News is quickly filtering in from all over the country and the world about the toll which the novel coronavirus is taking on coastal fishing communities.
Most communities are on lockdown mode. In most developing countries, marine fishing communities are already development-disadvantaged and marked by lower human development indices compared to their respective national averages. The extraordinary situation created by the virus has only exacerbated their conditions. Kerala is no exception.
Another important disadvantage which fishing communities face in the context of the coronavirus is their much higher population density on land and the far greater and inevitable physical contact which the men experience while fishing on their crafts.
We do not have any evidence of the life of the virus in the hot, saline environment at sea and the coast. If indeed the life of the virus is significantly lower, then this might compensate for the lower possibility for physical distancing at sea. We do not know.
Time to rethink
Further, once fish is landed – on the beach or in the ports – crowding is inevitable. Fish auctions are notorious for both high decibel levels and intense physical interactions between the participants. This poses a grave threat in the context of the virus and perhaps conjures images of the wet markets of Wuhan were the virus is said to have originated. Banning such fish auctions cuts at the root of the fishers’ livelihoods and that of those who distribute fish from the landing site to markets and customers.
The above circumstances at sea and at the landing centres, therefore, call for rethinking the way fishing and fish marketing is conducted in the context of the virus.
Fishing must continue. It is a source of livelihood and an important item of food for the poor and rich. What can be done?
Restrictions need of the hour
Fishers have reported that they are perhaps safer at sea away from the risks of the virus on land. However, due to the overall drop in demand following a lockdown of consumers, there is a strong case for restricting the level of fishing currently undertaken. The collective initiative for regulating fishing, first fish sales and distribution must come from the village level.
Fishing must be restricted at the level of each fishing village/centre by instituting a rotation system where a fraction of the fishers goes fishing every day. This can be arranged by a collective and transparent rota or lottery system.
Together with this, a further restriction which should be imposed is that the number of persons in a fishing craft must be such that the principle of physical distancing can be maintained. Also, fishing should be restricted to a maximum of an 8 to 12-hour cycle – preferably during day time. These are all measures which must be agreed by local consensus which can be mediated by the local religious and cultural organisations and the associations/ cooperatives of the fishers in each village. Such decisions are imperative if any economic activity is to happen in marine fishing in this time of crisis.
All the above restrictions will work well for the fishers and the fish. The lower supply caused by the smaller total harvest will ensure that prices do not fall drastically. And the lower crew size will ensure that fishing nets such as bottom trawls, encircling nets, purse-seines, large gillnets cannot be utilised and thus ensure a respite for fish and the marine environment. Taken together these measures act to create economic and ecological sustainability.
Once the fishing trip is over, given the extensive use of cell-phones by the fishers, they can communicate the quantum and species harvested in advance of returning. Since auctions will not be permitted, the system of setting a minimum floor price for each of the important species of fish is the way forward. There can be an average price announced by the Fisheries Department based on market data collected earlier.
Each fishing centre or village can also be linked, for example, to the local level community kitchen in the area and smaller varieties of fish which can be easily fried (sardines, mackerels, anchovies) can be supplied there for a fixed price. This ensures that fish need not move long distances to reach the consumption point.
Fresh fish delivery
Another option in fishing centres which are closer to urban centres will be for a small group of youth from the fishing community to first create a local WhatsApp fish-producer-consumer group (FISHPROCOM) within 5-10 km radius from the landing site and get fresh fish delivered directly to the consumers taking the adequate safety measures and the road permits from the police.
Fish can also be distributed to all the households in the fishing village each day as part of the customary fish sharing practice to those who are unable to fish.
Fish which remains unsold can be salted or stored in ice as appropriate. For the latter, the supply of medium-sized insulated fish boxes to the villages practising such restrictions by the Fisheries Department is desirable.
Women fish vendors from the fishing villages will not be able to continue their itinerant trade. This should be seen as a blessing. They should be provided with an income transfer which can be provided by the major religious or cultural institution in the village with the support of associations and cooperatives and the funds of the welfare board. It is important that women stay in their homes during the lockdown for their own safety.
Apart from such village sponsored actions relating to fishing and the first sale of fish, it must be ensured that the food security and welfare measures announced by the Government are effectively implemented at the village level.
The crisis caused by the coronavirus can be viewed as a good opportunity for marine fisheries in Kerala to comprehend the merits in restricting fishing levels, leading to more sustainable small-scale fishing practices, creating a fair price system, fostering greater local marketing and creating newer physical and social infrastructure.
(John Kurien is a visiting Professor at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. He worked as UN/ FAO Fisheries Management Advisor in Cambodia and Indonesia. He is an honorary fellow at the World Fish Centre in Penang, Malaysia).