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How sustainable is your seafood?

Seafood eaters need to educate themselves more on what exactly they are eating, how and where it lives, how it is caught and who catches it

Technically, most seafood is wildlife (Mike Bergmann/Unsplash)

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Seafood is strange. A staple in many people’s diets, it is also the last wild food regularly eaten in the civilised world. As a result, most people don’t think of seafood as wildlife. As a fisheries sustainability researcher, the word “seafood” conjures, for me, images of octopus, red snappers, emperors, blue tangs, clown fish, mussels, rock lobsters, mantis shrimp and much more.

Seeing the words “Add 100g fish” in a recipe should be met with incredulity and wonder. Yet, many recipes treat all fish as if they are the same, ignoring the fact that parrotfish are herbivores, seerfish are carnivores, or that bhetki live in estuaries while mackerels swarm the coastal ocean. The consequences of this sometimes wilful ignorance is an increased threat to marine sustainability.

What seafood you choose to eat matters not only to the ocean, but also to fisherfolk. After participating in fishing community meetings, conducting detailed interviews, and collecting responses from semi-structured surveys along the Konkan, I began to realise how many fisherfolk were worried about the future of the marine environment.

Fisherfolk across many villages in Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri districts in Karnataka had got together to try and sustainably manage the areas where they fished most often. The result of their sustainable management was to catch marine species based on ecological availability during that particular season, rather than market demand. There is a scientific term for such a kind of sustainable fishing: balanced harvest.

Documenting the diversity of species caught in these fisheries showed that there were over 80 edible marine species being caught, but very few of these went beyond local, beachside stalls. The majority of species were being consumed locally for very low prices, if at all, while a small amount was transported to larger towns and cities to be sold at higher prices. The economic result of a balanced harvest, despite the huge effort for fisherfolk, was poor profits.

Urban seafood eaters are indeed key influencers of national seafood supplies. The lockdown due to covid-19 in 2020 demonstrated clearly that when large urban centres and export hubs shut their markets and seafood distribution, fisheries all along India’s coastline are devastated. So, when our team at InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood initiative, studied the supply chain and found how ignorant urban seafood eaters were about the lives of both fish and fisherfolk, this was a source of great concern.

Research by us and some other organisations demonstrated that there are clear economic class differences in terms of species eaten by urban seafood eaters. The species eaten by upper classes are fewer than 15, but also the most expensive. The species usually consumed by people belonging to the lower and middle classes in cities are also below 20, and are expensive compared to fishing villages, but quite distinct from the species eaten by upper classes. 

Why is all this worthy of note? Because while the Marine Products Export Development Authority of India identifies a possible 200 different species of edible seafood (excluding threatened and protected species), urban seafood eaters are consuming only around 35 species, placing huge pressure on their unbroken supply. 

Clearly the fisherfolks’ hypothesis about lack of market support for a balanced harvest was borne out.

Intervening in the supply chain to correct this imbalance was paramount. But in the backdrop of the economic devastation among fishing communities, as a result of the 2020 covid-19 lockdown, our team decided to set aside our socio-ecological goals and “scientific objectivity”. Instead, we raised funding from individuals, through partnerships with like-minded environmentalists, and through corporates to provide rations and support to affected fisherfolk.

We were shocked to learn how many people fell through the cracks of our public distribution system. It was also distressing to see the level of debt among fisherfolk, where even two weeks of lost income brought people to the point of starvation. Having helped 1000 fishing families across the coast of Tamil Nadu, we realised that any intervention would need to address all these financial aspects of fisherfolks’ lives before we could begin conversations about marine sustainability.

Adapting to a pandemic-ridden world has thrown up new opportunities and challenges, but has also shed light on new research areas, and points of intervention that are needed to achieve the goal of sustainable seafood supplies. What is clear is that to achieve sustainable marine ecology seafood eaters, traders, distributers and fisherfolk need to operate using practices of mutual economic support. Fisherfolk ought to switch to more better fishing practices and fishing gear, to achieve a truly "balanced harvest" and avoid overfishing, especially of threatened species. Traders and distributors need to find and create markets for the diversity of edible seafood species that India is blessed to have in her tropical waters. Seafood eaters need to educate themselves more on what exactly they are eating, how and where it lives, how it is caught and who catches it, if they are to contribute to a more sustainable future for marine fisheries. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us just how interconnected our lives are, and how we have to work together for a better future.

Divya Karnad is a co-founder of InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood initiative, an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University, and a senior fellow at Foundation for Ecological Research Advocacy and Learning

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