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At 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced that a nation wide lockdown would start in just four hours. Suddenly, all public and private industries were shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19. Domestic and international travel by air, road, and rail was suspended. So when fishers returned to the shore, they found empty harbors with no traders, no transportation facilities, and shuttered ice plants, processing factories, and markets.
“We had no idea that a lockdown was going to happen,” says Siddharth Chamudiya, a trawler owner who returned to port in Gujarat, India, on the 24th after a 15-day fishing trip. With difficulty, he managed to sell his stock of fish at one-quarter the original price.
Many fishers were not as lucky—and those who were unable to find a buyer had no option but to throw away their precious catch.
“The entire supply chain system has been affected due to the lockdown impact,” says Ramachandra Bhatta, a fisheries economist and senior scientific consultant at India’s National Academy of Agricultural Research Management. “There is shortage of supply at the marine wholesale landing center market, and regular trading has been affected. Additionally, there are losses in the value chain system such as retail markets, food processing, restaurants, domestic traders, and exporters.”
India’s 7,516-kilometer coastline covers nine states and five union territories, where 16 million fishers operate on a vast spectrum—from export-oriented, fuel intensive mechanized fleets to medium- and small-scale boats serving regional and local markets. India’s fish production increased from less than one million tonnes in 1950 to more than 11 million in 2016. The industry contributes 1.03 percent of India’s gross domestic product. But even before the COVID-19-induced lockdown, many fishers were already struggling. Landing data shows a nine percent decline in overall fish catch in 2018 compared to 2017, and 2019 was a bad year too: an unprecedented number of cyclones on the west coast reduced the number of fishing days.
Broadly, the fisheries sector contributes in two main ways to India’s food and nutrition security. First, fish is a primary source of protein for a vast portion of the population, although experts say that over the years fish has been increasingly diverted to exports and the fish meal industry, reducing the availability of this affordable nutrition source for the poor. Second, the fisheries sector provides high income and employment for those working directly as fishers, as well as in related sectors. The pandemic has disrupted both.
In mid-April, India’s government issued a revised set of guidelines allowing the fishing sector to operate amid the lockdown. But for many it was too late. A large part of the sector is unable to function, reeling under the shock of losses in money and staff. A recent report published by India’s Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in Kerala estimates that the marine fisheries sector has incurred a monthly loss of US $896-million.
“Even if the lockdown is lifted, I don’t see the industry bouncing back before the monsoon [season],” says Krishna Pawle, a trader based in Maharashtra on India’s west coast.
A lack of workers is hampering attempts to reopen the industry. Most employees in the mechanized fisheries sector come from interior states and the east coast to work in the west, often without a contract. Given the precariousness of their employment, these migrant workers bear the brunt of unplanned measures such as the current lockdown. When the lockdown was announced, those who could left for their homes before transportation was cancelled. Many others were left stranded.
Recently, there have been reports of at least two deaths of stranded migrant fish workers. One of them reportedly died of a heart attack after being told that some fish workers in the neighboring district had tested positive for COVID-19.
“So what if fishing has resumed? My crew doesn’t want to work, they want to go back home,” says Shashi Kumar, a trawler owner in Mangalore. “We cannot go back in the water without them,” he says.
“They are not interested in going back to work,” says Marianne Manuel, assistant director at Dakshin Foundation, a marine conservation nonprofit coordinating relief efforts for stranded migrant fish workers. “They have very low levels of comfort and hygiene, the food that is being provided to them varies daily in quality and quantity, as does the availability of drinking water. Many haven’t bathed in weeks, their mental health is deteriorating day by day, some are even falling sick. They are really not in any condition to go back fishing, and are clear that they want to go back home as soon as they can,” she says.
The organization is currently tracking 41 locations across eight states where approximately 14,500 migrant fish workers need assistance. This week, the state government in Andhra Pradesh began work to bring home several thousand migrant fish workers that had been stranded in the western state of Gujarat.
“It’s a relief to see the migrant fish workers start their journey,” says Manuel. “But the fact that this has taken a week to organize since the second death in Veraval shows that it’s not an easy feat under the lockdown. There are still thousands of migrant fish workers in Goa, Maharashtra, and Karnataka that are desperate to get home and we hope that this is the start of repatriation for all of them.”
The domestic market, which is not as organized as the export market, has seen a mixed response. The lack of transportation has meant that fishers are unable to send their catch to urban markets, so more fresh fish has become available in local markets, as well as to the fishers themselves. In several urban markets, retailers are using their frozen fish stocks, which usually would have been sold during the annual two-month monsoon fishing ban, to make up for the losses.
Concerns about the spread of the virus also mean that there are fewer customers in the markets, while some regions, such as Tamil Nadu, have shut down the fisheries entirely.
For some fish vendors, selling fish is a daily struggle. In Goa, Sujata Sahu says she’s being harassed by local residents. “They think selling fish will spread Corona,” she says.
“In some places, the pandemic has resurrected deep-seated prejudices against fish and meat as hygienic sources of food,” says Aarthi Sridhar, a doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands investigating the social history of fisheries science in India. “The prejudice tends to extend to people working in the sector such as door-to-door vendors.”
Dry fish is an important source of protein for low-income groups, plantation workers, and tribal and interior communities. “Due to lack of transportation and logistics [the fish] has not reached these regions, affecting the nutritional security of the communities,” says Bhatta.
As with the sudden shifts in food availability, the economic crunch is hitting people unevenly.
“The Indian fisheries economy largely deals in cash,” says Sridhar. Many fishers exist in a state referred to as cash-rich poverty, in which cash is lent to them on a daily basis by other fishers, traders, or moneylenders. Most fishers don’t have anything to fall back on. Sridhar says that if fishers “can’t catch fish to consume, or exchange as cash to purchase food, they almost immediately have to rely on external largesse like the moneylender or the state’s public distribution system known as rations.”
But many fishers, especially small-scale subsistence ones, lack the required documentation to apply for state support. “We understand that many groups, especially women, have not yet received this basic ration since the lockdown and are dependent on neighbors’ generosity in sharing rations,” she says.
“This is a time of great distress for us,” says T. Peter, general secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), a federation of trade unions of independent and small-scale fish workers. “We have been consistent in our demands for financial assistance. We fishermen take care of the food security of the country, apart from earning foreign currency from exports. The government needs to take care of us. Merely exempting us from the lockdown will not suffice. It is a misconception to think that since fishing is now allowed, this group does not need any intervention from the government,” he says.