By Divya Karnad

There is something important about the way Indians eat that is gradually turning into grandmother’s tales. Its significance lies not so much in its truth as in its consequence. Over fifty years ago, or about 2 generations ago, all food had its time and place. Travelers returning from Dehradun and Mussorie brought litchis south in the summer and those in Shimla ate apples in the fall, seer fish were hauled in during the Spring harvest in Tamil Nadu and lobsters graced the pots of fishermen in the deep south during summer. Not so long ago entire societies revolved around those rules.

Technology has revolutionized human interaction with food. Green-houses, frost or drought resistant varieties, cans and freezers ensure that we can eat mangoes even in December. Trawl nets bring us fresh prawns and pomfrets all year round. Today rules of seasonality in what we eat evolve to suit society. We do not need to just crave fruits and meats during off-seasons, because they are available all the time. But scratching beneath the surface of these superficial claims of mastery over agriculture and nature, reveals some complexities that are unaccounted for when we pick oranges off our supermarket shelves in July.

The green and blue revolutions have ensured that food production has more than doubled in the last 50 years. India is now the second largest food producer after China, but as repeated farmer suicides exemplify, all is not well with our agriculture. While such drastic steps have not been taken by fisherfolk, the fisheries sector is also in troubled waters. While supermarkets may be insulated from the seasons, drought ridden crop fields and spawning fish are not. Long term food security is an issue that requires deep thought and planning, yet it continues to be tossed aside in a bid to encourage foreign direct investments and boost GDP growth. The case of marine fisheries, in particular, is yet to receive significant publicity. According to the Marine Products Export Development Authority, India’s fish exports are on the rise. Paradoxically, in 2010, a study conducted along the Coromandel Coast by Aaron Lobo and Rohan Arthur from Nature Conservation Foundation and researchers from Cambridge University has shown that fishermen who use trawl nets and scrape the sea bottom  can no longer subsist on their fish catch. Instead, they make ends meet by selling the myriad assortment of other non-fish, sea creatures they catch (termed as bycatch) for chicken feed.

The wild world of the sea lies beyond the reach of stabilizing and enhancing factors such as pesticides and fertilizers which make agricultural production relatively more predictable. There isn’t much that can be done to predict or control the amount or type of fish that is hauled in on a given day. It is here, far away from the Ph balanced aquaculture tanks of farm raised prawns that we see the real and continued effects of time and place. The continuous use of fishing gear that do not discriminate between adults and juveniles, endangered and non-endangered, relentlessly hauling “seafood” from the depths without giving species a chance to breed and grow will  have an effect at some point. However both fishermen and consumers behave as though they are oblivious to this logic.

In Tamil Nadu, trawl fishing is banned during certain times of the year. The ban, originally meant to span over two months has been negotiated down to its current 45 days. However, some trawl fishermen claim to operate all year around. When reminded about the ban, some trawl boat workers sheepishly admit to flouting rules and fishing during bans, due to the high payoffs of being one of the few to do so. Additionally, they reveal that they have never been questioned or arrested for these activities, therefore they see no harm in continuing. It is surprising that more fishermen haven’t cottoned onto this strategy, but the key to getting away with it, as always, is the political connectivity of the trawl boat owner.  The ban exists, only in name.

A tour of restaurants in Chennai, and another chief market for sea fish originating from Tamil Nadu, Bangalore, paint a different picture. Many restaurants specialize in seafood, as specialty coastal cuisines give them a chance to distinguish themselves in the market. These restaurants find ways to operate all year round, without feeling the pinch of monsoon trawling bans. A logical conclusion is that they are finding other sources for the seafood. Revealingly, artisanal fishermen from Tamil Nadu who are not banned from fishing at any time of the year, do not see drastic increases in sales during these months. Further investigation shows that the seafood marketing chain from Tamil Nadu does not take a 45 day holiday every year.

While fishing rules on some faraway coast may not worry the average seafood consumer, the rapidly falling fish catch is definitely of concern. India has suddenly risen to the 4th largest producer of fish in the world. Much of this is caught wild, from the sea. Simultaneously, rules to ensure that fishing is practiced relatively sustainably are not enforced. Given worldwide fish declines, India’s fish production capacity becomes even more important on the global stage, and yet Indian consumers have not woken up to the need to ask questions before making seafood purchases.

The doom and gloom scenario is not irreversible, as a few key people have started to play their part in creating change. Responsible owners of restaurants such as Kanua in Bangalore, which specializes in exquisite west coast cuisine, have realized their role in marine ecological sustainability and awareness. Kanua does not serve seafood during the months of the trawling ban. The owner, Rajesh Pai, admits that this decision has cost him customers, but he feels compelled to take a stand and make his customers aware. He follows the footsteps of other responsible restauranteers and chefs across the world who are taking pains to change consumer demands by refusing to bow to customer pressure. Organizations in the USA and Europe are promoting compilations of these bold restaurants which choose sustainable food. Chefs have begun seeing this as an opportunity for them to explore new foods and identify substitutes, which may make dishes taste even better.

Consumption of seafood, however, is not limited to restaurants. The traditional Indian housewife may be hard pressed to swap cultural and ritualistic seafood ingredients for the results of new culinary research. Here age-old customs come to the rescue of the quickly dwindling fish. Household cooks still have the option to revive the Indian tradition of seasonality in the preparation of certain dishes, which will allow some marine species a chance to cling to survival. Asking for culinary advice from elders not only provides this generation with health benefits, but also creates healthy ecosystems.