KOCHI: Bigger Problems
The unprecedented fall in the catch has pushed the fishermen into a serious crisis. The declining fish wealth, however, points towards a bigger problem- that of over exploitation and the associated environmental repercussions.
Compared to last summer the catch this year has come down by over 50%. Joseph Xavier Kalapurakkal, general secretary of Kerala Boat Owner’s association, says, “The catch has come down drastically. Even the fishes that were previously available in abundance like sardine and mackerel are becoming rare. The indiscriminate exploitation of resources is evidently the primary cause behind this.”
The traditional fishermen are the worst affected since they are unable to get a good catch in the coastal waters. The situation of those who operate trawlers is much better since they venture far beyond the coastal waters. But, they too are a worried lot. Joseph Xavier says, “In the 70s and 90s we had experienced a similar phenomenon. Usually it becomes normal after a period of 4 to 5 years.”
Temperature Affects Fish
It is said that rise in temperature can lead to a decrease in the availability of fish. Various other factors are also known to affect the availability of fish like food, air pressure, water level, solar and lunar tables, wind etc.
“When temperature increases the fishes may go looking for waters that are less hot. But this might not be the only reason as other factors like over-exploitation also contributes to this decline,” says P V Zacharia.
Juvenile fishing has reared its ugly head once again this summer. It is said that large quantities of fries are being caught and sold to fish meal factories. These fries include commercially important species such as ribbon fish, threadfin breams, mackerel,sardine and leather jacket. The catch comes to 10,000 kg to 20,000 kg a boat. Juvenile fishing has been a bone of dissension between traditional fishermen and trawler owners. There has been clashes between the groups of fishermen too over the issue. Juvenile fishing is a huge challenge to sustainable fisheries. Absence of a mechanism to enforce restrictions on nets and gears and lack of awareness among traditional fishermen is the main reason behind an increase in juvenile fishing.
“The increase in temperature has led to a steady decline in fish and this has forced us to resort to catching fries,” says a fisherman at Thoppumpady harbour. The trend has further decreased the population of fish.
Fishermen have reduced their mesh size from 45mm to less than 25mm. The fishing nets being used by them is of 3 tonnes instead of the permissible 300 kg nets. They have also increased the number of nets, mostly the Chinese and stake nets.
Toxic Chemicals for Preservation
Toxic chemicals are being used to preserve the catch. This comes as big blow to the seafood enthusiasts who are coping with low availability of fish. Fish dealers are using poisonous substances to preserve fish for transportation.
Though ice has been accepted as an ideal preservative for fishes, a few local dealers are using substances like formalin, ammonia etc.
“Usually, once the fish is caught, the catch is kept in a freezer or a cooling system at -40C and brought to shore where it is auctioned off. For export, the fish is stored in a cold storage at the same temperature. In both cases, a big fish can be preserved for upto a year while the smaller fishes can be preserved for upto six months. A kilo of fish is preserved with the same amount of ice and as it melts new ice is added. But when formalin is used ice is required only in small amounts. Thus, it is cost efficient,” says a fisherman under condition of anonymity.
“Formalin is the main alternative used to preserve fishes. It is the same chemical which is used to preserve cadavers. Though formalin increases the shelf-life of the fish by destroying the microbial organisms, it can affect the functioning of the liver and also cause cancer,” said a senior official at KUFOS.