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The sights and sounds of Mangaluru’s dakke

Spending a morning at the old Mangalore fishing port was a lesson in history and food sourcing

A fisherwoman at the Old Mangalore Fishing Port. (Photo: Ruth Dsouza Prabhu)
A fisherwoman at the Old Mangalore Fishing Port. (Photo: Ruth Dsouza Prabhu)

Growing up in Mangaluru, seafood forms an integral part of meals across most communities. Fish-eating homes are often loyal to vendors who come on bicycles (now upgraded to motorbikes) with the catch of the day. City Market and Kadri Market are among the popular places to buy fresh fish. Most vendors, markets and restaurants buy their seafood at the old Mangalore dakke (port in Tulu) in Bunder which is solely dedicated to fishing activities.

It requires some grit to navigate through the multi-sensory experience that the dakke is but, there is nothing like shopping for fish, straight off the boats in the early hours of the morning. Before heading out, I read up on the history of this port.

In the 14th century, Mangaluru was under the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire. The port was used extensively by the local rulers, and to transport both goods and passengers to Lakshadweep. For the Arabs, this was an important port which helped establish the spice and silk trade route to the Middle East. Around 1510, the Portuguese seized control of the port, halting all Arab trade movement, leading to several turf wars. Simultaneously, political power passed from the Vijayanagara Empire to Keladi Venkatapa Nayaka, who defeated the Portuguese and took control of the port till the 1760s. It was then that Hyder Ali wrested control, passing it on to his son Tippu Sultan. After Tippu’s loss in the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1784, this port went to the British, who understood its importance as a trade hub, and improved the infrastructure around it.

After independence, activities at the port were segregated and The New Mangalore Port was opened in 1974 at Panambur. From then on, the dakke at Bunder came to be utilised exclusively for fishing activities.

I headed to the dakke at 7 AM one morning with my uncle Rohan Lobo as a guide, a veteran of buying his fish here. At the pier, close to the paid parking lot, I took a moment to watch a fishing boat inch its way towards us and tried to picture the seascape from all those centuries ago. That reverie was broken when the fisherman threw a thick rope at us with the request that we help anchor the boat!

A few metres ahead structured chaos hit us. On one side you have the boats lining up to anchor, unload their catch and move on for refuelling or repairs. As soon as a boat arrives, plastic crates are lined up upside down, from the boat to a few feet in. This serves as a relay track for baskets of segregated fish that are offloaded, pushed along the length of the crates and set aside on the ground.

As this happens, the auctioning of different fish begins – small vendors, restaurant owners, and seafood businesses all line up to participate in this and get the best rate possible.

Simultaneously, vehicles filled with ice wind their way to the docks. The ice is used to pack fish in large cold supply trucks and to replenish the stocks on boats as they head out to sea again. Lines of men, carrying crates of fish piled high on their heads to transport trucks criss-cross their way on these docks. If you are not careful, you will be covered in a steady water drip from these crates as they go past you.

Another part of the market has rows of women who clean the fish you buy. They also work on cleaning and cutting fish based on specifications for different industries such as fish mills.

This port sees a wide range of fish, common and exotic come in. I saw Madmal Meen (Pink Perch), Aarol (Spiny Eel), Kollatad (Anchovies), Kandai (Barracuda), Aranai (Lizard Fish), Madal Meen (Sail Fish), and Prawns – Tiger, Zebra, Flower varieties and more. There were pomfret, squid, octopus, cockles packed in bags, live crabs bunched in nets, and even a load of Pufferfish.

“You don’t see too much of Pufferfish come in anymore. When the 2004 Tsunami hit, a lot of it came in from the Sri Lankan Sea but that has reduced now,” says Venugopal K Puthran, businessman and a member of the fishermen community of Mangaluru.

Puthran goes on to explain the workings of the port to me. All fishing boat activities here come under the purview of the Fisheries Department of Karnataka which controls their movements in and out of the sea. The boats may be personally owned, have multiple owners, or be in partnerships. While there are fishing hubs in Karnataka in Malpe, Gangolli, Bhatkal and Karwar, Mangaluru port has the most number of boats.

“Mangaluru has around 92 Purse Seine boats with around a dozen more being constructed for the next fishing season. These boats catch fish by throwing nets in large circles of around 200 metres. They are also equipped with cold storage facilities since they remain at sea for 2 to 3 days. There are around 1200 to 1250 deep sea fishing boats that go out for between 8 to 10 days. And around 100 smaller fishing boats of around 40 feet each, with small engines that leave at 3 AM and return around 2 PM each day with their load," Puthran explains.

92 Purse Seine boats at the port. (Photo: Ruth Dsouza Prabhu)
92 Purse Seine boats at the port. (Photo: Ruth Dsouza Prabhu)

All boats are allowed to operate between the first weeks of August to the end of May each year. June and July see a complete ban on mechanised boats going out to sea owing to the monsoons. Local wooden boats without engines however can continue to operate.

The fish that comes in is sold locally and is auctioned and transported to states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat and cities like Mumbai too. Exports are to Gulf countries, Singapore and Japan among others. “If excess fish remains, it is kept on ice and sold the next day. And excess fish of all sizes are also dried and transported to other states. All small fish that are not utilised for consumption are sent to fish mills where they are used to produce animal feed,” says Puthran.

Once past the sorting and auctioning area, you come to the fish market that is set up. Most of the popular fish is available here for a price lesser than the local markets. Browsing through it all I decided to pick up 500 grams of Zebra prawns for 200. Around me were people buying their stocks for the week, the sound of friendly haggling all around. Stepping away from all the noise and smells and heading back to the car, I realised that I had seen and heard all this and it was only 8.30 AM!

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.

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