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Be Careful What You ‘Fish’ For: Prioritizing Sustainable Fishing

All the consumer wants to know is how fresh the fish is, how big it is, how cheap it is, but not how it was caught and whether this is having irreversible impacts on the bio-system of the fish

Given the surge of overfishing in certain parts of the world, I was compelled to introspect about my own lifestyle, back in Mumbai, the primary coastal city with one of the largest fishing industries in India. My house back in Belapur was right next to a fishing village, where the fish markets directly source the fish from the fishermen who go out to the Panvel Creek daily to catch a wide array of fish. With the love for seafood being a predominant factor throughout my childhood and family, especially shellfish, we not only buy food directly from fish markets, but also buy canned seafood and seafood products which are sourced from fishing villages around Maharashtra, where the main source of income, subsistence, diet and livelihood depend on fisheries.

With the idea of fishing communities and seafood romanticized in Bombay through culture, movies, music and books such as Village by the Sea by Anita Desai, it never really mattered to me where the fish came from, and I only thought about it from the ‘human’, demand-driven angle to the entire picture. As long as I had tasty prawns and pomfrets and Bombay Duck (a type of lizardfish) on my plate, I knew that I was just keeping the rampant fishing industry alive with my demand, increasing the livelihood of local fishing communities. Even though canned seafood is increasingly becoming popular, the knowledge and attitude towards fishing in my native city is not conducive to a shift towards sustainable fishing practices. The labels on the canned seafood do not provide adequate information about how sustainable the fishing practice was, and even if they did, I do not think the demand for this would be high, with consumers preferring the cheapest and tastiest option, with no regards to how their choice affects the entire ecosystem and oceanic life.

Even as consumers in Mumbai traditionally still go to fish markets to buy their fish, the upper middle class has increasingly started going to supermarkets and slightly larger fish suppliers (sometimes branded), where I believe the information regarding the fish itself is not projected as it should be for consumers to make a fully informed choice. In traditional fish markets, it is the wives of fishermen who predominantly control the sale of seafood. Within the noisy echelons of the fish market where you are one amongst many fighting to get the best bargain for a kilo of prawns, it is beyond anyone’s thoughts to care about how sustainable the practice of the poor fisherman’s netting technique was, and whether our buying of the fish has a marginal ecological impact on the overall aqua ecosystem and the population of the fish we are buying.

All the consumer wants to know is how fresh the fish is, how big it is, how cheap it is, but not how it was caught and whether this is having irreversible impacts on the bio-system of the fish. If the consumer does indeed find out that the fisherman is using unsustainable fishing practices which are inefficient and damaging with a lot of by-catch, then he can choose not to buy that fish, but this will have a negative impact on potential earnings of the poor fisherman’s family. A sudden shift in demand towards sustainable fishing might just impact poor fishing communities negatively, who might not have the level of capital required to shift to sustainable practices. Concerns about overfishing may not bother them so much, given how this is the classic scenario of the tragedy of commons.

Given these challenges which can be faced to create demand for sustainable fishing, I believe that the right kind of information dissemination becomes extremely important. This does not only mean the right kind of labeling on canned seafood which shows exactly where it is sourced from and how it was fished, but also information dissemination on every level of the supply chain in the fishing industry in India. This starts from informing larger retailers and fisheries about the dangers of overfishing and the need (and benefits) of sustainable fishing practices, and then information  dissemination on a more grass-root level, along with funding to help local fisherman and fishing communities shift towards sustainable practices. This can include giving them incentives and subsidies to do the same, by recognizing and studying the marginal impact of fishing on different levels of the supply chain, upon the overall environment. Then on the demand side, this information dissemination should reach the consumer directly in a visually appealing manner, where he must be informed about the implications of every choice he makes. This can include printing about the source of fish and fishing practice on the menu of every seafood restaurant, along with a standardized rating process to judge which choice is more ‘sustainable’.

Obviously, for such a system, in-depth scientific research on the repercussion of fishing of different species in different local contexts must be done. Displaying information in fish markets about the fishing practices and the ecological impact of the fishing of different kinds of fish will help consumers make an informed choice, given the right price mechanisms/subsidies/incentives make it viable for poor fishing communities to sustain themselves economically and conserve the ecosystem sustainably. Through the right kind of public relation campaign and adequate support for fishing communities from the demand side itself (consumers agreeing to pay more for sustainable fishing), I believe that a shift towards sustainable fishing in India may be possible, once there is a readjustment to the mindset towards fishing. My love for seafood and my commitment towards sustainable development find themselves juxtaposed at a strange impasse, and a well-informed choice on my part can make small, yet very necessary difference.

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