Something Fishy — Emptying India’s Seas

Kadambari Devarajan
At a popular seafood restaurant in Mumbai
Kadambari D
A typical restaurant anywhere in coastal India offers a wide array of seafood, sometimes throughout the year, and usually without regard to the source of the item.

Marine organisms are frequently seen as resources that can be used or extracted seemingly limitlessly. They certainly do not come to mind as wildlife, which are in need of as much protection as terrestrial creatures, if not more. Mindless fishing or harvesting, combined with unsustainable methods, have wreaked havoc on marine systems. Seafood encompasses any sea life that is fit for consumption by humans, and additionally marine organisms are used as ‘resources’ in a variety of ways – as pets, as ornamentation, for making pet foods, for body parts such as turtle shells, fur, and whale bone, as well as extracting oils that are said to be beneficial to health. Moreover, a lot of marine organisms are killed directly or indirectly, such as large-scale fishing involving trawlers and biomagnification, pollution, or oil-spills.

Marine systems are complex, with intricate interactions and linkages therein, and minor changes that affect certain organisms are known to cascade down and affect many others in their wake. This can lead to a variety of problems at various scales, resulting in a reshuffling of marine communities, a break down of community structure, and even extinctions. Here, we are interested in broad patterns of perception of seafood in India and the current trends in the seafood industry as well consumption in India.

“We are famous for our live crab”, the restaurant manager proclaimed with a smile. “We show the crab to the client, before cooking it to perfection, however they wish”, he added. I was at an Oriental speciality restaurant in posh south Bombay, for a survey I was conducting as part of a class project. Each of my classmates went to different regions of coastal India in an attempt to understand the current trends in seafood consumption in south India. And this was the third time I was encountering “live crab” in two days, incidentally at a restaurant serving south Asian cuisine.

“Beware the basa”, my marine biologist colleagues warn me. A whole host of fishes whose identities are, well, fishy, end up on a fancy plate masquerading as basa or sea-bass. Truth be told, the word ‘basa’ was not mentioned in either of the fish markets I visited, but many restaurants seemed to be offering sea-bass. Curiouser and curiouser. I eavesdrop on some conversations and an interesting tidbit is thrown from the other end of the classroom – did you know that a lot of basa is imported, usually from Vietnam? Hmmm. That is a big help. This import explains the incongruous “Chilean”, “Andean” and “Norwegian” sea-bass in otherwise Asian-themed restaurants.

The import of seafood in India is quite surprising for a number of reasons. Firstly, most restaurants seemed to serve fresh fish with pride and importing seafood typically implies frozen or canned food. The restaurants also seemed to be aware of how much seafood was needed on a daily basis. The smaller joints in fact had their owners juggling a lot of responsibilities – one would find them at the cash counter and many would boast of visiting the markets or docks of Mumbai to get fresh catch everyday. These were the places that wore their ‘Malvani’ delicacies on their sleeves and had no reason to import seafood. Most places had some cold storage or deep freezer, with food stalls having at least refrigerators.

The larger establishments, especially the seafood speciality ones, had no issues with seafood availability, since the middlemen they depended on guaranteed supply all year long. Even these rarely stored more than ten kilograms at a time and this was for a couple of days at the most. Where encountered, the crab was either the ‘live crab’ variety or frozen crabmeat, especially in the oriental joints that are new to the restaurant scene. On the other hand, there seemed to be significant demand for some fish from West Bengal such as the trademark hilsa, which were surprisingly popular in Indo-Chinese restaurants. In all likelihood, the import of seafood from other states as well countries is a cosmopolitan concept – a reasonable assumption to make since villages and towns would neither want nor afford this.

A majority of restaurants claimed prawn to be their most popular item on the menu and many considered it the most profitable seafood listed. It was also rather popular in places serving alcohol. The all-time favorite fish (which ranked higher than prawns) were surmai and pomfret, and almost every restaurant serving seafood had one or both. They seemed ubiquitous across restaurant categories and cuisines, probably due to their easy availability as well as the versatility with which they melded into a variety of preparations. These three were popular in all the south Indian states that were surveyed for the study.

Bombay duck (bombil in Marathi) is an iconic fish – anything with such charmingly unresolved etymology and cultural affinities to a region, usually is special. It also happens to be a fairly large fish that is fast disappearing from these waters. One story goes that the characteristic smell of the fish arriving by the ‘Bombay Daak’ became synonymous with the train but somehow got perverted to Bombay duck and the name stuck. The confusing name notwithstanding, it seems as popular as ever in Mumbai. However, colleagues from other parts of the Konkan region reported that they hardly found bombil on any of their surveys. In the Malvan region of Maharashtra, there were apparently no restaurants serving this, while colleagues in Goa found one fish market where it was available.

This is good news at some level – at least it is no longer exported in significant numbers to other parts of the country. However, this did not seem to be the scenario. It appears, from conversations during the survey, that it is most popular with locals followed by Indian tourists, for the most part. This implies a high demand throughout the year, which can be more detrimental than in the case of seasonal visitors. Bombil was rarely served in the high-end restaurants, making the occasional foray during themed parties and food festivals. A web search tells me that the export of bombil outside India might be a different tale with twists aplenty, and although interesting, will be ignored here to focus on other fish tales from Mumbai.

While research indicates an actual drop in the abundance of most large fish, apparently thanks to overfishing and global change, a vast majority of restaurateurs, spanning the gradient between tiny food stalls to five star hotels, are blissfully unaware of the churning of the ocean. To them, seemingly, customer is still king. They may hike the price if something is hard to procure, they may look to other markets and sources of procurement, but rarely would they not serve something that is popular among their seafood enthusiasts. Most restaurant and food-stall owners I interacted with were of the opinion that seafood is almost never profitable – they claim that margins are very low. Many even said they offer seafood even though it is at a loss and they try to make it up with other means or by compromising on quantity. This polarised the seafood restaurants – half of them were perfectly comfortable with saying a particular item was not unavailable while others tried their best to avoid being put in such a situation.

The bottomline is: consumers drive this industry. With this, the onus has been dumped squarely on the customers – to try and find where their food is coming from, to be more aware that how and what they eat is related to environmental and conservation issues that ought not be ignored, and to know the benefits of eating responsibly. This is less of an issue in the small fishing villages that abound in coastal India where the route to the plate is fairly clear. The convoluted mazes with innumerable middlemen in cosmopolitan coastal cities are different, and after a point no one cares where the shrimp they are eating is coming from.

However, the customer is just one of the consumers of the fisheries industry. There are other, not-so-obvious consumers that have been spawned off by indisciminate fishing and use of bycatch. As some studies have shown, bycatch and anything caught in the net that is not suitable for human consumption have huge markets in the chicken feed and pet food industries. A classic chicken-and-egg situation between supply and demand. Where target fishing used to be big problem, now indiscriminate fishing seems to be an even bigger problem, but that is different story.

Many of the larger establishments had managers with whom one ended up interacting, while the smaller ones typically had their owners usually hanging around doing one odd job or the other. The larger establishments seemingly suffered from a disconnect between their kitchens and service, and more so in the case of restaurant chains. This meant that managers would say that only the head office knew the whole story and they rarely got to deal with even the middlemen. On the other hand, the small scale proprietors were aware of issues ranging from trawling and overfishing to even climate change and indiscriminate fishing.

On the mainland, whether one is in Chennai or Mumbai, on the east coast or the west, there is always wildlife right in the backyard. A walk in the garden, beach, or creek is all it takes. However, there are issues aplenty. Marine creatures are sometimes ignored as wildlife, and unsustainable seafood consumption has affected many of the world’s seas. Marine systems are impacted on all fronts – from climate change, pollution, fishing, sedimentation and whatnot.

The scene on the islands is not far off, fragile ecosystems that they are. There were notorious times when roads in the Andamans used to be lined with shark-fins that were exported to other countries in south-east Asia. Thankfully, this seems to be on the decline these days. Although, even today, a visit to the fish-landing jetty is gloomy and the air heavy with death. Moray eels, long and small, and fish of various sizes, dead and washed ashore, grotesque with open mouths and glassy eyes gaze back at you lifelessly. Thankfully, awareness is on the increase, and sustainability seems to be catching on. The tide is changing.

At the end of my last day of surveying, I stood at Marine Drive, drifting into a reverie about the various encounters, watching a couple of tiny fishing boats at sundown. Each had two men, very obviously fishing, not very far from the promenade and parallel to it. It had been cloudy all day and the monsoon had definitely begun in Mumbai. It started to drizzle, and in typical Bombaiyya fashion, the evening filled out with couples enjoying the sunset, friends talking about the mundane, part-time philosophers discussing world problems, hawkers selling food, employees weaving their way back home, and dogs being walked, leashes straining as a friend or foe is subjected to a volley of appropriate barks. The usual cliches against a picture postcard Bombay day. I had my back to all of this, facing the fishermen and the sea. Out of place, a lone crab clambered over those mysterious Giant’s Causeway-esque slabs, as though fighting against the cliches. And the fishermen.

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About the author

Kadambari Devarajan

Kadambari is a graduate student in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society - India program, and is working on ecological interactions and wildlife assemblages in human-dominated and human-modified landscapes.


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