Fishy Business

Trisha Gupta

“Move aside, the net is going to land here!”

We heed the tandeil’s (captain) warnings and quickly move to a corner as 5 men heave up a massive net filled with half a tonne of the sea. The net is opened onto the deck, where a mass of squirming shrimp, shells, sharks, sea snakes and hundreds of different fish spill out, along with a generous portion of mud. The fishermen start sorting through the pile of catch, while I take notes on the side and try not to be seasick.

Photo by Trisha Gupta

This is a trawler – a fishing boat that drags a large net through the water column or sea floor to catch shrimp and fish. Along with their target species, trawlers capture a number of non-target species of bycatch due to the low selectivity of their nets. This bycatch can range from turtles, cetaceans and sharks, and in countries like India, it also includes numerous undersized fish. While some of this is discarded, Indian fishers bring back a large portion of the bycaught fish that can be commercially sold. This is what I study – the sharks, rays and other bycatch species that are threatened by these unsustainable practices, yet are becoming increasingly important in the country’s fisheries today.

Getting data onboard the trawler was crucial for my study, but this turned out to be quite a challenge. Fishers don’t like taking women on their vessels – partly due to superstition but also for practical reasons. These trawlers are relatively small and do not have toilets. Fishermen would do their business out at sea, and were understandably very uncomfortable with the idea of any stranger, let alone a woman, being on board at such a time. Not to mention the issue of the said woman not being able to use a toilet herself during the fishing trip! It took a lot of conversations with the boat owner and captain to get me onboard a trawler for a day-long fishing trip.

While I would not say that this fishing trip was a life-changing experience or a career-defining moment, it definitely played a role in shaping my thoughts as a young conservationist. On one hand, the massive mound of marine biodiversity captured and piled on the deck forms a powerful and impactful picture. For every crate of shrimp or high-value fish that’s caught, there can be up to 5 crates of bycatch – producing so much unnecessary death.

Photo by Manini Bansal

On the other hand, it also opened my eyes to look beyond the scope of my research. Behind the capture of every shark or vulnerable animal is the livelihood of a trawl fisherman. Their lives are not easy. Most of them are not from Malvan, the fishing town I work in, but instead from other parts of the coast or even inland regions of the country. They live, work and sleep on board the trawler for the 9-10 months of the fishing season, coming to shore only in the evenings after a fishing trip to sell their catch. Many of the fishermen had red and swollen hands from a lifetime of experiencing the painful ‘punches’ of mantis shrimp. These species are caught in large numbers as bycatch and generally have no commercial value – giving the fishers no reward for their pain!

For many this is the only option they have to support themselves and their families. With all this, how can we ask them to care about the bycatch in their nets, and the unsustainability of their fishing? Any ban or strict regulation on trawling would seriously compromise their livelihoods.

I may have sub-consciously demonized trawler fishers in my head, seeing them as the primary threat to marine ecosystems. Yet through my fieldwork these fishers and boat owners became my friends, who I would catch up with over a chai in the evening. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their livelihoods any more than we should, for the sake of conservation.

Photo by Manini Bansal

When I head to the landing centre in Malvan every evening for my work, I still feel the same sense of sadness at the large volume of life that’s been fished out of the sea. But I now better understand the context behind it. Research efforts need to be inclusive and balance conservation with the needs of the fishing community. This is what my research is working towards (or hopes to anyway!).

Read more about this project on Dakshin Foundation’s website