Spectrum: What’s on your plate matters to our oceans

InSeason Fish has come up with a list that helps one in choosing the right seafood for every month. INFOGRAPHICS CREDIT: InSeason Fish

Seafood lovers know that the size of the fish on their plates is growing smaller whereas price, like the demand for seafood itself, is perpetually rising. Fishes in our oceans are no longer an inexhaustible resource. Improper management and overfishing have been responsible for depletion of global fish stocks.

Overfishing occurs when more and more fish are caught in short intervals, without providing sufficient time for them to reproduce and recover in their numbers. According to data from Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, India’s coastal seas are already overfished. But a new initiative called InSeason Fish, is hoping to change the trajectory of India’s marine fisheries and get everyone involved in the shift to sustainability.

In the race to cater to people’s insatiable appetite for seafood, seas and oceans around India are being emptied of their fishes. An example for this is that of Kane or ladyfish in Karnataka, and Mumbai’s Bombil or Bombay duck, both fish species whose numbers are threateningly low. Overfishing not only influences the economics of the fishing industry, but also upturns the balance of the otherwise resilient marine ecosystem. It selectively removes the top players of the food chain in large numbers, thereby leading to unstable population and collapse of fishes and other marine creatures lower in the food chain like sardines, anchovies, jellyfish, algae etc.

To fish or not to fish

India harvests nearly 3.63 million tonnes of fish every year from its seas and nearly four million people depend on the marine fishing industry for their livelihood. Lesser fish in the sea translates to investing more effort, time and money for smaller fish catches. Fishers also risk their lives by venturing further into the seas to catch fish.

Nowadays, fishing is largely done using bottom trawling, which harvest large quantities of low-quality seafood. Here, mechanised boats drag large nets over the seabed, unearthing the ocean floor and scooping all the fish, crustaceans and other sea creatures from the depths of the ocean. The downside of this method is that young fish also get trapped in trawl nets. As a result, these fish that get trapped do not get the opportunity to grow into mature adults and reproduce to replenish their decreasing numbers. More sustainable traditional fishing methods, like the line and hook method, catch better quality but much smaller quantities of seafood.

Bottom trawling is indiscriminate. All types of fish and very often marine turtles, sea snakes, dolphins and porpoises get caught in a trawl net. The non-target species caught are called bycatch, and once the fishes with higher economic value are sifted out, the heaps of the remaining dead marine creatures are either dumped back into sea or brought back to the shore to be dried, processed and then sold as chicken feed. The sheer quantity of the bycatch is so much higher than the quantity of target fishes caught that trawler owners now find selling bycatch to be a more profitable alternative.

Different countries have brought in their own rules and regulations to address the issue of overfishing. For instance, countries like Norway have enforced regulations like allotting a quota system that allows fishers and fishing companies to harvest only a fixed amount of fish from a particular area and banning fishing in certain sites. These regulations however will be less effective in India as our tropical sea waters support a diverse variety of fish with over 100 consumable varieties of seafood, which make fishing for select species difficult.

Therefore, species-based monitoring of the quantity and quality of seafood being brought into the docks is near impossible. Instead, we could think of steps taken closer home, by our neighbour Sri Lanka, which has banned fishing using bottom trawling techniques. However, the lack of a stringent surveillance system makes it very difficult to monitor such bans.

Nevertheless, a temporary ban on trawler fishing is imposed between the months of June and July along the western coast, as it is commonly assumed that most fishes breed during the monsoons. But this is entirely false as different fishes breed during different times of the year. The fishing ban is therefore not planned to keep in mind the biology of the fishes but for logistic reasons, as during the onset of monsoons, the fishers on the west coast themselves avoid venturing out into the sea.

A fish for every season

Overcoming these seafood declines is possible through responsible seafood consumption. How one can consume seafood responsibly? What to eat? When to eat and where to eat? These are a few questions that go unanswered. To bridge this information gap, Divya Karnad and Chaitanya Krishna, a marine conservationist duo based in Chennai, have recently launched InSeason Fish, an initiative that promotes responsible consumption of seafood and use of sustainable methods in fishing. Through their website (www.inseasonfish.com), they provide a list of different fishes recommended for consumption each month.

By compiling and collating data on the breeding time and season of different fish, they have come up with a list that helps one in choosing the right seafood for every month. Their recommendations for the month of April includes snappers, oil sardines, black pomfret, cobia, squids, Indian mackerel and ribbon fish. While white prawns, silver pomfret, striped seer fish, skipjack tuna, and great barracuda etc. are best to be avoided as it’s their breeding season. To make it easy to follow, the list includes vernacular names of the fishes and is accompanied by pictures too. Since fishes and their breeding seasons vary between the two coasts, separate lists for the west and the east coasts have been made available.

Apart from this, InSeason Fish also partners with restaurants from across the country to help them serve seafood that is not only seasonally available, but also harvested using sustainable methods and practices. Further, to help seafood lovers and restaurant owners to source their seafood seasonally and responsibly, it identifies fishers in coastal cities like Chennai and Mumbai, who use sustainable fishing methods. On their recent visit to Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks, Divya and Chaitanya observed that small-scale fishers arrive with their fish stocks later in the morning, just as the hula-boo of the trawler fishers subsides. “Sourcing from these fishers would be a more seafood-friendly alternative,” informs Divya.

The problem of overfishing cannot be solved overnight but requires investment of efforts in many ways. Looking beyond the popular varieties and diversifying our choices is one of them. Not only will this help reduce the pressure of harvesting a few select species, but it will also help reduce bycatch and thereby wastage. InSeason Fish has organised fish market walks in Mumbai and Chennai to help chefs and seafood lovers explore, identify and choose fish varieties that can be alternatives to those whose populations are dwindling.

So, the next time you have seafood at a restaurant or at home, pause a moment to think whether the fish on your plate is in season.

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Spectrum: What’s on your plate matters to our oceans

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