"Fishing is a hunter’s job.”

Series 2 Episode 3

In the Field Series 2. Ep 3. “Fishing is a hunter’s job.”

Approx run time: 31 minutes.

Note: In the Field is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. Readers are encouraged to listen to the show to get the full experience. The transcripts are meant as support documents and may not include inclusions from the day of recording and may contain errors. The audio version is the final version of the show.


Ganesh Nakhwa (GN): It was Diwali holidays I went on fishing, everyone wanted to go on holiday somewhere where I was the one who was keen to go on the fishing boat...and when I left from Mumbai because everytime we the boats left early in the morning because we have to chase the sunrise and when I left at five o’ clock I  was asking my self like what am I doing? Am I doing right? will I survive for like ten - I didn’t even know it would last for ten days.. It’s like I hope I get it in one or two days and I’ll be back and and I remember all this now and I feel so excited now because i have seen it how technology has transformed! At that time there was no GPS on our boats, I still remember the skipper guiding our boat with stars!

Radhika Viswanathan (RV): The story of feeding the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and two fish. The matsya avatara that helps man avert destruction and leads him towards salvation. From as far back as we can remember, fish have given us sustenance. But more than a source of nourishment, fish always seem to be at the heart of a moral story. A metaphor for spiritual growth.

GN: And I’ve been told that we had only one sailboat, my grandfather, and he had like 9 kids that time six brothers and three sisters, and my dad was the youngest one and it all started with one sailboat...

RV: Teach. a man. to fish.

GN: I hear stories from my grandfather, his name is Hari Krishna Bhagat, he is from my mother's side. He used to tell that we used to go fishing for like two hours and in two hours if you put one cast of net you used to get a full boat of fish… you used to get so much, big prawns tiger prawns, pomfret, black pomfret everything, you don’t have to go anywhere… and there came a time that everybody started saying that it is overfishing, everybody forgot that in 80s and 70s most of the fish was caught in Mumbai creeks only, we used to not go beyond five km - water was so clear, fishes were found in five km radius only. Now even if you go fifty km away from mumbai you won’t be able to get fish.

The numbers increased two hours became four hours, four hours became a day , day became two days three days and now were are in 2019, it takes 20 days to come back with the fish.

Samyuktha Varma (SV): An alarming new study points out that if fishing continues as usual, then 88% of all fish stock will be over-fished by 2050, and they will fall well below their target stable population size.

GN: I say it will go in five years. Because this year when I was fishing my three boats all of them are making losses. so if you compare fishing average, for last five years and this year I’ve been catching only 40% of the fish.

SV: Without the fish, what stories will we tell?

SV: Hello and Welcome to In the Field. I’m Samyuktha Varma,

RV: and I’m Radhika In this special two parter we’re talking about sustainability and consumption.

SV: And we’re starting with a story about fish, to understand how the twin forces, climate change and our ravaging consumption, are depleting the oceans. This is a story about a system of production that is in desperate need of rescue. At the heart of it are the fish themselves, but also the fisherworkers, a group that seems just as endangered.


RV: We start in Mumbai.

GN: My name is Ganesh Nakhwa. I belong to the Karanja Fishing Cooperative Society, I’m a director there, I also lead one of the large commercial processing welfare associations and I  have my own startup , named bluecatch, trying to sell sustainable seafood.

So in 2010 also I remember that was the first year I started when I  got back from Scotland, so that time also the average fishing was 8 9 10 days max, so last nine years it has almost doubled so that much stress we are putting on our fishing industry.

RV: India is one of the largest fish producing nations in the world. We are often touted as a nation of vegetarians, but with a near 8000 km long coastline that Vs its way from Gujarat to West Bengal, crossing nine states and four union territories, we’re pretty fishy. Unlike the temperate waters of Europe, where we find larger fish shoals of fewer species – like cod, carp, salmon – tropical waters have a greater intermingling of species, but each is found in smaller quantities. We have More types of fish, tuna, mackerel, ribbon fish, parrot fish, but fewer in number. Despite our country’s access to a wide, warm, shallow continental shelf where millions of these fish breed, it’s still becoming harder to fish.

GN:  We feel that there are fish in the ocean, but there is something is wrong with the climate so all these ocean is dependent on chlorophyll, plankton, then watercurrents then there is sea surface temperatures, then there is wind… all these factors play important in fishing industry

SV: What Indian fisherman find today is that their catch consists of a few high value species - species that fetch a good price at the fish market - and a large quantity of what is called bycatch, juveniles, and smaller low value fish that forms the bulk of the fish in their nets. In the 90s there were larger quantities of high value fish but today the numbers are in decline caused by a combination of relentless demand, destructive fishing techniques that scrape the ocean, and of course climate change.

GN: And i see this year from August to nearly March now almost eight months of fishing there have been five cyclones and we are on the western part of the coast, eastern coast is more worse because that directly infuses into the Bay of Bengal and cyclonic part of Indonesia, you get most of the cyclones from there but getting the same impact on the western part has hampered fishing industry right now.

RV: Christopher Costello and his team at UC Santa Barbara the authors of the alarming report, state that by 2012, 68% of fisheries had slipped below the sustainable fishing mark. Countries like India are particularly vulnerable, and as you heard from Ganesh, expeditions are getting longer, and with changing weather fish are migrating.

Divya Karnad (DK): And as the fish move and as the fisherman have to move even further to catch them and so on -

SV: This is Divya Karnad, a conservationist, whose interest is the sustainability practices of fishermen.

DK: It’s only going to exacerbate the problem because we tend to use fishing gear that is not very selective, and because as I said we are tropical we tend to catch you know a huge diversity of species that may or may not have market value in the end. So all this kind of fits together to create a very complicated problem that can just easily be said in one word and which is over fishing.

GN: That’s why you see a lot of fishermen crying because it is not in their hands now, climate is happening, pollution is happening it is not because of fishermens’ efforts it is somebody else who is doing it.

SV: Ganesh’s frustration also comes from what he sees happening along the coastline. Our coastlines are important not just to fisherworkers and fish. Because there’s a competitive use of the coast - for fishing, for ports, for trade, for oil. State policies differ from one coastal state to the other defining what comprises coastal zones, territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, areas where fishing practices and technologies are limited, and even protected marine areas. Fisherworkers are also pushed out by new coastal regulation zones, that affect the land they live and work on. Many see it as a trade off - but for the small fisher communities, it spells doom. All along these 8000 kilometres, they are angry, and protesting their displacement by these kinds of development projects, the big one being Sagar Mala.

And in the midst of all of these competing interests, and pressure on our coastal ecosystems, there is us. We want fish, and we want it year round. The most perplexing thing about this is that for the fishermen, we, the urban markets, seem to only want to eat a handful of the hundreds of varieties we have access to.

DK: Despite the fact that urban markets are not actually in terms of volumes the biggest market, in terms of price they are the biggest market. so they are really driving this relentless overfishing because they want those species throughout the year no matter what. So things like your seer fish and pomfret, people are willing to pay whatever it takes to get that seer fish and pomfret throughout the year, and so this is what seems to be driving the overfishing. So people are forced that is the fisherman are forced to go out there and search for those fish no matter whether they are available at that time whether they are migrating all that doesn't matter. They have to fill as much fuel as it takes and go as far as it takes and as fast as it takes to get those fish and come back.

RV: The hard part about understanding how we produce and consume in the age of climate change, is figuring out how we created these unsustainable production systems in the first place. More and more we seem to ask ourselves, how did we get here?


RV: The most destructive and vilified of all fishing methods is the trawler.

John Kurien (JK): And this is where the interesting issue comes, because you see technology, any technology, carries with it the code of the society in which it is generated… and also some of the givens of the environment of that society. So you see a trawler is probably appropriate in temperate water.

You see the world's first development project, as we understand development projects, was a fishery project. this was a project which was negotiated between Norway, the UNited Nations system and india. 1951.

RV: This is Dr. John Kurien, an expert whose spent his life working with and for small-scale fisherworkers. This development programme introduced trawlers to fisherman in Kerala.

JK: You know trawlers were introduced initially because they are very, you know what trawlers are, I mean this is a, this is a kind of a boat which you know drags a net which scrapes the bottom of the sea. And the initial intention, the initial target of trawlers all over Asia were prawns. Shrimp or prawns, whatever word you like to use. And the reason is that, you see, prawns had become a very favourite source of luxury protein for a  lot of the developed world post second world war.

RV: When the world discovered its love for prawns, China was its leading supplier. But in 1949 Mao closed the Chinese economy and there was a scramble for global sourcing of these delicious bottom feeders.

JK: So they introduced this because Kerala, you know the sea off Kerala has probably one of the largest prawn resources in the world...

SV: Ironically, people in Kerala never ate prawns. They were used more for manure in coconut plantations, largely because prawns were caught during the wet, musty monsoons, when fish spoiled quite quickly (people associated prawns with stomach upsets). The Kerala fish trade was largely limited to old colonial trading outposts: Burma, Ceylon. The prawn rush blew up over the course of the decade, and as prawns needed to be shipped further and further away, technology changed, to introduce refrigeration. Prawns began to be frozen and taken to places like the United States. It was suddenly a lucrative business, and attracted all kinds of people. In India, it also suddenly changed the idea of who a fisherman was:

JK: In the Indian context fisherman belonged to a particular caste. So it was introduced to fisherman but you know, no fisherman could afford a trawler so what happened was, with the coming of trawlers, also came the entry of a capitalist class. So you know it brought in some respectability into the export of fish.

RV: John Kurien got his start in the fishing sector when he went to visit friends doing social work in Kerala. He found himself in a fishing village near Thiruvananthapuram speaking with local fishermen who had decided to form a cooperative to cope with exploitative market conditions - middle men whose power to determine prices were squeezing these communities. At the time he was a restless young man, wondering about the value of his american oriented training in business management to people such as the fishermen he met.  He agreed to spend a year in the village, but ended up spending nearly five years. And since then he has worked on the implications of technology, global forces and policy on small scale fishers.

JK: Everybody was introducing a trawler. And you know in Tamil Nadu for example, all the film stars had trawlers, it's also a good way to convert your black money into white. So the expansion of the trawler fleet in India and in all the other tropical Asian countries, was so fast. That very soon the ecosystem impact of trawling became very evident.

SV: Across the waters they were extremely unpopular with the many small scale fisherman who used traditional boats, like catamarans or canoes, and over the decades the trawlers began to cause conflict. When a trawler moved, it would cut the nets or lines of traditional fisherman.

JK: And this mechanised trawlers, you have the David and Goliath situation kind of emerging. So there was a lot of opposition to trawlers. So in the late 70s all over India all over Asia you see a lot of opposition, states you know tried to mediate in some way, some law, some kind of territorial rights to the small fishers zoning and things like that were tried in various ways but what this resulted in is a big uprising of the small scale fisherman. So for example in India we have the creation of what is called, what in those days was called the national fisherman's forum, subsequently it became called, became the National Fisherworker Forum and its local units in different states…

RV: Further up the coast in Mumbai, from the 60s onwards indigenous fishing communities began to adopt more aggressive fishing practices.

GN: I believe mechanisation started in 1965, and that was the year also our cooperative society was formed in 1961 and that time it started with small engines, 1 cylinder, 2 cylinder and the sailboats really really started to convert into mechanisation...

RV: Ganesh tells us that Mumbai’s fishermen were introduced to these new techniques by goan fishermen.

GN: So our grandfathers adopted that technology in trawling basically from 1965 to 1985 90s and there was another purse seineing - like very aggressive fishing - which was adopted by looking at Goans, and the expansion started when we used to get good prices for prawns basically prawns industry boomed in 1980s I think...

SV: Fishing peaked in the 1990s - a date that many in the industry, including Ganesh, remember very clearly. It was when the Indian economy opened up, bringing more mechanisation to small scale fishing and an altogether new level of consumerism to Indian shores. But since then fisheries have been on the decline, and the difficulties of collectivisation in fishing have also increased. And trawlers that were originally built to catch the individualistic large shoals of temperate water fish, were pretty soon starting to cause widespread environmental damage in tropical seas.

GN: Trawling. Everybody is talking about trawling, bottom trawling has to be banned bottom trawling has to be banned yes, ban has to be there but there has to be the way fishermen wants. Yu cannot just come to fisherman and tell you know we think it is like that and you should be doing it.

RV: Over the past twenty years, Ganesh tells us that overfishing and the never ending demand for seafood put tremendous pressure not only on the ecosystem but on the fishermen as well. And to break even, fishing expeditions gradually became longer, more risky, with uncertain catch.

GN: Take for example we fish for ten months and every fishing trip costs like 2 lakh rupees so we have to catch the fish above two lakh rupees. So the policy has to be something like how the fisherman can get that fish economically not catching bycatch not catching juveniles. They say that change the mesh size change the regulations and all that … if they do that and they make losses will the government pay for them?

SV: Ganesh grew up in a fisherworker household. He is one of the few fishermen from his generation who still work in the trade. But, like many of his peers, he had never planned to stay on in the family business. As a young college student he tried many courses in Mumbai to find the one that suited him best.

GN: And I  was trying lots of things that time. I should tell you, I gave engineering exams, I gave merchant navy, I  tried hotel management, I tried all sorts of entrance exams and I ended up in business studies only.

SV: On his father’s urging to complete his undergraduate degree, he moved to Scotland.

GN: He’s like do something else, try business studies, what you're doing in Panvel do in UK, so he’s like go and study...

RV: Going abroad wasn’t his aspiration, it was just something that everyone his age was doing. And so he did it too. After three years, he became an investment banker. A far cry from his fishing roots.

GN: 2010 there was a strange story happening in the village. Everybody was catching a lot of fish, I think 2009 [cyclone] Faian came if I am not wrong, and after Faian there was a migratory shift in sea , a lot of fish traveled from Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal towards Arabian Sea. So lot of guys were catching fish and my father was not catching fish. So always when I used to call him he would say humko fish nahin milre [speaks in Marathi]... our boats are not getting and I always felt bad ki and I decided that my dad is also struggling why not? The thought was there in my mind, I  had two years resident visa, I had an offer from JP Morgan!

And so I  traveled to india in 2010, December, and I never went back

RV: Moving back was difficult. Ganesh invested in more boats, and began running the fishing business.

GN: When I was there in 2011, suppliers used to do suppliers job, exporter used to do exporters job, and I think it started from 2014 or 15 - last four years back when price cheating was always there and there came a time when fish was not coming in and we were getting exploited so lot of guys started losing money...

RV: As fishing moved deeper into the seas, boats need to be upgraded but investing in a new boat today is extremely expensive - often beyond the reach of most fishermen.

GN: In 2000 the boat used to be built in 10-15 lakh rupees, 2019 it needs 80 lakh rupees

RV: One of the big challenges for fishermen is balancing small quantities of  high value catch with large volumes of low value catch. And as Divya explains,

DK: There was also a study by a scientist called dr. Aaron Lobo who looked at this in detail who looked at this idea of bycatch or trash fish in detail... and he found that in many cases now the main catch or the high value species were being caught in such low numbers that it was this bycatch or low value species that was actually holding the fisheries afloat economically.

Where uh people were getting as little as 6 rupees a kg and things like that which was really not worth anyone's time except that they were catching such large quantities of low value fish that they were able to make up the costs.

GN: I shouldn’t be saying this but if you go in Mumbai, Mumbai is like 25 million people… Kurla, Dharavi and all these areas they need a lot of fish, cheap fish basically, so they cannot afford chicken 160 rupees, they cannot afford mutton 400 rupees but yes fish is available, more than 100 species of fish is available for 100 rs but that is not economical for us … so we have found a market for this fish but this is actually targeting overfishing, because these fish shouldn’t be caught. All these smaller fishes shouldn’t be caught and we used to throw them before, if you go twenty years back we used to throw them we used to only get high value catch, and now when there is a market for this there are people who consume it as well. And fishes which doesn’t get consumed, what we call bycatch and juvenile, they go for fishmeal and fish oil and poultry feed as well...


RV: Fishing is one of the hardest jobs in the world. It’s harder now than it ever was. Unlike farming, fish can’t be grown on a contained plot with a set number of inputs. All of the people we spoke with kept reminding us that fish are wild. The seas are wild. The precariousness of fishing is borne by communities whose identities are so closely linked with their occupations that they seem endangered themselves. And  they may not want their children to continue in doing what they’ve done.

For Ganesh, while business was good for a few years it wasn’t easy and he had to face his community and his family’s chagrin at his return.

GN: Within this time I faced so many problems like padh likh ke iska kya fayada hai yeh fishing me aa raha hai, investment banker abhi fishing hi kar raha hai… so that was a good thing for me I was always motivated but bad thing also because most of the people thought ki fishing me kuch nahin bachega tho atleast our children will be… I’ll be morale to them and they will go abroad. They will also and they will get away from the fishing industry - that’s what every parent thought in my village looking at me.

RV: But it only furthered his resolve to work for the fishermen community.

GN: But I had a different thing, why don’t we get respect for a fisherman. It is same like a farmer, you hear stories from a farmer if you’re a farmer nobody wants to marry you, you don’t get respect in your own community. Nobody gives you respect from other community That I faced as well I mean like I was earning respect until I was in Scotland but the day I  came back and I was into fishing I started to hear that my own father used to say that kya hua why you came back: I gave you much sab kuch laga tere pe why did you have to end up here?

RV: That his community was facing challenges and this was all becoming more apparent to him: it was getting harder to earn a living by fishing, the government was not responsive to fisherworker needs, and even the community was apathetic and unwilling to come together.

GN: But all the fishermen mentality is same, ki tum humko mat sikhao ki kya karna hai kya nahin, we've been doing this for years and years

RV: He decided to stand for elections in his local fishing cooperative. He won!

GN: So our community is big. So Karanja Fisheries Cooperative is one of the largest cooperative societies in india, it has 6000 shareholders and 615 registered votes with us. I’m competing with a very big market im competing with all these exporters, with these big food groups who are already well established in the market so this wont work if i am trying to do it. Whereas if a cooperative player where a number of guys who have everything right from the boats, right from the fisherwoman, right from the fishworkers, fish loaders, unloaders, its a big big number and if the model is created taking everybody together, catching the fish right to the selling to the hotelers to the exporters or to any consumers it will be a win situation because you won’t be competing with anybody else because you are yourself in your own module.

SV: Divya’s research has focused on trying to understand how fisherman think about sustainability, what they might understand by it and what kinds of practices might reflect this understanding.

DK: One of the things that I  was looking at is what it is that the fisherman were actually having conversations about. And uh,what I saw during my field work was that a lot of these fishing communities who may even be from multiple villages were coming together and talking about fishing being meaning more to them than just being some kind of a business. It was sort of their identity, and to see it from that kind of cultural perspective meant that if fishing were to no longer exist it would almost be like these people no longer exist and their places no longer exist and what they did with their lives no longer matters.

RV: Divya told us that she once wanted to attend a fisherworker meeting, and when she approached the fishermen about it they were apprehensive and asked her a lot of questions about why she wanted to join in. She told us that they were basically trying to tell her that they didn’t need her, and didn’t need her judgments about their decisions.

DK: Their entire perspective was so different from my world view and uh so they made it very clear that I could come there really as an observer and not too much to push my views or my agenda or anything like that and once I made it clear that that's what i was going to do it was really interesting to hear them talking about sustaining the oceans and everything as being something that was uh threatening their own lives.  

SV: She told us that from her view as a scientist, it was a new thing to realise that the fishermen did not see themselves to be separate from the sea. Sustainability wasn’t something that happened out in the sea, it was what ensure that they themselves were sustained.

GN: So I’ll tell you a classic example when I also went to the fishing and we spotted a big blue whale. We bought twelve coconuts and broke. So that is a tradition that we’ve been following for years and years and years…and that’s why when all these organisations came up to us with all these fancy titles of saving turtles, saving whales, saving dolphins, and I dont know how they get funding and all. But my question to them is if you put such amount on research to save these species the same amount has to be done for the other species as well.

RV: Ganesh was emphatic in his assertion that small fishermen are as endangered as the fish themselves. There are over a million small scale fishermen in India, and this traditional sector now face very little access to their chief source of income. For Ganesh, fishing is deeply ingrained in his blood, in his family’s blood, that it is what they have always done, and will always want to do.

GN: So see the fishing is like a hunters job. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. But that is not we don’t want your policies, your boats your roads, your statues, your coastal roads to come up in our villages, and tell us not to fish, go and work on ships, go and work on ports, go and work on passenger cargo ships, passenger ships, ferries, tourism, in big hotels... we don’t want that. There is already somebody else doing that. We want our fishing. What we've been doing for generations, thousands of years. do something for that.

RV: It is true that small scale fisherworkers form the backbone of India’s fisheries sector. But the policies largely do not protect them. And in the competitive scramble for the coast, the small scale fisherworker often becomes the pedestrian navigating their way on a very busy road. Yet they are also the ones who are at the forefront to help in times of disaster, as we saw in Kerala, where fisherworkers gave up their daily wages for months to help stranded families.

SV: John and the organisation he co-founded, the International Collective in Support of Fisherworkers worked towards creating a UN instrument, the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries, that was endorsed by 190 countries in 2014. They are the first internationally agreed instrument dedicated entirely to the small-scale fisheries sector, addressing their reality, stressing their right to the sea and the coast.

In this episode we focused on a particular narrative of the larger fishing story in India. The story of the small scale fisherman. As John points out that the guidelines he and his team worked tirelessly on were voluntary - and this is because fisherworkers tend to be at the lowest rung of the ladder.

There will always be reporting on policies, and development and new infrastructure, but we decided to focus on this story because it was time to address the assumptions that we have about how this industry works. And try to begin to see how the consumers play a role in production, the way the climate is changing, and how consumer choices affect the fortunes of communities, especially marginalised ones.

In our next episode, we’re looking at the other part of the problem: the consumer, and what it takes to change us.



Thanks to Divya Karnad, Ganesh Nakhwa, John Kurien and Srini Swaminathan.

Photo: Ganesh Nakhwa.

Sounds: Sound Producer is Santhos Nataraja. Theme song by Hollis Coats. This episode was mixed and recorded at Third Eye Studios.

 Show and art design by Bhushanraj.

In the Field is supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.