Why is the fish disappearing from Goa's plate?

Panaji: India's beach and boho tourism mecca, Goa, may well have to drop one key four-letter USP. Fish.

Pollution, global warming, overkill both for export and to feed the burgeoning tourism industry is threatening to trigger a fish famine off the Western Indian state's coast and rivers.

Almost synonymous with two other F's, feni, a potent liquor distilled from fermented cashew apples and it's passion for football, it is the possibility of a crispy rice-power and spice-coated tangy fried sea bass or mackerel absconding from a rice-plate, which has now forced the authorities in Goa to finally wake up and take note.

Fish famine in Goa. AFP

Fish famine in Goa. AFP

In 2010, Goan fishermen netted 23,831 tons of mackerel, a spiny, emerald green fish which has been a steady source of marine protein for generations. Last year, the haul has shrunk to virtually half at 12,994 tons. Harvest of sharks, which find their way to tables in Goan homes and restaurants as 'ambot-tikh', a red, spicy-sour preparation have all but disappeared, their haul reducing sharply from 3159 tons in 2010 to 281 tons in 2013. The harvest of prawns, one of the fastest selling sea food, served fried or curried or even as adornments in gourmet cocktails, too has decreased from 9,970 tons in 2010 to 8,380 in 2013.

In 2010, Baban Ingole, one of Goa’s leading marine scientists was the first to suggest that Goa was sitting on the brink of a fish famine.

"It is both, due to natural causes like climate change, decreased dissolved oxygen (in the seas) as well man-made. Like in the case of overfishing, increased level of pollutants, etc.," Ingole warned.

Mackerels he said would be the first to take flight from the Arabian sea off Goa. And going by the fisheries department’s own records, looks like they already have.

Goa is perhaps one of the few oases in India, where poultry doesn't always win the battle of the taste-buds. Sea food is consumed in copious quantities by both a majority of the 1.5 million local residents as well as the 3 million tourists who visit the beach state mostly from October to March, Goa’s tourist season.

Prawns fried or curried, pomfret recheado (a traditional vinegar-based masala spiced with red chillies paste), squids in butter-garlic sauce shout out to most tourists from menu and road signages which advertise restaurants along the beach villages lanes.

So steeped is the significance of fish in an average Goan's culture that the state's poet laureate Bakibab Borkar in one of his poems says:

Please Sir, Mr. God of Death,
Don’t make it my turn today,
Not today,
There is fish curry for dinner.

Borkar died in 1984, but perhaps he too would have worried about the price he would have to pay for the fish in his curry today.

Fish prices have gone up by as much as 100 percent over the last five years. So much so, that to buffer the impact of this rise somewhat, the Goa government is working on a policy, which involves starting government-run kiosks which sell fish with controlled prices.

"Data on the fish catch is hard to come by. However that being said, what is mysterious is that while fishermen claim that the big fish are no longer available, how is it that the hotels have the fish?" Ingole now tells Firstpost, making a case for proper management of India’s marine resources.

"India as a nation is deficient in protein and with protein abundantly available through fish, it is important that this source of high protein is managed," he argues. In rural India, the average per person intake of protein has come down from 62 gms (1972-73) to 60.2 gms (1993-94) and then again to 57 gms (2004-05).

"The ravas has disappeared from the sea. It used to be one of the most sought after fish here. But over the last 10 years I have hardly seen any here," says Madhu Halarnkar of the moderate sized Indian Salmon, whose fried fillets commonly accompanied rice curry, until recently. In fact the Ravas, once a premium, but staple fish does not even feature on the state fisheries department annual catch record today.

According to state fisheries director Shamila Monteiro, fish catch in Goa these days was "more or less the same" and prefers to stay clear of the phrase "fish famine". But she does agree that over-fishing, pollution and temperature changes are taking its toll on Goa’s fish harvest.

A recent study showed that the mouth of the river Mandovi, Goa’s most well known river is now infested with jelly fish, which have been attracted to the toxicity of the river water. Experts say that predators like jelly fish not only drive fish from the area, but are also symbolic increasing pollution in their immediate environment.

"The main things are temperature, environment factors and overfishing," she says, adding that poaching on its marine resources by other Indian neighbouring states was also emerging as a factor.

Rogue fishermen from adjoining state of Karnataka and Maharashtra sneak into Goa’s waters with hi-powered teams of two trawlers each, with dragnets between them that stretch hundreds of metres and scoop out tons of fish from the bottom of the sea, including young off-springs and even eggs, thus, killing the chances of any replenishment of livestock.

"It’s called bull-trawling. We have ten such cases in one year. They sweep a vast area of water and that too right down at the bottom. Eggs and things like that are not spared. That should be avoided," Monteiro says.

She says, an increased ban on fishing this year from 30 to 45 days during the monsoon season, when the fish come close to the shore to breed, may have corrected the sliding fish collection haul in 2013.

In 2005, a fish haul of 1,03,000 tons was recorded by the fisheries department, which gradually slumped to 86,628 tons in 2012. Last year saw a minor correction of a few tons, even as the state government considered the idea of using guns to protect the state’s marine resources.

"We are entrusting the responsibility to the marine police. Anyone stealing our fish will punished," Goa’s fisheries minister Avertano Furtado told the state legislative assembly, while explaining measures being taken to curb poaching of Goa’s fish.

But while Furtado talks about guns, progressive fishermen like Deepak Pagi, use innovation and tap government schemes to make the most of the shortage.

Pagi, who hails from a fishing community at Canacona, Goa’s southern coastal tip, makes three trips mid-sea everyday with fish-feed pellets to feed thousands of young chonak (sea perch) and modso (lemon fish) which are being raised in 50 large open cages.

"We can use the cages only for six months. Once the monsoons arrive we have to stop the operation. But the yield is good,” Pagi claims. In one year of open cage fishing alone, he has bred and sold 32,000 units of fish for the local market.

With its fish resources hanging in balance, the chore appear cut out for the Goa government. Save its fish for the years to come or learn to survive on the lesser charms of poultry.

Updated Date: Mar 12, 2014 19:56 PM

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