Last year, fisherman Moreshwar Londhe sold his two boats and took up a job in an engineering workshop that paid Rs 3,000 a month. With his first month’s salary, he bought an home aquarium. He could not live without fish.
After 25 years of fishing, this resident of the Versova koli village was forced to turn to another job because the sea was no longer yielding enough catch to help him get by. Londhe’s two sons also stopped fishing: one now works as a driver and the other in a mall, each earning the same wage as his father.
Industrial effluents, oil drilling, climate change and environmental degradation along the coast have combined to drive away fish from the Arabian sea near Mumbai.
Over the past five years, seven species have vanished and the quantity of catch has plummeted to less than a eighth its previous level.
‘The fish that remain are highly toxic (see ‘Pollution wipes out seven fish species along city coast’ on Page 1 and ‘Fish swim away from polluted city waters’ below).
For the city’s fish lovers, this means sacrificing surmai masala and stuffed pomfret. For the city’s 10 lakh-odd fishermen it means a loss of livelihood — and a way of life.
After generations of drawing sustenance from the sea, the kolis have realised it is not going to feed them any more. Like Londhe, they have no choice but to brave the land in search of jobs.
“Costs kept increasing and the catch dropped dramatically, so we did not have a choice but to leave the profession so dear to us,” he explained. “Every trip to the sea cost me Rs 30,000, while I earned at most Rs 3,000.”
While supply has fallen, economic growth and a rise in population have boosted the demand for fish, forcing fishermen to go deeper in to the sea and spend longer hours there.
Security patrols after the terrorist attack in November have made their life even more difficult.
Prahlad Marve, 45, who owns three boats, will vouch for this. “The catch is sparse and it is becoming riskier by the day. I am seriously thinking of selling my business, but there are no takers.”
“Moreover, checks by the coast guard and navy eat into valuable fishing time,” he continued. “Often, we are asked to lift our nets from the water to show them what’s inside, which spoils the entire catch.”
To help koli families in distress, the National Association of Fishermen has urged the state government to provide subsidies to those who wish to start a chain of fish stalls, along on the lines of the state-promoted jhunka bhakar stalls.
“This will help the women sell the fish at decent prices,” said G.K. Bhanji the association’s chairman and president of the Maharashtra Koli Samaj.
Even if the state government takes notice, Londhe is unlikely to be tempted back into fishing. Looking at the small fish darting in his tank, he said, “Even if I get a boat and gear on hire, I won’t go back. There are hardly any fish left to catch.”