The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit the fishing communities of Mumbai harder than anyone expected. Fishermen had a poor catch last year due to the cyclonic winds in the Arabian Sea, but 2020 has had a worse impact on them. A variety of different factors hit them from every possible angle.
Restrictions were imposed on the selling of fish in markets with the advent of the lockdown in the city. This meant, that trawlers returning from the fishing grounds were greeted with no labour to unload them or transport to carry them to the local markets in the city. This led to the fishermen dumping millions of tons of fish back into the sea. Only wholesalers, including hotels and restaurants were able to purchase whatever fish remained and at the lowest possible price.
The Chairman of the National Association of Fishermen, Dr. Gajendra Bahanji described the situation as a terrible one, and fishermen are suffering financially. He says, ‘Fishing was allowed, but selling was not, which caused a lot of damage’. The losses are massive and might be irreparable, according to Dr. Bahanji. He also explained that due to the losses, migrant labourers who work on the trawlers were unable to return to their villages and are stranded in the city. He further explained how the lifting of the restrictions on 1st August 2020, did no favours to the fishermen due to the sixty-two-day ban on fishing in the monsoons for the fish to breed. The fishing season begins in August after Naryal Poornima, a ritual performed by the Koli community to please the sea gods, to protect the fishermen from any dangers at sea and bless them with a bountiful catch. This year, the restrictions were lifted fifteen days prior to Naryal Poornima, and customers flooded the markets only to find very few fish sold at exorbitant prices.
According to the Fisheries Survey of India, the most commonly caught fish off the coast of Mumbai include rawas (Fourfinger threadfin), surmai (seerfish), pomfrets, mackerels, and Bombay duck (bombil). Prawns are also caught in abundance in Mumbai. These are very lucrative and prices of these fish are far more than freshwater fish. The Zonal Director of FSI D.K Gulati says, “We feel for the fishermen, but our authority is limited within the survey department. Although we are a government department, we do not give financial aid to the fishermen.”
To understand the issue of government aid, we spoke to the Chairmen of the Akhil Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samittee, Damodar Tandel. He said, “Fishermen have suffered losses of over 200 crore rupees. If farmers can get subsidies, and their loans are paid off by the government and banks, why are we being ignored.” He highlighted the issues faced by the fishermen that extend beyond the restrictions of the lockdown, such as pollution, urban development and ignorance by state civic bodies, He commented, “From such a massive state budget, why can’t a little bit go into ensuring the safety and security.” While it is clear that fishing off the coast of Mumbai is riskier than working alongside the railway tracks, the compensation for the death of a fishermen is 20% of the compensation a railway employee gets in case of death.
The Marine Products Development Export Authorities say that the restrictions have taken a huge chunk out of the export earnings. Fish caught off the coast is exported to China, USA, the United Arab Emirates and European nations as well. A spokesperson from the MPDA said, “Containers have remained empty and exports have stopped, local markets are being supplied but exports have stopped for the time-being.”
Retail stores in the city purchase fish from wholesalers in Kolkata, as the fishing season begins in June on the East coast of India. Wholesalers at Sassoon Docks and Crawford Market informed, ‘We are selling fish fresh off the boat but we have to sell at a higher price as cost of labour has risen, and then demand is too high and supply is short. It has almost become a bidding war’. A meat retail store owner spoke to us, “Pomfrets that were usually sold between the range of Rs. 350 to Rs. 400 are being sold between the range of Rs. 700 to Rs. 800.” Retail prices are even higher with prices rising beyond Rs. 1000. The price of prawns has risen too, and the most commonly caught surmai fish is sold for Rs. 850, a testament to these trying times for the fishermen of Mumbai.