Today, Dhondu can afford a smile. The boats have brought with them a sizeable catch of sardines — known as tarli colloquially. But often, it is not as smooth-sailing. The fishing village in Cuffe Parade barely manages a desired catch these days, let alone the variety of species that once foraged the seafloor. Moreover, given the competition with the bigger players that use mechanised fishing techniques, the struggle of these fishermen in utilising the traditional ways of fishing is getting tougher by the day.
As one traverses along the lanes of the fishing hamlet, the pungency of drying fish grows stronger. The wind has tantalising salinity, and blows firmly in the day’s heat of decided air. Obsolete boats and barren shacks are interspersed by unused fishnets that hang enmeshed in each other. The jetty, at a distance, is from where the boats set sail and unload its daily catch.
It is that time of the day when the reflecting glare from the water sears one’s eyes. And today’s inevitable haggle is suggestive of a significant catch resulting after hours of the fishermen having combed the sea. Registration numbers on trucks suggest the buyers have traveled from Karnataka and Kerala.
Following a successful deal, thermocol boxes, laden with fish and ice, are tossed inside. “We are lucky today. These buyers are settling for Rs 4,000. But it is not always like this. We have sold a single crate for Rs 1,200 not very long ago,” says Dhondu in the midst of a soaring clamour.
Like other fishermen from his community, Dhondu stands witness to the changing tides in his fishing business. “It’s no longer the same,” he sighs, “and never will be.” The community of about 1,500 fishermen, collectively and solely blame the unimpeded use of purse seine nets in seawaters for having wiped out several species in their fishing zone.
Damodar Tandel heads the Akhil Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti comprising majority of the state’s traditional fishermen. He says about 2,000 boats operate in the state without licence whereas officially 495 boats have licences. “Purse seine nets are being used rampantly damaging fish population. These nets can be spread in a radius of minimum 3 kilometres and does not spare the smaller fish as the gaps in these nets are really tiny,” says Tandel.
By smaller fish, Tandel means, by-catch and the breeding fish, which are eventually released back into the sea. “They do not realise that these fish are dead. At one go, 50-60 tonne of fish are caught in the purse seine nets. It’s a threat to the marine ecosystem,” he says.
Besides the fishermen, experts too have held excessive mechanised fishing behind this over exploitation. In a study conducted in 2013, principal scientist V D Deshmukh of the Mumbai centre of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) reflects upon the increase in the purse seine net and trawler fishery.
According to the study, the trawlers and purse seiners land large quantity of by-catch (60-65%) comprising enormous quantity of juvenile, undersized fish and inedible biota that is discarded at sea and mostly goes unreported. “The by-catch have adversely affected the non-mechanised traditional fisheries greatly in the state,” he says in the report.
In Maharashtra, the study shows, until early 1980s fishing by traditional methods including gill nets and hooks dominated the landings, but intensive shrimp trawling with multi-day fishing, introduction of purse seines in the late eighties enhanced the overall fishing effort by more than three folds. “Such excessive increase in fishing effort has led to overexploitation of the resources, as a result catch rates of most of the commercially important resources have declined,” says the report.
The annual data on the pelagic species of fish (sardines, herrings etc) in Maharashtra shows a drop of 12% when the period between 2002-2006 and 2007 to 2011 are compared.
Tandel is wary of what awaits his community. “Fishermen of our village would often catch pomfrets, lobsters, mackerels. It is all gone now courtesy the big fisheries,” he says.
Next time you go to the nearest fish market, know that 90 per cent of the fish there are coming from the purse seine nets and trawlers,” guarantees Tandel.
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