Towards a sustainable seafood diet – taking cues from the Koli lifestyle

by Prathamesh Mokal (Masters in Public Policy, IIT Bombay)

Over recent years, Indians’ dietary habits have changed. Indians now consume more meat and fish products than ever before. According to a study from  the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the per capita consumption of fish in India in 1974 was 2.8kg, and it increased to 8kg by 2005. As of 2022, the increase in meat and fish consumed by Indians can be gauged by the fact that FreshToHome, an online meat and seafood delivery start-up, received almost one order every second in 2021.

This is good news, at least in the short term, for some food companies – but there are signs that marine fish populations will not be able to cope with demand. Fish lovers may need to turn to traditional cultures to learn how to eat more sustainably.

Changing food cultures in Mumbai

By one estimate, nearly 64% of Maharashtra’s population consumes fish in some form or another. In Mumbai, the state’s capital – which is also a coastal city with a significant artisanal fisher population – a substantial portion of the population consumes fish. While eating more fish could be good for consumers’ health, the unsustainable consumption patterns that drive the fishing industry in Mumbai are proving bad for the health of the marine ecosystem.

Fish consumption in Mumbai is heavily skewed towards a few particular species. Out of nearly 184 species found on India’s western coast, only nine – non-penaeid prawns, penaeid prawns, Bombay duck, cuttlefish, shads, ribbonfish, Indian Mackerel, silver pomfret and kawakawa– make up nearly 60% of the marine fish landings in Maharashtra. As a result, certain species are depleted much faster than naturally replenished. In most cases, the consumption is more than the carrying capacity of the marine ecosystem.

Such consumption patterns have a cascading impact down the entire fishing supply chain. One significant impact has been the increase in the average number of trawling days a fishing crew undertakes. Ganesh Nakhwa, a Koli fisherman who owns and operates three trawlers at the Sassoon dock, says: “Now trawling is almost like 15 to 20 days minimum.” This, in turn, leads to more diesel consumption by the trawlers and more use of preservatives to keep the catch fresh for longer.

Who is eating what?

Local Koli fisherwomen interviewed at the fish markets of Chunabhatti and Versova in Mumbai revealed that most of their daily earnings come from the sale of kolambi (prawns), bombil (Bombay duck), surmai (kingfish), paplet (pomfret), and bangda (Indian mackerel). It is crucial to understand the drivers of fish consumption patterns in Mumbai. From interviews with local Koli fisherfolk, it appears that three factors – price, taste, and social value – are important for a person’s preference. Due to their lower costs, consumers from the lower-income groups generally go for species like mandeli (Anchovies) and vakti (Ribbonfish). These are smaller fishes that replenish at a faster rate. The burgeoning middle class in Mumbai, with greater purchasing power, prefers bigger fishes like surmai, bombil and paplet, which cost anywhere between ₹400 to ₹1500 per kg.

Simran Bhasin, Vice President at Licious, another online meat and seafood delivery start-up, adds, “Food is as much a passion as a fashion (in India).” The fish you eat and the prestige it carries are an indication of your socio-economic status. That one can afford to eat fishes like the surmai, ravas (Indian salmon) or paplet regularly is considered a sign of elitism, so there is an excessive demand for these fishes in the market. Small and cheap (yet more nutritious) fishes are not favoured as much. On the subject of these consumption patterns, Ganesh Nakhwa adds: “when a fisherman comes back from a trip with, say, 100kg of catch, that 100kg cannot be just pomfret, prawns or surmai.”

Koli fishers bringing in the catch of the day. Photo: TAPESTRY

Such unsustainable consumption patterns, along with coastal pollution and changing climatic conditions, have resulted in Maharashtra registering its lowest marine catch in the past 45 years in 2020. Moreover, bangda (Indian mackerel) has recorded the most significant drop in marine landings by about 43% during 2020. According to the Fisheries Handbook 2020, the fisheries output of Maharashtra stagnated between 4.34 lakh tonnes in 2015-16 and 4.43 lakh tonnes in 2019-2020. The reported marine catch of the Greater Mumbai area has dropped from 2.27 lakh tonnes in 2016-17 to 2.10 lakh tonnes in 2020-21, pointing to the fact that the neighbouring fishing grounds have been exploited to their limit.

Tuning into the seasons

One way to tame these unsustainable consumption patterns is to discover the food patterns that have been prevalent among the Kolis of Mumbai. Fish consumers might then be nudged to adopt these food patterns, to drive the market towards sustainability. Having lived in and around the island city for centuries, the Kolis are one of the indigenous communities of Mumbai. They have been traditionally involved in fishing and related activities, and a traditional Koli diet prominently includes fish. However, the Koli choice of fish is in tune with the local marine ecosystem and the changing seasons.

While bigger fishes like surmai and paplet are a part of their cuisine, they are generally eaten on special occasions. On a daily basis, Kolis consume a wide variety of fish. These include smaller pelagic fishes like lep (sole), kupa (tuna) and vam (eels) among others, as well as shrimps, molluscs and even a few amphibious fishes like nivte (mudskipper). Local Koli fishermen comment that the customer demand needs to be in tune with the seasonal catch that the sea provides. A drop in the demand for khekda (crabs), lobsters and shimplya (shellfish)with a simultaneous increase in the demand for squids and makuls (octopuses) during winter is an example of season-based demand.

Traditionally the Kolis maintained a strict communal discipline of not fishing in deep waters during the monsoon months. These months tend to be the breeding season for many local species. The Kolis would park their boats in shallow waters by the end of May and would refrain from going into the sea till the occasion of Narali Pornima, which typically occurs in the latter half of August.

During the monsoon, a large part of the Koli diet consists of fishes dried during the preceding summer months. Many local Koli fisherwomen note a genuine need to make the customer aware of consuming Sukat (a generic term for dried fish). Besides being a healthy and delicious alternative, Sukat as a dietary choice would relieve the demand for fish during the breeding season and help in naturally repopulating the sea.

Fish drying on the shore in Mumbai. Photo: Bombay 61/archive

Start-ups like FreshToHome and Licious could help bring about a behavioural change among their consumers towards Sukat through their marketing strategies. Moreover, spreading awareness regarding the consumption of dried fish is a great alternative to enhance the protein intake of the urban poor in Mumbai.

Raising awareness

A few initiatives towards sustainability at the local level are worth mentioning. KnowYourFish (KYF) is a voluntary initiative working towards consumer education. Through rigorous research and citizen science, KYF has developed a fish-calendar according to Mumbai’s local marine ecosystem. The calendar provides crucial cues as to which fish to consume during a particular season and why.

Vikas Koli, a social activist from Versova Koliwada, notes that the state and national governments need to work on a mission mode towards sustainable seafood consumption. He thinks that a mass awareness campaign on the lines of ‘Sunday ho ya Monday, roz khao anday’ (Be it Sunday or Monday, eat eggs daily) is needed to enlighten the average seafood consumer. Perhaps, an ear-catching line like ‘Aso Holi va Diwali, khau nana prakarchi masoli’ (Be it Holi or Diwali, we will eat fishes of different varieties) can be thought of to introduce behavioural changes in the fish consumers of Mumbai.

Supporting Mumbai’s fishers

The Greater Mumbai area has 36 fishing villages with a population of around 32,500 fisherfolk. A considerable number of migrant labourers, around 1 lakh, are associated with Mumbai’s fishing industry as trawler workers, ice makers and breakers, coolies, truck drivers, etc. Apart from the Koli fisherwomen who traditionally sell the catch, many women from migrant lower-income groups are also involved in ancillary activities like cleaning and drying the fish.

This means that to maintain the employability of Mumbai’s fishing industry, the wholesale fish market must be driven by a sustainable seafood diet. The subaltern knowledge of the Koli community of Mumbai can go a long way in helping consumers make their fish choice wisely.

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