Fish on the Menu
ACT I, Scene I
Place: Shyamnagar, a township in Barrackpore, West Bengal. 15 year- old Krishna Mondol has come from Kolkata to visit his grandfather, Sharat Mondol, a seasoned fish trader. They are both grinning broadly, clearly delighted to see each other.
Krishna: Dadu I am so excited. Guess what my school assignment is this time? A project on pisciculture. Aren’t I lucky? Our teacher told us it is the sunshine industry in Indian agriculture and I wanted to shout, ‘my dadu is an expert’!. Grandfather: (smiling) So have you planned how you want to do this?
Krishna: (scratching his head) I actually don’t know where to start…
Grandfather: All right then. Lets start with the basics. Simply put, pisciculture is fish farming. It involves raising fish commercially in tanks or enclosures, usually for food. We do it, as you know in our pukur (pond). The task is not as straightforward as it sounds though. Because an extremely limited number of fish species can actually be nurtured in captivity from the egg to the adult stage. In fact, carp is a rare food fish which adopts to this kind of domestication. Salmon, catfish, tilapia and cod are also raised in fish farms.. Various other food-fishes, both marine and fresh-water, can be kept in ponds for longer or shorter periods, but refuse to breed, while in other cases the fry (young fish) taken from a captive breeder fish just does not develop.
Krishna:Uh, oh! So what happens then?
Grandfather:We stick to doing what is possible to do, which can be divided under two heads: a. rearing in confinement of young fishes to an edible stage; and b. stocking natural waters with eggs or fry from captured breeders. Then just like you harvest crops in farms, you harvest fish too.
Krishna: How do you do that?
Grandfather: Harvesting is the process of using nets and other devices to catch large schools of fishes either from the sea or, like in my case from rivers and lakes.
Krishna: (all ears now) I know you have been rearing fish since Baba was a little boy. So when did this practice begin in India?
Grandfather: (smiles) A looong time before your father was a little boy. Did you know that the earliest reference of pisciculture in India is noted in the Vedas. This means that pisciculture or fisheries in India is almost as old as the Indian civilisation. For example Yajurveda mentions capturing of fish by sedating them in a pond using the bark of some trees. Fish hooks were found amongst the earliest prehistoric artefacts of the ‘Harappan’ civilisation.
Krishna: Dadu, why is pisciculture so popular in India?
Grandfather: It is not surprising really. We live in a country which is surrounded by oceans on its three sides and is crisscrossed by a multitude of rivers. Our people have always had access to these rivers and its tributaries. In Bengal particlarly pisciculture was introduced by the Chinese who came in search of work here, and have since settled down here for generations. Of course, the fact that fish is eaten as a staple food by a huge chunk of the Indian population also helps in making pisciculture a popular practice. In fact out of the total 6.4 million metric tonnes of fish that India produces, a sizeable portion is consumed by the people living inside the country. Still, India ranks amongst the top producers in the world, beaten only by Japan. It hosts more than 2200 species of fish and shellfish in its seas, inland rivers and in other water bodies. Now that’s impressive!
Krishna: Dadu, you are like a mobile encyclopaedia or shall I say Wikipaedia on fishing. Is there anything that you don’t know about growing fish?
Grandfather: (laughs) Oh, I am learning all the time. In fact, nowadays, whenever I am in doubt I consult Wiki. But it was not so smooth earlier. Once, many years ago, during the summer months dead fishes began to float in the surface of the pukur. I was in panic. After much running around I found out that during summers the DO (dissolved Oxygen) level in water plummets in the early morning hours and this can be fatal for my fish flock.
Krishna: So what did you do?
Grandfather: I bought a machine which ensured a steady flow of oxygen into the pond and that saved me from further losses.
Krishna: Hmm…so do you think I should work with you when I grow up?
Grandfather: (Caressing Krishna’s cheeks) Child, I would love to have you as my partner! But before you decide on your career in fish faming, you must consider a few important facts. First, most fishes breed only during monsoons so the production becomes seasonal and there is not much to do during the rest of the year. Second, one must be on the alert all the time because there is a constant shortage of fish eggs of superior quality. If one tries to collect from natural sources, the good seeds are often mixed with bad ones and you fail to raise pure breeds. And since only the fittest breeds survive, you might end up with a huge loss if you are not careful. To tackle this problem, we started to breed fishes in ponds using induced breeding techniques, like extracting hormones from the . the pituitary glands of carps.
Krishna: Wow! Awesome dadu! This can be a really challenging job. But before I agree to be your partner, I have a condition. Give me my fishing rod, I want to test the waters first in our own ponds in the backyard.
(Laughing and chatting the two move into the house)
ACT I, Scene II
Place: Mapusa, a small town, 13 kms away from Panaji, North Goa. Savio Paul meets Rodrigues Gonsalves in the fish and fruit market of Panjim. Both these 20-something young men are into fish. While Rodrigues runs a family business, selling and exporting marine species, Savio is planning to try his hand in fish trade, a heavyweight sector is Goa’s economy.
Savio: Rods, this year the monsoon has been quite heavy. So a good season for your business, right?
Rodrigues: Well. Not necessarily. At times excess water can lead to serious problems in fishing. And then seeking help from the government is the wisest thing to do.
Savio: Oh is it? What kind of help?
Rodrigues: Well, there are a range programmes targetting the fisherfolks and others engaged in this sector. It covers all inland fishery resources available in the country—freshwater, brackish and cold water; the waterlogged areas and the saline or alkaline soils for aquaculture. It is the state government which implements it. The effort is to bring the traditional and coastal fishermen on the same platform. This way marine fishery can be developed both in the territorial and extra territorial (deep sea) waters of the country. The fisheries departments set out a budget every year for the fish culture sector.
Savio: Yes, I have seen local administrators also take keen interest in this…
Rodrigues: Absolutely. The local bodies also support various self help groups, focussing particularly on the women who are involved in fisheries in this state.
Savio: Also, interestingly, so many colleges and institutes are introducing pisciculture as a separate course. It’s an emerging discipline. But tell me is this growing popularity leading to any kind of problem?
Rodrigues: Many actually. It is leading to just too much fishing. And this results in the rapidly declining population of the commercially viable varieties. Fishes are being captured at the time of breeding, or are being harvested at a very young, juvenile stage. So the numbers are dwindling fast. Then the lack of proper storage infrastructure is a major hurdle. Fish, as we all know, spoils in hours…freshness of our commodity is the most vital condition in our business. But on this front the scenario is truly dismal. Inadequate storage facility, preservation and lack of prompt disposal or transport services are the nightmares that we have to live with. In the monsoon season we lose upto 20 to 30 percent of our stock in this way.
Savio: Thanks for the invaluable tips Rodrigues, I am sure now you are too savvy to be bogged down by these. Best of luck. .
Rodrigues: Come any time Savio. And best of luck to you too.
ACT I, Scene III
Place: Kamapalli, a small town in Berhampur, Orissa.. Raghunath Rath, owner of local fish hatcheries, is chatting with Kanchan Parida, who runs a business involving packaging and transport of fish products, over cups of steaming hot tea and muri (puffed rice)
Rath: You know Parida illegal fishing and the growing pollution levels are giving me sleepless nights these days.
Parida: You are right. Its almost like reliving the Chilika Bachao Andolan (Save the Chilika Movement). Remember how the local fisherfolk successfully resisted the Integrated Shrimp Farm Project (ISFP) – a joint venture between the Tata Business House and the Government of Orissa on intensive prawn cultivation and export.
Rath: How can I forget, though it was way back in 1991. I still get gooseflesh thinking about the way those men and women braved police lathis and cudgels to break down the gheries (make-shift boundaries) set up by the prawn breeders in the lake that obstructed the movement of their boats, depriving them of their livelihood. Their victory was historic when the Indian Supreme Court banned fish farming within 1,000 metres of the lake.
Parida: Hmm.… but I still feel there are many loopholes in our system. Most Indian cities have a system of disposing effluents in the nearest river or water body. So every river, including the Ganga and the Yamuna have become the dumping grounds of domestic and industrial waste. This poison kills all species of fish and other aquatic animals. Such indiscriminate dumping also infuses high quantities of harmful elements like zinc, copper and leads in the fishes which are then consumed by humans.
Rath: Yes Mr Parida. And then there are other threats like oil and chemical spillage from large vessels in the high seas, which exposes the marine fish population to serious risks.
Parida: I must say, inspite of such grave problems, India’s fish production and export is doing phenomenally well. India has third position worldwide in terms of production of fish. This translates to 4.4 percent of the global fish production. With respect to the gross domestic product (GDP) the contribution of this sector is at1.10 percent and 5.3 percent compared to the agricultural GDP.
Rath: Yes. Lets hope we are able to grow at the same pace in the future, too.
We hope so too, Mr Rath!