Fishermen going for fishing on an early morning in Kerala.
Photo: Sharada Balasubramanian

How India’s fishermen cope with the pandemic

A sudden India-wide lockdown, with just four hours of notice, during the COVID-19 outbreak turned many Indian fishermen’s livelihoods upside down. With large numbers of fishing days lost because of cyclones in 2019, and now the pandemic, fishermen have been looking for support to run their daily lives. They still await their full-fledged fishing days to begin.

Starting on March 25th, the lockdown has severely affected the livelihoods of India’s 16 million fishermen. Exporters, traders, women fish vendors, sea weed collectors, vehicles carrying fish, ice breakers – all those in fisheries and allied activities have been impacted.

Already battered by a series of cyclones last year, fishermen in the state of Gujarat said that they had lost almost five months of fishing time. And as they were still walking to the state fisheries for their compensation, months after the cyclones, COVID-19 hit them really hard. Adding to the COVID-19 pandemic itself and the cyclones, fishermen face a 45-60-day fishing ban, resulting in even more non-fishing days.

Deep-sea fishermen are away for any time between two weeks and a maximum of 40 days, with the latter occurring only in very few areas. In the early lockdown days, many of them were still at sea, returning to shores in intervals. When they arrived at harbours with their huge fish catch, they were shocked to see empty fish landing centres. When they walked into their coastal villages, the fish markets were shut. And there were no women vendors.

Women are usually seen on the streets selling fish, but all of them have disappeared. “Even though some fishing happens, the women are not able to sell because they cannot ride a cycle like some male vendors do, and there’s no public transport,” says Pradip Chatterjee, President of the National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (NPSSFW).

The lockdown left almost 4,000 migrant fish workers from Andhra Pradesh and based on marine fishing vessels stranded at Veraval fishing harbour in Gujarat for over a month. Large numbers of migrant fishermen have since moved back home, according to a report by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT). Even if the major marine fisheries were to open up after the fishing ban period ended, the migrant labour force might not be available for work, the report added.

Loss in fisheries

CIFT, India’s only government organisation working on fisheries technology, says that fish is the most important agricultural commodity exported from India, accounting for almost 6.7 billion US-dollars (USD) in the year 2018-19. CIFT’s recent report on COVID-19 and the management measures, including the lockdown of the nation, shows how the latter affected the fisheries sector of India in many ways. Its estimates indicate a loss amounting to Rs 4,559 crores (592.67 million USD) for a month.

With the complete closure of harbours and marketing services, many fishermen had to throw out or destroy their entire catch. For instance, out of the 300 deep-sea shrimp trawlers (7-8 days of fishing), almost 60 fishing vessels that reached the harbour at Kollam in Kerala had to discard their catch, amounting to about 2,000-3,000 kilograms per boat, and causing a loss of Rs 200,000-300,000 lakh (2,600-3,950 USD) per fishing vessel. Similarly, gillnetters and longliners of Tamil Nadu coast had to discard the catch of the entire 30-40-day fishing period at Kochi because harbours were not operating when they landed. Indeed, this was the scenario across most Indian states.

India’s total fish production was about 13.7 million tonnes in 2018-19, out of which about 35 per cent was contributed by the marine sector. During this period, the loss from the mechanised sector was Rs 6,008 crore (781.04 million USD) and from the non-mechanised sector Rs 830 crore (107.90 million USD). This is an overall loss of about Rs 224 crore (29.12 million USD) a day for the fishing sector. (The numbers in the reports were arrived at by secondary data, discussion with experts, fishermen and best assumptions.)

In the early days of lockdown, when fish catch was thrown away without buyers, KKBaiju, a scientist from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), proposed to the Chief Minister of Kerala not to throw away the fish: “The Kerala government has started a community kitchen where health workers, police, local people, Covid-affected patients are offered free food. Instead of just vegetables, why don’t we provide fish in these community kitchens?” Baiju suggested. Fishes were being thrown into the sea, because there were no buyers, and neither was there any public auctioning. So Baiju’s proposal was received well. However, it was at this point that the state cooperative Matsyafed took over. With the pricing now fixed by the government, and going into sales eliminating the need to throw away the fishes or give them to the meal programme, there was no opportunity to implement his suggestion.

Fisheries post-lockdown exemption

The lockdown was imposed on March 25th, and on April 21st, after its first phase, the Central government announced that fishermen were exempted from it. Fishing was brought in under essentials, and there are now no restrictions in this sector.  However, fishermen were hesitant to resume operations with export houses shut. There was too much scepticism. “It is not like how it was earlier,” says S Velvizhi, a scientist at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). “Fishers cannot go and sell outside now. The local traders go to the districts and sell. The export houses are shut. Earlier, there was marketing support, now it is not there. Neither do the traders carry ice boxes for storage. The small catch is only for the local market. There is not much income. Most fish is for household consumption.”

As John Samy, President of the Ramnad Fish Workers Union in Tamilnadu, confirms, the fishing patterns have changed, too. “We fish for three days a week now,” John explains. “And fishermen cannot stay in the sea. They are not allowed to because of the risk of infections. They go at 3 a.m. or they leave the net in the evening and pick up fish the next morning. The small fishermen go for only five or six nautical miles.”

Right now, a fishing ban is also in place for large trawlers who run high powered boats. Small craft fishermen are venturing into the sea, but they get less catch. “In the summer, we get less fishes than in normal times, because the fishes move into the deeper sea, which also means that we have to spend more on fuel,” John says.

In seaweed collection, almost 90 per cent of the workforce are women. But the women seaweed collectors are not working. Now the traders are unable to sell the seaweed because the export markets are shut. And since they themselves are now without income, they cannot lend any money to the women.

Opening up of fisheries has not yet made the sector fully operational.

Export market shutdown

India largely exports to markets in the US, European Union countries, Japan, China and a few South East Asian countries. After lockdown, the exports came to a grinding halt. So far, trading has not resumed. There are fishermen who specially catch fishes for exporting. The chilled fish consignment market supplied fishes packed with ice in thermacol boxes which were exported to many countries on a daily basis. “Mechanised boats will not operate if there is no export, even after the fishing ban,” John says. “The fishermen will not go to sea, because they would only do so to catch for the export market.”

Some of the fishes for the EU market were canned and stored after lockdown. The frozen fish exports have a shelf life of three months to two years. Fish that could be preserved was stored. There will however be stringent quarantine steps for export once the global markets reopen. As of now, only China has opened up the shrimp imports from India, according to the CIFT report.

Supportive measures during lockdown

In Kerala, CIFT opened up its laboratory for testing sea food as all the private labs were shut. “We developed advisories for different stakeholders-fishermen, processors, markets and landing centre workers in ten languages,” says CN Ravishankaran, Director of CIFT. “There were pictorial advisories for fishermen. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) linked up to our advisories.”

CIFT is also in touch with various stakeholders in fisheries to understand their needs. “We had a session with fishermen, exporters and processors on what they need from the government,” Ravishankaran says. “We have communicated their needs to the ministry in New Delhi.” This included supporting cage culture, modernisation of vessels and value addition. The Institute has also recommended that initiatives be taken to promote online fish marketing, as fresh fish markets are mostly non-operational now. This can be done, since online food delivery is already active in many cities.

India’s Finance Minister allocated Rs 20,000 crore (2,600 million USD) to the welfare of fishermen under the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana initiative on the 22nd May 2020.  This was to support the fishermen affected by the economic impact of the pandemic. It is believed that these funds will address critical gaps in the fisheries value chain and will help provide employment to 5,500,000 people. About Rs 11,000 crore (1,430 million USD) will be used for the development of marine, inland fisheries and aquaculture, and Rs 9,000 crore (1,170 million USD) will go into creating infrastructure like fishing harbours, cold chains and markets. This will double the exports to Rs 1,000,000 crore (13,000 million USD), the finance minister said. The key activities under this scheme will be addressing critical gaps in fisheries value chain. They will include cage culture, seaweed farming, ornamental fisheries and new fishing vessels. Also, during the fisheries ban, when fishermen have no income, this fund will be used to support them.

Tackling contaminated fish

Another major issue during the lockdown was fish from other states that contained ammonia or formalin, a preservative to prevent fish decay. CIFT developed a paper kit which could test the presence of chemicals in the fishes. This was used now to check the fish quality.  “There was a lot of concern about the safety of fish that is sold,” Ravishankaran says. “Fishes were coming from Tamilnadu, Karnataka, laced with formalin. We developed a paper strip. The production was happening in Mumbai. Now, with the lockdown, new production is not happening. We made some kits and gave them to the state food lab to monitor the quality.”

 “Earlier, we destroyed hundreds of fishes after checks from the food and safety department,” Peter says. “CIFT’s new paper testing kit is helping this time.” The paper kit is being used across the country. Ravishankaran says that once the lockdown is over, testing kit supply will be back to normal.

Earlier this year, CIFT also launched ‘freshness indicator’, a strip that consumers could use to check if fishes were spoilt. “We had a smart packaging system where dye colour will change when fishes are spoiled,” Ravishankaran explains. Now, people are coming to the seashore in Kerala to buy fish. “They want good quality fishes, and they now bring their own vehicles to the fish landing centres,” Peter says.

Breaking price barriers

Fish prices used to be set in public auctions, but these are now closed. In the Federal State of Kerala, Matsyafed, the State Co-operative Federation for Fisheries Development Limited, is now fixing the price of fish catch. “In Kerala, for auctioning and sales, mainly, middlemen are there to control the market system,” says T Peter, Secretary of the National Fisheries Forum. “Matsyafed was started to break that. For two to three decades, the cooperative could not intervene in pricing as auctioneers and middlemen were so powerful. The good thing for fisheries in Covid-19 times is how the cooperatives are now fixing the price. We are supporting this.”  

Matsyafed have announced that they will open outlets for selling fish. If there is excess fish, the Federation buys it, and works out ways of selling it. Big fishes could be frozen, for instance. “Fishermen are happy,” Peter says. “But the auctioneers and middlemen are opposed to the scheme as they are earning more money with the old system. COVID-19 was a good opportunity to enter. All the trade union leaders, cooperative officials, the fisheries department, collectors and representatives are deciding the price.”

The group assesses stocks in the morning, and then comes to a price. The fishes are sold by the fishermen at the same price. “Earlier, people who came first got a better price, and those who were late would earn less,” Peter explains. “Now, there is a standard price decided on by the committee, which also includes fishermen. That is a good approach, and in this way, we can control how sales work.”

 “The committees have been entrusted with the task of fixing price of catch each day based on availability and demand,” adds Jackson Pollayil, a fisherman and President of Kerala Swathanthra Malsyathozhilali Federation, a fisheries group. “They decide the price each day for each variety, and this changes daily. That's good for the fish workers. We are getting a fair price, and there is no exploitation.”

 “This is a major revolution in fisheries that has happened because of COVID-19,” says John Thekkayam, who created the community radio service Radio Benzigar in Kerala. “For so long, middlemen auctioneers were always accused of exploiting. They were the ones giving credit to fishermen; they worked as moneylenders. So that thing has gone bust now. Fishermen are happy.”

Not surprisingly, the middle men are unhappy with this development.  “The age of speculative prices has been ended,” comments Pollayil.  

Sharada Balasubramanian is a freelance environmental and development journalist from Coimbatore, India. She writes on water, agriculture, climate change and conservation.

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