Why the sardine, a staple fish of Kerala, turned into a high-priced commodity

The sardine, a staple fish of Kerala, has turned into a costly commodity after the price skyrocketed recently due to its unavailability in the market. The fish, which was available at Rs 60 to Rs 100 per kg, shot up to roughly Rs 300 per kg in the last few days.

The price hike has sparked heated discussions on social media, with posts on how Kerala’s own ‘chaala' or 'maththi’ has become so hard to find. Fishermen in the state, too, are concerned about the issue.

A 52-day trawl ban is underway throughout the state, which bans trawling boats from venturing into the sea. Only traditional fishermen are allowed to set sail.

“This is the time of the year when traditional fishermen would secure a good catch of sardines as the trawl boats would be on shore due to the ban. But sardines have disappeared from the coast of Kerala,” said KB Kassim, a boat owner in Ernakulam district.

The Indian oil sardine contributes 17%-20% to the total marine fish catches in India. A bulk of this comes from the southwest coast of India comprising Kerala, Karnataka and Goa. Apart from being a common dish for the people of Kerala, sardine is also an important raw material for the fish meal industry.

Over the last two days, the price had shown a slight dip in Kerala markets as sardines caught from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Goa coast are being transported to Kerala. “Although this has reduced the price of the fish, the quality is a matter of concern here. Chemicals like formalin are added to make the fish appear fresh,” claims Kassim.

Climate change behind decline in sardine: Experts

Meanwhile, a recent study published by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) in Kochi and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) cites climate change as one of the main causes behind the decline of sardines.

The book, ‘Enigmatic Indian Oil Sardine: An Insight,’ published in December 2018 as part of the ICAR-CMFRI study says that the Indian oil sardine is susceptible to wide annual fluctuations. Overfishing and environmental factors such as El Niño, which warms the sea, also hamper the yearly catch.

“With the onset of El Niño by 2014, the Indian oil sardine moved into deeper waters and migrated to adjacent waters of Kerala. As a result, the landings or catches dipped in Kerala, and it showed an increase in Tamil Nadu coast,” the study states.

The study also compared the 'behavioural response' of sardines to the El Niño phenomenon from 2010 to 2017. The observation states that seasonal fluctuations in fish catches were due to the El Niño effect.

Though an all-time record catch of 7.2 lakh tonnes of sardines landed in the country in 2012, it has been dwindling ever since.

These climatic conditions not only cause fish to migrate from the coasts of Kerala, but also affects the reproduction of sardines. Experts have attributes growth retardation and shrunken ovaries to the low fertility rates.