"Fish has been included in the list of daily essentials whose movement and sale has been exempted from restrictions," President of Akhil Bharatiya Fishermen Association, Velji Masani said. (Representational Image)
THE MULTI-BILLION fishing industry, which employs around 3.5 lakh people in the state of Gujarat, has come to a grinding halt as traders and processors are facing labour shortage and transportation issues, following restrictions imposed due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
Gujarat has the longest coastline in the country at 1650 kilometre. Fishing is also an important contributor to the state's GDP and Rs 7,000 crore worth of seafood is annually exported.
"Fish has been included in the list of daily essentials whose movement and sale has been exempted from restrictions. It has to be treated at par with vegetables but somehow, a message has spread or people have assumed that the movement of fish is also prohibited. Therefore, traders and processors have stopped buying from fishermen and seafood processing units are suspending their operations," President of Akhil Bharatiya Fishermen Association, Velji Masani told The Indian Express on Wednesday.
The last fishing trawler arrived on shore at Jakhau in Kutch on Tuesday, but there has been no business on account of the lockdown. Masani said that Veraval Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), the hub of seafood processing industry in Gujarat, is deserted with hardly any vehicles plying and labourers not leaving their homes, either.
"There are no takers for fish being unloaded on fishing harbours. Police are intensively checking all trucks transporting goods, therefore traders are not taking any risks. On Tuesday, 22 fishing trawlers landed at Jakhau fishing harbour with their catch. But effectively, there was no auction as only two traders turned up to buy the fish," said Usmangani Sherasiya, Secretary of National Fishworker's Forum (NFF), a national forum of Indian fishermen organisations.
Masani, who is also a member of the NFF, said that there are 35,000 active fishing boats in the state. "Each boat supports the employment of around a 100 persons. Around 3.5 lakh fishermen and their families depend on this industry...The government must do something soon to ensure that the industry continues to function...Otherwise, all boats would come to shore and the huge number of fishermen who are confined to their boats in fishing harbours would swell," Masani further said.
People from states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Assam are known to come to Gujarat to work as crew on fishing boats, fish-handling or processing firms along the coast. Sherasiya said that hundreds of such fishermen were stuck up in Jakhau, Okha, Mangrol, Porbandar and Veraval as public transport is not available and the movement of people has been restricted by the government.
Kanji Baraiya, who runs a fish trading firm called RK Enterprise in Jakhau, said that he stopped trading on Tuesday. "Seafood processing firms of Veraval stopped loading fish from Jakhau citing transportation issues. So, after getting a letter of permission from fisheries, I dispatched the last consignment of around 20 tonne fish in six trucks on Tuesday. Now, there is a curfew in Jakhau," said Baraiya. He added that as road transport was highly restricted, traders were unable to supply fish to Karnataka and other states in the northern and northeastern part of the country.
Processors and exporters said that the restrictions announced by the government forced them to suspend operations. "Labourers are not turning up for work and are instead preferring to stay indoors. Police presence on roads is also dissuading them to step out...Clearing and forwarding agents at ports are also not working. Therefore, shipment of fish for export has by and large halted. Therefore, we have no option but to shut down," said Karshan Salet, Vice-President of the Gujarat chapter of Seafood Exporters Association.
The disruption in trading, transport and processing has meant fishermen are either stranded in harbours and forced to return if they are at sea. "Police and Fisheries department had been asking us to dispose of our catch for a week. Therefore, we stopped fishing operations," Abdullasha Pirjada, President of Jakhau Bandar Machhimar ane Boat Association, an organisation of fishermen and boat owners in Jakhau. Pirjada said that 1,231 fishing boats had returned to the harbour, but a few of them could not sell their catch due to the lockdown.
President of Porbandar Machhimar Boat Association, Jadavaji Posteria said that anchoring space in Porbandar is also an issue. "Since there are no takers for fish, fishing boats are returning from sea but there is issue of anchoring space in Porbandar harbour. Around 1,200 boats have already arrived. Another 400 are at sea and waiting for their turn to enter the harbour," said Posteria.
However, Masani said that the government has instructed fishermen to not beach their boats. Instead, they should either anchor their craft in harbours or the anchorage. "Usually, fishermen do not have homes in the port they operate from and there is fear that a large number of fishermen will congregate at harbours," he said.
Gujarat Fisheries Minister Jawahar Chavda said that he is aware of the issue. "We issued a circular to all district collectors on Wednesday morning, asking them to ensure that movement of fish, processed seafood and fish feed is not affected. These instructions will be followed and the supply of fish will not be allowed to be affected," said the Minister.
Meanwhile, 104 fishermen from returned to Navsari district in south Gujarat from Bhavcha Dhakka in Mumbai via the sea route. They were medically screened and later advised by health officers to quarantine themselves at their homes for 14 days. These fishermen from Navsari and Valsad had landed at Bhavcha Dhakka in Mumbai for selling their catch, but returned to Dholai port at Billimora in Navsari district on Wednesday.
(With inputs from Kamaal Saiyed in Surat)