Hit by Covid, cyclone & high fuel price, India’s fishing industry finds itself marooned


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New Delhi: The fisheries sector in the country is grappling with mounting losses for the second consecutive year, as business continues to remain sluggish due to the Covid lockdowns in the key summer months. 

The demand and price drop due to the lockdown has been further aggravated by cyclone damage on either coast of the country, coupled with a rise in input prices such as fuel and transportation. 

“Each trip into the seas costs one boat about Rs 30,000-40,000 due to fuel, net and ice costs,” said Kiran Koli, secretary of the Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti (MMKS), a fisherman’s collective.  

“The cost recovery has dropped to just Rs 5,000-7000. On the other hand, the price of fuel and other inputs is increasing every day leading to crores of losses to the sector,” Koli added. “Last year, fishermen had to suffer heavy losses due to national lockdown, unseasonal rains, and cyclones. The previous year’s loss was at least Rs 1,000 crore but the state government compensated us with just Rs 65 crore. A lot of women involved in the fish selling business had to pledge their gold and other ornaments to pay off their debts. The state government should pay at least Rs 25,000 to each fishing family.” 

Hit by lockdown

Stakeholders say that the lockdowns in the states have severely affected business.

In Maharashtra for instance, under new Covid lockdown rules, business in wholesale fish markets has been restricted to until 11 am. This leads to an early shutdown of business in the market with a decline in trade.

According to the fishermen, the restriction has disrupted the seafood supply from coastal areas of Mumbai and the Konkan region, leading to a fall in demand and prices. They now want Maharashtra to increase trading hours in wholesale markets to be extended to 2 pm each day.

“Trading hour restrictions are worse for business than even the fear of Covid. Earlier, big traders would reach seaside ports in the early hours to buy seafood in bulk,” said Prafull Bhoir, a representative of the Fishermen Sangharsh Samiti in Mumbai. “Thereon it would be taken to non-seaside markets in the next 2-3 hours, and finally to customers in villages, towns and local markets.”

“Now, major markets close after 11 am, disrupting the cycle. The majority of fishermen and traders do not have freezing and storage provisions,” he added. “Usually, fresh fish is sold on the same day, not 2-3 days later. Due to this trading, interest has plunged leading to a dip in demand and prices.”

Other fish traders in non-seaside cities echo the same concern, adding that to make matters worse, freight rates have increased. 

Mahesh Koli, a fish trader from Sangli, told ThePrint. “All local functions and celebrations have stopped, causing zero demand in business. The same is in dhabas and restaurants across cities and villages. Until demand from such commercial venues revives, business will be sluggish.”

“Even if we somehow bring fish to local markets and sell it at retail prices, it still means we don’t recover transportation costs, let alone get profits,” he added. “Now a customer can buy fish worth Rs 100/kg for just Rs 25-50/kg.  Hence traders have restricted or stopped business. Even the sale of fish at Mumbai ports is one-tenth of what it is on usual days.”

Mahesh added that people are also staying away from popular fish markets due to fear of crowds. 

“Consumer income has also decreased,” he said. “So why would anyone buy expensive fish such as Bombay Duck. Therefore, demand and price have also decreased significantly.”


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No better on the east coast

The lockdown has diminished the possibility of profitable business in the fisheries sector on the east coast and other states as well. 

Dr. Kumaravelu, vice-chairperson of the National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF) in Tamil Nadu, told ThePrint that commercial establishments remaining shut in the lockdown has severely affected their business. 

“Fishermen are not able to sell to the major source of income, which are restaurants and markets that are shut due to lockdown,” he said. 

He said that the annual ban on deep sea fishing has further hurt the sector. India imposes an annual ban from April 15 until 14 June on the east coast, and 1 June and 31 July on the west coast every year. This year, however, the fisheries ministry has reduced the ban period on the east coast from 15 April to 31 May, and on the west coast from 15 June to 31 July.

“The situation has become severe after the monsoon ban, as around 4.8 million people in the state who rely on fishing have been thrown out of jobs for more than a couple of months,” he said. “In Chennai’s major fish market of Kasimedu, around 150-200 tonnes of fish arrive on Sundays while 100-150 tonnes land up on weekdays. This has dropped to below 50-80 tonnes.” 

“Popular produce in local markets also witnessed sudden and massive price drops. The prawn rate dropped to Rs 150/kg from the usual cost of Rs 600-650/kg,” he added. 

Similar sentiments are echoed by fishermen in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. 

Vijay Reddy, a fish farmer in Krishna district, told ThePrint, “The supply chain of markets both from coastal and inland areas have been disrupted. Fish farmers in the state have lost a lot of money due to lack of business and demand as access to markets in major metro cities such Delhi has been restricted.”

“Pangasia or basa is one of the most popular varieties in Delhi and Punjab markets but its price has declined by more than half,” he added. “Several inland fishermen are not harvesting, fearing that Covid condition will worsen.” 

Usman Seragai, the NFF secretary in Gujarat and owner of a seafood company, said it was a similar situation in the state.

“Though fishing was allowed as an essential service during lockdown, vital infrastructures related to it such as transport and markets were heavily curtailed leading to less price recovery on the catch for fishermen even after paying increased input and transportation cost,” he said.

“For example, in the Kutch area, the price of Bombay Duck came down from Rs 4,500-5,000/40 kg to Rs 3,000/40kg. The price of Pomfret, another popular fish, dropped from Rs 950/kg to Rs 600/kg,” he added. “The lack of labour and other restrictions also dropped exports drastically. The enormous losses caused by sudden lockdown have pushed people employed in the fisheries sector into a vicious cycle of hunger, unemployment, and debt trap.” 


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Cyclone damage adding to woes

Frequent cyclones have also wreaked havoc on the already battered fisheries sector on either coast of the country. 

While Cyclone Tauktae affected the west coast throughout the latter half of May, Cyclone Yass rampaged through the east coast around the same time.

According to the fishermen in Odisha, Cyclone Yaas, which made landfall in the state on 26 May, and the resultant floods have shattered the hopes of thousands of inland shrimp and fish farmers in districts such as Bhadrak, Balasore and Kendrapara among other coastal areas.

Pranav Das, a fish and shrimp cultivator in Kendrapara, told ThePrint, “My shrimp farm of over 8 acres has been completely wiped away by the tidal wave and the floods caused by the cyclone. It has caused me to lose at least Rs 60 lakh from the ponds. It will take me years to recover from the loss and the loans.”

Allaya of the Odisha Marine Fish Producers’ Association told ThePrint that the government should provide the shrimp farmers with interest-free loans.

“The shrimp farmers of Balasore, Bhadrak, Kendrapara, and Jagatsinghpur have incurred massive losses. First, it was Cyclone Amphan, then Covid and now, Cyclone Yaas,” he said. “The government should provide interest-free or low-interest loans to fishermen to recover from such huge losses caused by cyclones and floods.”

Usman Seragai said Cyclone Tauktae did similar damage in Gujarat.  

“In coastal areas around Una, such as Jaffarabad and Navabandar, over 1,000 boats of fishermen were either damaged or swept off in the cyclone,” he said. “Many vulnerable homes of fishermen were also blown off causing further losses to them.” 

Inland fisheries sector worst affected

According to experts, the damage in the inland fisheries sector has been twice as much as the marine fisheries sector. 

The inland sector plays a vital role in providing dry fish, fish oil, and fish as well poultry meal for domestic consumption as well as exporting products like Norwegian Salmon to other countries such as Chile and Norway.

Debasis Shyamal, an NFF member in West Bengal, told ThePrint, “Boats and other infrastructure of small coastal and inland fishermen with little capital have been swept off by the cyclone. Smaller fishes or prawns in the inland sector were wiped off.” 

“Even after lockdown, companies that buy material for fish oil or poultry meals are missing due to a dip in demand in their export and other domestic ends,” he added. 

To add more woes, the monsoon fishing ban has also kicked in. This period is normally utilised by fishermen to repair their boats but most say they have no capital for it.  

Satyajeet Jharve, a fisherman in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri, said, “Every fisherman has taken a loan of at least Rs 1 lakh to recuperate losses and to maintain boats and other stuff. However, with the current condition, we are uncertain whether we will be able to pay that back on time.” 

Even women workers in fisheries who are also a part of the sector in fish vending and other businesses have been adversely affected. 

Narendra Ramachandra Patil, chairperson of NFF, told ThePrint, “Livelihood of over 16 million fisherman and fish workers have been devastated by Covid and cyclones in the last two years. Women workers who form half of the workforce have been worse hit as they manage households with most of the sales business in the sector.”

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)


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