As a Community’s Trawlers are Sent to Port, Its Bustling Fish Market Dries Out

Chennai | 05/06/2013 1:24pm
Shalini Umachandran | Informal City Dialogues

“500! 500! 500!” With the flick of a wrist, the arch of an eyebrow, the price goes up. “600! 600! 600!” D Padma cackles, egging on the crowd. A finger is wagged, a handkerchief is waved and the bids go higher and higher, finally coming to a rest at Rs 800 (about $15 USD) for a half-basket of anchovies. Just moments earlier, the fish had been pulled off a catamaran and dumped at Padma’s feet on the dirty sand here at Kasimedu fishing harbor. Now they’re gone.

The odor of dry, decaying fish never seems to lift in Kasimedu. It wafts along the sand, searing in the 38-degrees Celsius heat. It’s a quieter business day than usual, but even today, by 2:30 a.m. the harbor is alive with the first of the boats landing with the day’s catch. Melting ice, sections of sea creatures, scraps of net, rope and reed are strewn everywhere.

Padma stands at the center of why this chaos exists in the first place: the point of sale. She is one of the auctioneers who ensure that the boat owners get the highest price for their fish. The auctioneers are formidable women working in a hard-won position; many of them have advanced money to the boat owners to obtain auctioning rights for the catch. The owners often need the advances, since they put out to sea for 10 to 15 days at a stretch and have to stock up on fuel, food and supplies for the team of 10 men that goes out with the boat.

“Some of us also give long-term loans to women who regularly buy fish from the boat owners,” says Padma, whose fisherman husband died a few years ago. She’s not eligible for state government compensation, though she admits she’s tried every trick in the book to claim it. “The sea is my livelihood. Business is slow because it’s the trawlers that bring in the largest amounts of fish,” she says. “Now, only the catamarans are allowed to go out and fish.”

The trawler ban is the reason business is slow today. On a typical morning, hundreds of catamarans are ferried in from the trawlers, piled with baskets of sardines, pomfret, seer fish, prawns, red snapper, mackarel and squid, which are sold to buyers from all over the south almost as soon as they land on shore. Gangs of workers carry the baskets from the catamarans and dump them on the strip of sand that serves as the auctioneers’ podium.

But right now, Kasimedu’s trawlers are moored in the harbor, their crews killing time by repairing nets, playing cards and getting into fights while they wait out a 45-day government ban on deep-sea fishing. The ban on trawling, enforced by the fisheries department along the entire coast of Tamil Nadu since April 14, is to ensure that exploited species have time to breed – not only commercial species like sardines, seer fish and barracuda, but threatened species too, such as sea cucumber, sharks and turtles. There are 800 registered boats in Chennai and about 200 unregistered trawlers.

“All of us lose business during the 45-day ban,” says K Bharathi, president of the South Indian Fishermen’s Welfare Association. “This practice has been followed since 2001.”

For most of the year, Kasimedu is a bustling center of commerce. But for 45 days each year, it becomes unnaturally quiet. Video by Udayaa Venkat via YouTube

The Kasimedu fishing harbor was built in the mid 1970s in Royapuram, one of the oldest parts of the city. It sits on land belonging to the Chennai Port Trust and figures often in discussions in the State Assembly. But in reality, much of the activity here is informal, with auctions and business deals working on trust and following generations of accepted practices. About 1,000 mechanized trawlers and 500 catamarans put out to sea during the fishing months and bring back around 150 tons of fish a day. The industry employs about 10,000 people directly.

The building of the harbor turned Kasimedu into an industry town, where an entire family of five or more depends on fishing for its livelihood. “The men go out to sea, the women clean and sell the fish,” says Bharathi, sitting at a roadside tea shop near his house, a five-minute walk from the smelly, sandy strip of beach where Padma calls out her prices. “If they don’t save properly — which often happens since most of them earn per day — making ends meet during the ban period can be hard. The other problem is that many are not eligible for the state government compensation since they work on other people’s boats or are migrant laborers from Andhra Pradesh. So they take out loans or pawn other assets for high rates of interest.”

Fisheries department officials say the annual ban is critical to keeping fish stocks viable. “Research done over several years shows that this 45-day ban is helpful,” an official tells me. “Larvae and eggs are found on the sea bed and a ban on trawling helps. Most fishermen think the sea is vast and there is no need for regulation.”

Count Bharathi as one of these skeptics. “The fisheries department has not shared the research with us. We are not sure that the ban is necessary,” he says. “We feel it might be more useful from October to December when the currents move toward the shore.” The state government pays out Rs 2,000 ($37 USD) per family during the ban, but fishermen say the money does not come immediately. “It is usually released after the ban is lifted,” says Bharathi.

The ban hits everyone involved in the fishing industry, including the auctioneers. Some of them get Rs 30 for every Rs 100 of fish that they sell, and all of them take a share of the fish from every basket they auction, getting a cut from both the boat owner and the purchaser. Everything works on a commission basis: The auctioneers get a cut, the export agents get a percentage, boat workers get 20 percent of the earnings from the catch and the transporters get 10 percent. Fish from Kasimedu is shipped out to markets in and around Chennai, as well as to Vandavasi, Cuddalore and Kanchipuram.

“We even send fish to Kerala from where it is exported to Europe, Iran and Russia,” says E Sekar of ESK Seafoods. Stingrays, especially, are prized in markets in Europe and are exported through the neighboring state of Kerala, an overnight journey by road.

“Every day, transactions worth Rs 9 crore to Rs 12 crore (about $1.6 to $2.2 million USD) take place,” says M D Dayalan of the Indhiya Meenavar Sangam. “Wholesale, retail and export buying takes place here.”

Just about the only people not flustered by the ban are the carpenters. “We build new boats and repair the old ones during the ban period,” one tells me. It takes a team of about 10 carpenters four to five months to build a boat. “We formed a union only after the 2004 tsunami because our tools – and our livelihood – were washed away. But since we don’t live here permanently, it’s hard to get anything concrete done,” says a carpenter named K Stephen. Most of them are from Cuddalore or Kerala and go home for only a few months in the year. They travel along the country’s coast, following the contract job.

For another few weeks, the carpenters will be swimming in work. For the rest of the industry, the period of drying out will end on May 29.