Kochi: In 1952, the first consignment of 500kg peeled shrimp was shipped from the now defunct Cochin Co. to the US, signalling India’s entry into marine exports.
Exports had risen to $1.8 billion (around Rs7,110 crore) in fiscal 2006-07, some 12% of India’s Rs60,000 crore seafood industry, which is now in troubled waters.
Faced with the problem of catching fewer fish, several farmers are abandoning their unviable aquaculture farms and the processing units are either closing or retrenching employees. Around 25,000 people in the marine processing sector have been rendered jobless in the last five months. Ecological issues such as polluting fish-breeding waters and shrinking mangroves are also adding to the woes of the industry.
Seven of 15 seafood processing factories in Gujarat, on the west coast, were closed in the last one year, says Thajudeen S., managing director of Hiravati Marine Products Pvt. Ltd, which has been around for 35 years. Only one of his four units is functioning and, even in this unit, he was forced to retrench 800 workers in November. “We are not getting enough fish for processing and there is very little work for us,” he says.
Closing of processing factories and abandoning of farms are forcing skilled labourers to migrate to construction work that has picked up in Orissa, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
According to Thajudeen, some of the problems are human-made. “Too much of fishing activities are going on and even juvenile fish is not spared,” he says. With a number of check dams being built across rivers, there is little fresh water flowing into the sea whose salinity is not diluted, making it unsuitable for fish to breed.
The destruction of mangroves, home to a variety of fish such as ribbonfish, cuttle and squid, also added to the industry’s plight. “A number of mangroves are being destroyed to create space for industrial activities. The petrochemical factories dump their waste into the water andpollute it,” Thajudeen says.
According to G. Mohanty, president of the Orissa region of the Seafood Exporters Association of India, the situation in Orissa and Bengal is no different. He says the cost of producing black tiger shrimp in aquaculture farms is around Rs170-180 a kg but they fetch hardly Rs200 when exported. Taking into consideration the cost of processing, transportation and freight, on every kg of black tiger shrimp exported, an exporter loses around Rs20. Many farmers are being forced to abandon their aquaculture farms as they are not making profits any more from the business they had started about 20 years ago. “Normally the aquaculture farms get ready by January but there is very little activity this year, indicating growing disinterest of farmers,” Mohanty says.
This has also resulted in lower sale of fish feeds, says Ravi Reddy, managing director of Chennai-based Shanti Fisheries Ltd. “Normally, the fish feed sells around 12,000 tonnes every year. We will not be able to sell even 50% of that this season,” he says. The total feed consumption of the industry has been around 180,000 tonnes.
Some industry experts blame the government for the problem. “The marine sector comes under both the agriculture and commerce ministries, but it seems to be no one’s baby,” says Mohanty. According to him, while the commerce ministry is keen to focus on exports, it is the duty of the agriculture ministry to expand the marine production operations. “If the aquaculture farming is treated as an agriculture activity, it can get several benefits, including low power tariff,” he says.
Kuruvilla Thomas, director of the government’s trade promotion body Marine Products Export Development Authority, admits that the industry is plagued with many problems. There is the issue of conservation and sustainability which can be ensured only through strict enforcement of regulation and norms. “There is a case of overfishing and this has to be checked,” he says.
There are other issues, too. For instance, high diesel costs have not only increased costs of transportation for the perishable marine products, but also added to the cost of catching fish, since diesel is also used as a fuel for the fishing boats.
Reflecting the trend of declining catch and production, exports for the first nine months of fiscal 2008 are down to 393,000 tonnes, from 486,000 tonnes in the corresponding period last year.