Kochi: The Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), the government trade promotion body, has been focusing on promotion of the tuna fish industry for about two years now. From $15.68 million (Rs62 crore) in 2005-06, tuna exports almost doubled to $30 million last year.
The trade promotion body has recently appointed George L. Skoutarides of Australia as a consultant to tap this marine wealth, which needs special skill for fishing, handling and preservation. In an exclusive interview with Mint, Skoutarides talks about tuna fishing and the steps that need to be taken to ensure profitability. Edited excerpts:
How long have you been in fishing activities?
I have been into commercial fishing for more than 45 years now. I started off as a vessel owner and operator off the New South Wales (NSW) coast in Australia where I was chairman of the Bermagui Fishermen’s Cooperative Ltd, a small venture with 40-odd boats. In 1990 I first began helping other countries, starting off with developing tuna fishing in Fiji. I then moved over to Papua New Guinea and later to South Africa, Yemen, Japan and Indonesia. The objective has all along been improving the profitability of tuna fishing.
Tell us about your initiatives in India.
It is hardly a month since I have come to India as the consultant for developing tuna fishing. My role begins from the grass-roots level—that is from the fishermen to the markets such as Japan and the European Union countries. I have been visiting places such as Visakhapatnam, the Andamans and now Kochi and meeting fishermen and boat owners. I have also inspected some of the boats that have been converted for tuna fishing with cold storage system and found that they are of international quality, especially the ones at Visakhapatnam. Some of them, however, need fine-tuning, like the one I recently inspected in Kochi. I will soon start a training programme for fishermen.
How different is the fishing methodology in India?
Tuna fishing is a different ball game. It needs a lot of expertise to make tuna fishing profitable—right from catching to killing and preserving it. A minor fault in any of these could mean a waste of time, energy and money.
Tuna fishing is generally long-line fishing, where the boat goes deep into the sea and long lines, running for kilometres are left deep down. Once the tuna is caught, it has to be struck on the head at a particular point to numb it. Its fins are removed, the brain gutted out and a spike introduced through the spinal cord. There are problems with spiking, which damages the flesh around the backbone. The fluid from such damaged meat affects the quality of the flesh around it. The blood-drained tuna is then immediately chilled so that its freshness is not lost. For this, we need a cold chain on every boat. Once brought on shore, it has to be immediately ice-packed and transported to the markets.
High potential: George L. Skoutarides plans to train Indian fishermen.
Can we improve the quality of Indian tuna?
The tuna is graded, based on its colour, fat content and freshness. The killing methodology as well as the handling and the cold storage determine the quality of the fish and profitability of the business. Japan is the market for the high-quality fresh tuna and the price fetched for such a variety can be $15-18 a kg.
Why do you prefer the long line?
There is one method of using Persian net to catch tuna. Though it is very efficient and ensures a good catch, this method may take away a whole school of tuna and with it even the broodstock. In long-line fishing, where hooks are attached to the lines, only big fish are caught and it is the most sustainable method.
Finally, what promise does India hold for tuna?
The waters along the Andaman and Nicobar coast hold vast potential. In addition, the east coast and the southern tip of the Indian coast, especially the Nagercoil belt, where tuna fishing is now on, hold great promise. Studies have shown that the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a major resource for a variety of tuna. Since freshness is what decides the price for tuna, the catch should be immediately airlifted to their markets.
Is there any problem area that India must look into?
We need to address the problems of logistics. The airport at Port Blair in the Andamans or the one at Visakhapatnam should be upgraded to have cargo flights so that the tuna can be immediately transported. Another major issue is that foreign vessels have been operating in Indian waters. These vessels carry the catch to Phuket in Malaysia, download it there and then airlift to Japan. Once India gets into tuna fishing in a big way, only vessels with Indian flags should operate. Once vessels are employed for tuna fishing, India can earn a place in global tuna trade.