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Climate costs of seafood

Divya Karnad, Feb 17, 2015: 23:15 IST

At a high price

India spends over one billion litres of fuel to catch fish
Growing energy demands of seafood is set to be a greater contributor to climate change. Divya Karnad reveals the costs of bringing a fish from the sea to your dining table
If an average Audi sedan could drive to the moon, imagine how much fuel it would need. Multiply that by a factor of 100 to get the amount of fuel consumed to catch seafood in India!

Very rarely do we use the words ‘fish’ and ‘fuel’ in the same sentence. For fishermen, however, fuel is a huge concern in their daily lives. An owner of a large mechanised trawler vessel in Maharashtra tells me, “If not for the fuel subsidy given by the government, I don’t think I could continue fishing.” As fish in near-shore waters get depleted due to heavy fishing pressure, fishermen have to fish further into the deep sea to make ends meet.

Not as easy as it seems


Fishing offshore comes with two sets of challenges – the difficulty of knowing where the fish are and the cost involved in finding them. “If other fishermen find fish in a place, then we go there because the chances of randomly coming across schools of fish are very low,” says a fisherman from Mangaluru. All this travel in search of fish or following other lucky fishermen comes at a price. A study by scientists at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) estimates that India spends over one billion litres of fuel annually, just to catch fish. Most of this fuel is diesel and kerosene. Dr. Boopendranath, who conducted the CUSAT study, writes, “Over one tonne of green house gases are emitted to catch one tonne of fish.”

The growing energy costs of putting seafood on plates is set to be a big contributor to climate change. One trip on a trawl fishing vessel will help you understand why fishing is such a fuel-intensive business. Trawl vessels chug along at the rate of 10-12 km an hour if they are not dragging a net. That is about as fast as one could expect to go. The fuel consumed, however, is about four times as much. Marine fishing vessels are very energy inefficient, guzzling anywhere between 15 and 80 litres an hour in the water.

This mismatch between energy consumed by vessels and edible protein gained, is not restricted to India. The North Sea Foundation has highlighted a similar problem in the European Union. They claim that global fisheries burned 625 times more fuel than the quantity of marine fish and invertebrates caught in the year 2000. Clearly, making marine fisheries more efficient is a global problem.

Scientists from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, India echo concerns over fuel consumption. In a paper about the carbon footprint of marine fishing in India, Dr. E Vivekanandan and colleagues, found that carbon dioxide emissions from marine fishing have increased 12 times over, since the 1960s. They attribute this increase mainly to the shift from small, beach-landing fishing boats to large mechanised trawler vessels. Small beach-landing vessels consume only half as much fuel as the large vessels and often travel shorter distances to fish. However, their catch is not sourced to stock the air-conditioned markets in urban centres. Urban markets crave quantity over quality. Hence, they look to the trawl and other large-scale mechanised fishing to meet their demand.

Urban Indian seafood eaters bring about further carbon costs. The fish that graces the dining table is the end point of a long chain of fuel, transport and people who have helped bring it from its home in the sea to the local market. This means that the increasing price of seafood grossly underestimates the costs involved in seafood consumption. With increasing awareness about the health benefits of seafood, consumption has increased even in inland cities like Delhi and Bengaluru.

Consequently, there is greater market pressure to catch more fish. The Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries has reported steady increase in the numbers of wild marine fish being caught with a 500 tonne increase in the decade since the year 2000. This means that India’s contribution to climate change has also been rising at the same pace.

Corrective measures

The climate impacts of the mechanised fishing sector has already been sounding alarm bells. The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Kochi has begun to experiment with more fuel-efficient fishing vessels and gear. Their efforts are aimed at a ten per cent improvement in fuel efficiency. Meanwhile, several fishermen groups have begun experimenting with solar technology. The Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen in Kanyakumari have fitted solar panels to two deep sea vessels so far. The fishermen therefore, have made a start at trying to reduce their impact.

There is a lot that seafood consumers could do in order to make fisheries more efficient. Seafood eaters in coastal areas can buy directly from small-scale fishermen, who use non-mechanised, or small, beach-landing vessels to catch seafood. This in itself will halve their carbon footprint. Of course, it will mean a shift from air-conditioned seafood to local fish, but this shift will pay dividends not only in carbon emissions, but also in contributing to local fishermen’s livelihoods. Restaurants can also play a great role in reducing the carbon footprint of India’s inland towns and cities by ensuring they purchase seafood from more fuel-efficient sources.

Taking a little bit of trouble to be aware of the source of seafood can go a long way in ensuring the sustainability of seafood in the long run.
(The author is a geographer and conservation biologist at Department of Biology, Rutgers University.)

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