Trawling in troubled waters: fishermen face rising costs

It has now been well over a month since deep-sea fishing resumed in the Arabian Sea, but the absence of enthusiasm is palpable among fishermen returning to full-fledged work in the city’s harbours after the annual monsoon break. Many are even considering abandoning deep-sea fishing stints or reducing their frequency.

The reason for their sinking spirits, they say, is the continuing surge in petroleum prices. Since mid-August, when deep-sea fishing began again off the coastline of Mumbai and the rest of the State, diesel prices have steadily risen from ₹74.54 a litre to a whopping ₹79.40 a litre by Sunday, the last day of September.

The prices fetched by the fishermen’s catch, meanwhile, have remained static, making it increasingly unattractive to go in for a long fishing haul.

“The fishing community may relinquish deep-sea fishing operations if diesel prices don’t come down soon,” an anguished Damodar Tandel, who heads the Akhil Maharashtra Machhimar Kriti Samiti, told The Hindu.

Koliwada blues

A morning stroll down the sloping, zig-zag lane that takes one to the fishing harbour in Marve near Malad, suggests a lull in activity.

Yes, there are a few fisherwomen and men busy preparing their fishing nets as an ice crusher machine loudly churns out material for them to chill their catch with, on their return journey from the sea.

Some young men are readying their boats for a journey, uploading diesel drums, ice-crates and fishing nets.

A few fishermen are seen at work amid the lull at Marve.

But about half a dozen boats remain idle, with neither minders, nor loaders around them. Leeladhar, who owns a small fishing boat, is one of the few busy at work and is instructing his team to check all loose ends before heading out for a short trip that could last up to two days.

Ask him about the mood and his reply is terse. “The way the prices of diesel are rising sharply, it will not be possible for me to sail the boat in near future,” he said. “I need at least 200 litres of diesel to complete each voyage. With the rising prices of the fuel, it has become very difficult to meet the total expenditure of one trip as we cannot be certain about the catch. These days, it is more like winning a lottery when we get enough to haul back home,” he said.

Sanjay Koli, chairman of the Vasai Machhimaar Sarvodaya Sahakari Sanstha, said the prices for fish have not picked up in the domestic or international market for the past two years. “Moreover, deep-sea fishing is highly dependent on the weather, and in the last two years, we have faced several situations of bad weather and incurred losses. Now the weather is good, but the rising prices of fuel have created a fresh challenge,” Mr. Koli said.

Cash flow woes

Mumbai alone has 4,500 fishing trawlers, and there are over 24,000 such vessels in Maharashtra, as per Mr.Tandel. He said a trawler going on a week-long fishing expedition needs at least 3,000 to 4,000 litres of fuel. The fuel costs now dominate all other operational costs.

“Earlier, we used to get the diesel at a subsidised rate, but now we buy the fuel at the market price and the government reimburses us with a subsidy later. However, the reimbursement is pending for over a year now,” said Sivdas Nakhwa, the Chairman of Karanja Machhimar Society.

The Karanja Machhimar Society has about 375 members who own fishing trawlers at the Sassoon Dock in Colaba.

Unlike other fishing harbours in the city, operations at Colaba’s Sassoon Dock appear normal for now, but Mr. Nakhwa said that unless the government acts soon to pay out pending fuel subsidies, many fisherfolk would have to cease their regular fishing trips.

Laxman Dhanur, a 65-year old trawler owner and former vice-chairman of the Machimar Sarvodaya Society, has been fishing since he entered his teenage years, and strongly feels that fishermen don’t get the same attention from the government as farmers do.

“The government is not serious about doing something for the fishermen. We struggle hard and face many uncertainties too. We also want a minimum support from the government, such as timely payments of fuel subsidy, sufficient storage facilities and a proper price. We are not asking for a loan waiver and are not committing suicides, but have been deprived of simple things for many years,” he said.

Fisherfolk face a high risk to life and uncertain returns each time they ventures into the sea. But this time, even as the monsoon has retreated, they remain in turbulent waters.


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