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The declining population of the sardine traces its roots to overfishing. (MINT_PRINT)
The declining population of the sardine traces its roots to overfishing. (MINT_PRINT)

Drop in sardine catch poses a risk to nutrition security

  • Unsustainable fishing practices and changing ocean environments have brought down the population of the popular fish
  • Kerala and Karnataka together saw a decline in sardine catch from 119,000 tonnes in 2018 to 74,000 tonnes in 2019

If you love your fish or just crave natural sources of Omega3 here’s a fact that should alarm you: every time a fishing vessel has returned to coast in the last two years, it has had fewer sardines in its catch.

Unsustainable fishing practices and changing ocean environments have brought down the population of the popular fish. The declining numbers have also boosted the price of sardines and prompted authorities to issue alerts to fishermen.

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The declining population of the sardine, which now costs as much as its larger cousin the mackerel, traces its roots to overfishing, besides dwindling breeding periods and places due to marine pollution, worrying scientists, fishermen and consumers alike.

India’s apex fisheries body the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) has issued alerts to fishermen and fisheries, and warned in a June 2019 report against the undesirable practice of capture fishery and juvenile fishing—both don’t leave enough time for the sardines to breed.

Kerala and Karnataka together saw a decline in sardine catch from 119,000 tonnes in 2018 to 74,000 tonnes in 2019. Kerala’s sardine catch was 390,000 tonnes in 2012. This came down precipitously to 77,099 tonnes in 2018 and 45,300 tonnes in 2019. CMFRI scientists Pratibha Rohit and Rajesh K.M. warn that if left unchecked, the 2020 catch might be even lower.

Ramacharya Puranik, director of the Karnataka fisheries department, attributes much of this to capture fishery. “Fishermen use bright lights to attract the fish at night. This is illegal and destructive. Secondly, they use nets with smaller gaps which will not allow the juvenile fish to escape. We have banned both types of fishing in Karnataka and instructed the coastal security police to curb such activities," Ramacharya said.

Fisheries economist Ramachandra Bhatta cites other reasons as well. “Sardines are used for multiple value addition. Firstly, it is used for producing fish meal, predominantly for feeding the shrimp farms because the sardines are a low-value fish; if the catch does not improve the commercials for fish meal, factories will also dwindle. Similarly, those companies that produce Omega 3 fatty acids need Indian oil sardines in high volumes for their production line. Sardine is a pelagic short-lived fish abundantly found in Karnataka and Kerala coasts. The decline of sardines started in 2010, although the significant decline happened after 2018. There is an inverse relationship between the increasing demand for shrimp feed and sardine fishery. Ignoring its role in nutrition security and promoting fishmeal and oil industries is an ecological disaster as 60% of the country’s fish meal units is concentrated in three coastal districts of Karnataka which has led to overfishing of sardines," Bhatta said.

According to Bhatta, Kerala’s sardine numbers in 2012 were never seen again, which is a matter of concern.

According to the National Institute of Oceanography, there has been no significant change in the temperature and other natural conditions that prevails in the Arabian Sea to affect marine creatures to this extent.

Experts at the fisheries college affiliated to the Karnataka Veterinary, Animal and Fisheries University at Bidar have been warning about the degeneration of the coastal ecosystem and the sardine breeding grounds near the estuarine waters of Karnataka. Pollution, destruction of mangroves and excessive human activity also aided the decline.

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