A 2.5 foot-long rare Southern Ocean Sunfish found its way to the fish traders at Crawford market on Saturday. Although the fish did not find a buyer, this is not the first time that fishermen from Maharashtra have caught an endangered fish. Marine biologists claimed that more such fish are being caught as fishermen venture deeper into the sea.
Twenty-five endangered marine animals have been caught in fishermen’s nets this year; another 35 were caught between August and December 2016.
Marine biologists said that the number of fish hauled out of the sea has increased with the rising number of fishermen. This has led to overfishing and fall in fish catch. To trap more fish, fishermen have been venturing out deeper into the sea, beyond permissible limit of 12 nautical miles, said the experts. That area, the experts said, was frequented by marine creatures that are endangered and get caught in the trawlers and gillnets.
Samiti Damodar Tandel, fisherman and president of Akhil Maharashtra Machimar Kriti, said, “There are around 1,000 large fishing boats that use all sorts of nets (purse siene, gillnets, trawlers etc) in which several rare fish get trapped,” Tandel said. He added that even when fishermen do not intend to catch such rare fish, they get caught in traps laid for the commercially important fish.
Rare species like tiger shark, whale shark, giant grouper, sting rays and manta rays have been accidentally trapped by fishermen along Mumbai’s coastline.
In March, a rare 15-foot-long Sawfish washed ashore the Vijaydurg beach in Sindhudurg. The snout of the critically endangered fish — which is shaped like a saw with 31 teeth — got stuck in a gillnet (a fishing net hung vertically to trap fish by their gills).
Fishermen attribute the rise in such cases to the use of gillnets and trawl nets (large horizontal nets spread across the ocean floor) almost 50 to 70 nautical miles off the coast.
“Fishermen travelling from Ferry Wharf (Bhaucha Dhakka) to about 70 nautical miles off the coastline often accidentally trap rare fish,” said Ganesh B Nakhawa, chairman, Maharashtra Purse Seine Fishermen Welfare Association.
N Vasudevan, additional principal chief conservator of forests, state mangrove cell, said, “Trade in protected marine species, both in the domestic and foreign market, is banned. We will keep a close watch on overfishing and targeted fishing to identify the violators.”
He added that none of the rare marine animals offered for sale at fish markets find buyers as people are unsure of their value. “We have never sold such a huge fish. It led to a lot of curiosity in the fish market but no one was willing to buy it,” said Rizwan Machiwala, fish trader at Crawford market, who was trying to sell the sunfish on Saturday. “The fishermen told us they caught the fish accidentally,” he added.
Marine biologists said that killing such critically endangered marine animals would harm biodiversity. “While the small fish generally caught at sea lay 10,000 eggs annually, the Sunfish or the sharks lay a maximum of 10 eggs a year,” said Vinay Deshmukh, marine biologist and former chief scientist, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).
“If large sharks are pulled out of deep waters, it will be a major blow to their already depleting populations,” he added.