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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Between diesel price and deep sea: Many fishermen unable to set sail this season

Fishing season in Gujarat generally begins from August 15 and ends on May 13. However, the state government pushed it to September 1 this year, anticipating rough sea conditions during the rainy season.

Written by Gopal B Kateshiya | Mangrol |
Updated: September 1, 2021 9:20:00 am
Fishermen repair their boats in Mangrol harbour. (Express Photo by Gopal Kateshiya)

The fishing season begins Wednesday but an uneasy calm prevails in Junagadh district’s Mangrol harbour, one of the biggest fishing hubs of Gujarat. The fishermen are a worried lot, thanks to high diesel price as well as falling exports volumes of seafood and low consumption in domestic market due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fishermen leaders apprehend a sizeable number of fishermen will not be able to set sail this season.

Devchand Vardhan, a khalasi (crew) onboard a fishing boat, who is on a stroll on the road lined by hundreds of fishing trawlers in the harbour as waves crash on to the tetrapods, says, “Diesel costs Rs 97 a litre. I don’t know if the owner of the boat where I work, can afford such high prices.”

Gopal Sukhadiya, whose family owns five fishing trawlers, shares Vardhan’s worries. “Diesel price has shot up from around Rs 65 per litre at the beginning of the fishing season last year to Rs 97 now. Apart from that, China, the largest importer of Indian marine products, is not buying our fish. So even if I get a good catch, there is no certainty that I will get a good price,” 56-year-old Sukhadiya says, adding, “Last fishing season was lost to Covid-19 pandemic and consequent crash in the fish market. I had to borrow money from three persons to repay the bank loan.”

Fishermen spending time out of work at Mangrol fishing harbour. (Express Photo by Gopal Kateshiya)

Fishing season in Gujarat generally begins from August 15 and ends on May 13. However, the state government pushed it to September 1 this year, anticipating rough sea conditions during the rainy season.

Sukhadiya finds relief in the fact that his turn to lower his boat into the harbour will come only around September 21. “By that time, I should be able to get an idea as to how this season is going to pan out. That said, I will have to go to the sea eventually as that is the only thing we know.”

According to fishermen, a trawler burns around 3,500 litre diesel during a typical fishing trip lasting 15 to 21 days. “Due to the soaring diesel price, a fishing trip this season is likely to cost at least Rs 4 lakh, higher by a quarter compared to last year. A trawler carries around 4,000 litres of fuel, ice worth Rs 25,000 and ration for the crew worth around Rs 10,000. A boat owner pays around Rs 70,000 to tandel (captain) and khalasis. But there is no certainty about the catch. A boat can return with a catch worth Rs 4 to Rs 6 lakh or as low as Rs1.5 lakh. Much depends on luck,” says Damodar Chamudiya, chairman of Mahavir Machchhimar Sahkari Mandali, a cooperative society of fishermen in Mangrol.

The state government gives VAT rebate to fishermen on diesel and Rs 25 per litre subsidy on kerosene to the owners of pilanas — smaller boats operated by onboard motors (OBM). However, the VAT rebate is capped at maximum Rs 15 per litre and is available for up to 24,000 litres per year per boat. The kerosene quota has also been fixed at a maximum 150 litres per month.

The Gujarat Fisheries Central Cooperative Association (GFCC), a federation of cooperative societies of fishermen functioning under the aegis of fisheries department of the state, tenders contracts for supplying diesel in bulk to its fuel retailing stations located in all major harbours. Oil marketing companies generally supply diesel to GFCC fuel stations at rates up to Rs 3 lower than other retail outlets.

As per data from the Commissioner of Fisheries, Gujarat, marine fish production in Gujarat was seven lakh metric tonnes (mt) in 2019-20. The state exported 2.79 mt of marine products that year, the lowest in the past three years, data shows. This was largely due to the floundering Chinese market, says Jagdish Fofandi, president of Seafood Exporters Association of India (SEAI).

“China accounts for around 40 to 50 per cent of seafood exports from Gujarat in terms of value and more than that in terms of volumes. But due to Covid, the Chinese market has destabilised and therefore, exports to that country declined by 20 per cent in terms of volume and value last season. This put pressure on Chinese-market oriented products, resulting in a price drop of around 20 per cent. However, prices of products exported to European countries, US, Canada, Gulf, etc., have seen a general rising trend,” says Fofandi, adding SEAI is expecting a revival in Chinese demand this season.

Around 2,000 boats operate from Mangrol harbour but Mangrol Kharva Boat Association (MKBA) says around a third of them won’t be able to resume fishing this season. “Small time fishermen have not been able to clear their loan dues for the past two years and they may not be able to cope with the increased input costs. Around 30 per cent of boats here won’t be able to set sail as their owners have run out of their savings and creditworthiness,” says Jamnadas Vantur, vice-president of MKBA.

Mukesh Panjari, president of Porbandar Machhimar Boat Association, says diesel priced at Rs 65 was within tolerence limits of fishermen. “We could even stretch it to Rs 70. But Rs 97, which means at least Rs 80 for us, is way too high. This hurts especially in times when we have to go far from the coast in search of a good catch as pollution is destroying marine life in the near-coast waters, forcing us to burn more diesel,” Panjari says, adding around 30% of nearly 4,000 boats in Porbandar may not be able to operate.

Fishing boats at Mangrol harbour. (Express Photo by Gopal Kateshiya)

Tulsi Gohel, president of Samyukta Machhimar Boat Association of Veraval, the largest fishing harbour of the state with around 7,000 boats, also shares similar estimates.

“The increased diesel prices can be back-breaking for fishermen. The difference in price of subsidised diesel kept the earnings of fishermen sustainable but we are entering a new territory now,” says Velji Masani, national president of All India Fishermen Association and a fisherman from Mangrol.

The fishermen’s concerns are also due to instability in overseas fish markets, says Dhanji Oza alias Babubhai, president of MKBA. “Earlier, Chinese importers used to come here personally, check the quality of fish and pay advance after placing orders. This stopped five years ago. Now, we sell our fish to traders, who in turn supply it to exporters. As they are not paying in advance, payment to fishermen is delayed and sometimes traders manipulate the situation,” says Oza.

Market functionaries also add that Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune, Surat, etc., are big domestic markets of fish but as hotels were closed or did little business due to Covid-19, price of fish came down in the domestic market as well.

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