they can bring in and their catch usually consists of juveniles.
The seafood industry has bigger problems than the monsoon fishing ban. Over the last 10 years, according to Santosh Singh, Manager of Operations at the iconic Malvani seafood chain Gajalee, the availability of many types of seafood has decreased and, correspondingly, prices have increased. Eight years ago, Pomfret used to cost Rs 300-400 per kg. Now it’s up to Rs 1,100-1,200 per kg. The overall catch has remained the same since 1995, at around 3,40,000 to 3,70,000 tons a year in Maharashtra, while the consumption has increased. In their most recent statistics, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) recorded that 344,648 tons were caught in 2014 in the state.
Unfortunately, the sea is not replenishing the catch at the same rate. According to a study by the CMFRI, Bombil and Pomfret have declined by 25 per cent each in the last decade. In the same period, sharks and rays have gone down by 28 per cent, and prawns by 35 per cent. That the same amount of catch has been brought in for the last 30 years can be attributed to the growth in mechanised boats and trawlers, increasingly sophisticated fishing technology, longer fishing trips, and the movement of fishermen to previously un-fished areas. Bharat Mahtani, founder of CastleRock, one of the leading exporters and suppliers of seafood in India, says, “For the last five years, our catch has been going downwards. Over-fishing has made it much harder to maintain the same amount of catch, year after year.”
And the fish, when they’re brought in, are not of the quality restaurants demand. The percentage of larger fish, which restaurants use, has declined. Markets are often filled with “trash fish”, or smaller specimens, caught in the nets of trawlers. These are the fish that multi-day trawlers often wantonly throw back into the sea in the first few days of their trip to make space for bigger catch. Traditional fishermen, who don’t go far out into the sea, are often left with smaller fish too. But restaurants often spurn such stock.
“When fresh products are not available we don’t include them in our menu,” says Chef Uddipan Chakravarthy from Taj Palace’s Konkan Cafe. Renowned seafood restaurants — Trishna, Gajalee, Mahesh Lunch Home, and Konkan Cafe — maintain that their success depends on their ability to provide fresh, traditional, “home-style food” to their guests.
To compensate for the inadequacy of fish during Mumbai’s monsoon, many restaurants ship in fresh fish every other day from the eastern coast, where the fishing ban starts and ends earlier. In Mumbai, it is from June 1 to July 31. “The ban period is the same for the entire western coast to prevent fishermen from encroaching the waters of neighbouring states while their ban is in place,” says Bijay Kumar, Principal Secretary for Fisheries and Dairy Development. The eastern coast’s fishing ban is in effect from April 15 to May 29.
But importing seafood during monsoon also results in elevating prices in these restaurants, such as Trishna, where manager Paranath Skuckian says prices go up 20 to 25 per cent. Mahesh Lunch Home too finds it difficult to meet its requirements from the local markets during monsoon. “We usually get surmai, rawas, lady fish, and bangda (Indian mackerel) from Mumbai. Although there is a ban on fishing during monsoon, it doesn’t mean that everyone is following it. We rely on vendors whose responsibility it is to get everything we might need,” says Raphael. It is no secret that trawlers operate illegally out of Mumbai’s coast.
Restaurants, such as Konkan Cafe, have to maintain a base of multiple suppliers because of variability in catch. Konkan Cafe also has another source in the Taj in Mangalore, which has connections with various suppliers there. Prawns are generally brought in from Chennai and Kerala. Gajalee also sources seafood from its Mangalore branch, besides flying in fish from Visakhapatnam. Most years, however, they’re also able to procure some local fish, such as Bombil and Pomfret, from Mumbai markets at Sassoon Dock and Crawford Market. “We have to be extra careful during this season, though,” says Singh,“Sometimes fishermen defrost frozen fish and try to sell it off as fresh.”
Farmed seafood is usually not an option. “Farmed products have a chemical taste and muddy smell,” says Chef Chakravarthy. He asserts that farmers feed the fish antibiotics and hormones to get them to the desired size.
The monsoon is a season where, traditionally, Koli fishermen voluntarily stop fishing to encourage sea life to rejuvenate. Rough seas too discourage boats from venturing too far out or catching too much. But persistent and rising demand for fresh fish, and the bulldozing power of technology, has depleted much of Mumbai’s seas. The pleasures of cutting into a fresh, wild-caught Surmai can be an almost beatific experience — turning a blind eye to the toxins it must have ingested off the coast of Mumbai, of course. But be prepared for its disappearance, or at the very least, exorbitant prices, in the decades to come.