Mumbai’s heat wave leaves fewer fish in the sea for vendors
Mumbai- On a sweltering afternoon in Mumbai, fish seller Nayana Patil grabbed an unsold pomfret from her counter, noting that the price per kilo had tripled in the past fortnight.
“Now who is going to buy it for 1,500 rupees ($19.79)?” she asked indignantly, holding the silver fish by the tail.
As a few customers looked at the fish on display like exhibits in a museum, Patil blamed a sudden rise in temperatures in Mumbai on a drop in fish catch volumes, arguing that she should be compensated for the drop in her income due to the irregular time.
Fishermen receive government subsidies after storms cause loss to them or damage their boats, while farmers receive aid for crop damage caused by droughts and floods, said Patil, 55.
“Previously, women (here) could raise 10 children with their earnings. Now we have no more money. My mother couldn’t send us to school, but she taught us to fish so that we could be independent. What do we do now if there is no fish in the sea? she added.
Mumbai recorded strong heat waves in March, with temperatures 6-7 degrees Celsius above normal for at least 10 days, according to meteorological officials.
Located on the Arabian Sea, a particularly rapidly warming part of the Indian Ocean, the city has experienced unseasonal rains, cyclones and extreme heat for the past five years.
The impact of these climate changes on fish catch volumes now casts a shadow over the social status enjoyed for generations by female fish vendors in Mumbai, known for being fiercely independent, witty and financially suave.
Last month’s heat was the latest – and toughest – in a series of challenges they’ve faced in recent years, from losses due to fewer fishing days amid fiercer cyclones to gate competition online seafood delivery.
The federal government provides death and disability insurance to fishermen, with nearly 280,000 covered so far, according to data from the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB).
Fishing industry unions say similar insurance against losses due to erratic weather is also needed.
Data compiled by the NFDB shows a 52% increase in cyclones over the Arabian Sea over the past two decades, fueled by a 1.2-1.4°C increase in sea surface temperature. the sea.
“The sea is our farm – and we too are victims of the climate,” said seller Patil.
India has about 28 million workers in fishing and related activities, with 70% of all post-fishing activities handled by women, according to government data.
In Mumbai, around 40,000 female fish vendors from the Koli community, the city’s original inhabitants, buy fish from fishmongers, then sort, pack and sell it in markets.
In 2020, the total fish catch in Indian seas was about 3.7 million metric tons, up from 3.2 million in 2012, while those from rivers and estuaries doubled to 10 million tons.
Nevertheless, Pradip Chatterjee, who leads the West Bengal-based National Platform for Small-Scale Fishery Workers, said its members are struggling because their traditional knowledge and calculations are no longer effective due to sudden changes. meteorological.
Besides warming oceans causing fish to migrate from their native areas to colder waters, stocks have also been depleted by overfishing, scientists have said.
“Overfishing even during the breeding season or the use of small mesh nets that catch juveniles has compounded the impact of climate change on the fishing community,” said Sunil Mohamed, secretary of the Sustainable Seafood Network of India, based in Kerala.
Sardines in oil, for example, were once abundant on the southern coasts of Kerala and Karnataka, but are now found slightly north along the coasts of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Similarly, the bombil fish – also known by its colonial name, Bombay Duck – was previously caught along the coast of Mumbai, but is now found further north in neighboring districts, local fishermen said.
As a result, they have to use more fuel to go to the high seas amid soaring diesel prices and for a smaller catch.
Devendra Damodar Tandel of Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti, a fish workers’ union, said her organization is mapping the losses suffered during last month’s heatwave, enlisting a marine researcher and young community members.
Ad-hoc compensation following cyclones is provided to active fishermen, depending on lost catches and working days and the size of trawler engines, and constitutes a recurring financial burden on state treasuries in l lack of insurance, he noted.
But tens of thousands of women – many of whom work informally – receive no financial support.
Tandel said the only compensation they receive when a cyclone hits is a fish storage box.
“What would that be for?” asked Tandel, who wrote to the local government this week to highlight the injustice.
Looking around the empty bamboo fish drying racks at Versova Harbor in suburban Mumbai, marine scientist and retired fisherman Sadashiv Raje recalled childhood fishing trips with his father, when they returned with baskets full of bombil.
Bombil is as versatile for cooking – crisp fried or in a tamarind-coconut curry – as it is for creating jobs, he said.
Fresh, it sells quickly at auctions while port workers dry it to be stored and sold throughout the year.
“Before, I had work for the whole month of March, but last month I had seven days,” said Malamma Randhi Konalu, who earns 200 rupees a day hanging fish on bamboo poles, where they float like ribbons in the sea breeze.
The government in March acknowledged the impacts of global warming on India’s marine catch, while union leaders said it was time to protect the fishing community from climate-related losses.
Maharashtra Fisheries Minister Aslam Shaikh did not respond to requests for comment.
Suvarna Chandrappagari, chief executive of the NFDB, which oversees fishworker insurance, said a policy to cover weather-related losses for farmed fish and shrimp would soon be tested.
But a decision on weather catastrophe insurance on inland waters or at sea has yet to be made, she added.
Other loss-limiting initiatives include sea cages to raise commercially viable fish species and artificial seaweed propagation, as well as protecting seaports from gusty winds by improving infrastructure, she noted. .
Activist Chatterjee said climate resilience needed to be built across the fishing sector otherwise small-scale and marginalized operators would suffer the most.
Dwindling fish catches are already changing the way female fish vendors in Mumbai perceive their income, with some considering leaving the uncertain business or deterring the next generation from entering it.
Researcher Pranita Harad, who studied the Koli community in Mumbai, described the fish as their laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.
“For them, fish is not only their main means of subsistence, but a symbol of their existence,” she said. “If this decline in catches continues, women will have to change jobs.”
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