Tandoori pomfret, tuna sushi, bhapa ilish and sardine sandwiches. Meal time may never be the same with all these species vanishing These are the Ocean's 13 you don’t see suited up for Oscar night. In the submerged world, it’s grey sharks, silvery pomfret and speckled hilsa who’ve been the eternal sex symbols.
Now, they are just a few of the several fish species becoming rarer each dawn as nets and trawlers haul them out of the deep. They’re fated to die of everything except natural causes: in waters roiling with raw sewage, heavy metals, industrial effluent and global warming. Increasingly, curry bowls and dinner plates are becoming their last resting place as our growing appetite for seafood causes an over-fishing crisis. As the world awakens to the empty-sea syndrome, the statistics are scary: 90 per cent of the populations of large predatory fishes that we consume, such as cod, salmon and tuna, are already wiped out. Many small species are also vanishing. Crisis, What Crisis? While the cane baskets of Kolkata’s Bada Bazaar are still stuffed with glassy-eyed rohu and rawas, and the clatter of fish trays hasn’t diminished in seafood restaurants like Trishna in Mumbai, who’d believe a crisis is upon us? Especially with the recent popularity of sushi. But there are cries within the scientific community and whispers among chefs and caterers. Says a senior scientist at the Central Marine Fish Research Institute (CMFRI), Kochi, who isn’t officially authorised to comment: “Most species of large shark are overfished. Pomfret is very much reduced along the south-western coast. Several species of catfish are in danger.” Counted together, it’s the water world’s ecosystem, the food resources for a hungry planet and the livelihoods of millions of fisherpeople that are at stake. \Yet, with doctors exalting omega 3 as heart (and hip) friendly food, people have begun popping fish tikkas like vitamin pills. At all of Baba Ling’s restaurants—Ling’s Pavillion in Mumbai, Nanking in Bangalore and Delhi—more and more diners are putting on their lobster bibs and cracking open crab claws before embarking on a gluttonous white meat orgy. A second-generation restaurateur, Baba Ling says he is busiest when sourcing seafood, particularly this year since the catch is so low. He says: “All my daddy would buy was a few types of fish and prawns that would go into garlic sauce. Nowadays, besides fish, I buy several varieties each of crabs, lobsters, oysters and mussels.” With no shortage of takers for sea cucumbers and abalone, the protein of the uber-wealthy, Baba’s wait staff are often dashing out of kitchens with platters of these exotics, done with black beans and garlic. Currently, about 30 per cent of our species are classified as overfished. The CMFRI has recently recommended that the World Conservation Union classify the rarely seen sailfish and sawfish as endangered. “Overfishing worldwide has been the major agent of change and ocean depletion. Climate change will become a more major force in coming decades,” says Carl Safina, global marine conservationist and guru. That’s why Safina and his colleagues at the Blue Ocean Institute have published Guide to Seafood and Ocean Sushi. This colour-coded booklet promotes sustainable seafood. They suggest sushi-fiends avoid Atlantic bluefin tuna which is critically endangered, while recommending Pacific halibut since it comes from responsibly-managed fisheries. No Red Herrings Here Reacting as if it’s a bone in their throats, Indian experts reject the apocalyptic Boris Worm study which predicts ocean collapse in 2048. But red flags are visible. “All over India from 0 to 50 metres depth, the level of exploitation is very high and spread out,” says V Vivekanandan, fisheries expert and advisor, South Federation of Fishermen Societies. Though he tags our fish as abused, he believes we’ve held the crisis at bay because tropical fish stocks are very resilient. In contrast, the cod, a temperate water species, faced a stock collapse in the North Atlantic in the 1990s. Manish Chandy, a researcher with The Andaman & Nicobar Island Environmental Team, is specific: “The tiger shark is fished out in our waters.” Not for local consumption, but for the newly rich Chinese, who’re hungry for imperial delicacies like shark fin soup. This recipe requires the sacrifice of a 30-foot shark so that its gelatinous fin can thicken a $200 bowl of broth. Similarly, caviar, the roe of the now-endangered sturgeon, the snack served solely to the tsars, is now an appetiser being greedily spooned up by the growing global superclass. Submerging murky facts about ocean fish scarcity, international fisheries have upped the appeal of ugly-sounding species by re-dubbing the Patagonian toothfish as Chilean sea bass, the dogfish as rock salmon and bocaccio as Pacific red snapper. These are now being served as restaurant specials. The pomfret, a fertility symbol, has always had a place in ritual Parsi banquets. It still appears on the traditional banana leaf, but in a diminished avatar. Tanaaz Godiwalla, a second-generation Parsi-food caterer, says: “The 500 gm pomfret is gone.” She can somehow manage to make a saas-ni-macchi with a 300 gm fish. “But I’m most worried that roe is just not available, which means there’s a shortage of adult fish,” says Tanaaz. Facts bear this out. A recent research-action study by the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (Feral) and United Nations Food and Agricultural Survey “clearly shows that what is being caught is just too young (prior to reproductive age)”, says Feral’s Ravi Bhalla. This study was carried out in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, where artisanal fisherpeople who fish in thonis and kattumarams at maximum depths of 20 metres are reporting the local extinction of pomfrets, seer fish, mackerels, prawns, sardines, herrings, catfish, anchovies and squid. We’re also in too deep. Bottom trawlers which were able to harvest profitably within 50 metres depth are going as far as 100 metres. A destructive fishing form banned in parts of the world, bottom trawlers use drag nets weighted down with large heavy boards that scrape the ocean floors, trapping almost everything in their path. When air-dependent turtles and sea snakes are snared and unable to surface, they finally drown. Bottom trawlers also irreversibly damage coral reefs, which are biodiversity hotspots. Ecologists call this a ‘clear felling of sea forests’. One-fourth of all sea species spend a part of their life in the reefs. By 2030, half the world’s coral will be destroyed, says a recent report in The Economist. Shrimp trawlers are known to catch up to 400 species of bycatch or discards. Estimates of bycatch can be as high as 20 kg per kg of shrimp. Marine biologist Aaron Savio Lobo, who has been studying the impact of shrimp trawlers on marine species along Tamil Nadu, says that at least a few thousand trawlers operate along the fishing grounds of the Coromandel, except during the 45-day ban (15 April to 1 June).” In Kerala, mechanised boats seasonally go to 400 metre depths on the continental slope to exploit this deep sea shrimp resource that’s almost depleted now. Without enough prawns in the wild able to plump up pakoras and curries, shrimp farming grew considerably in the 1990s. “Now, it’s at a saturated level,” says Vivekanandan. These farms have become an environmental problem, he says, mostly because they are “badly located on porous sandy soil from where the runoff from prawn nurseries pollutes the water table and supply”. Freshwater species such as rohu, catla and mrigal are also extensively farmed in Andhra Pradesh. In Too Deep Even our chicken is becoming fishy. Experts estimate that 10 per cent of total fish catch goes into fish meal, chicken and animal feed in India. “People must start eating the fish they catch, not feeding 30 per cent of the catch to pigs, chickens and farm animals, as is done in the US and some industrialised countries. This is a loss of food for humans and a waste,” says Safina. Dishonest development is also destroying fisheries, like an environment clearance stating that there is no significant commercial fishing along the coast of Kutch. This has allowed the Mundra waterfront project to occupy almost the entire shore of Mundra taluk. Unscientific port development along Orissa has reduced the shoreline used by the olive ridley turtle for nesting from 150 to just 50 km. This is after fisherpeople were banned from plying their boats here in the name of this endangered turtle. The inland scenario is no less bleak with the depletion of 30 riverine species. The demand for hilsa, that Bengali delight, has spiked. A decade ago, hilsa was only bought by the middle class on special occasions or when the East Bengal team won at football. But for newly rich Bengalis, hilsa has become a part of weekday dinners. The best hilsa—from the Padma River in Bangladesh (the Ganga as it’s called downstream) is nearly extinct. Only Myanmarese, Irrawady Delta or Tapi hilsa is available in Bada Bazaar. The price per kg of this bony fleshed fish has shot up to Rs 700. The golden mahseer, wild tiger of the waters, is also fighting for survival in the Ganga. AJT Johnsingh, sport fisher and former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, says: “Besides the perils of dynamiting, netting and electrocution, when the mahseer go to small streams to spawn, they are lifted out of the water.” The pristine habitat that they need is muddied due to sand quarrying on the river bed. Barrages also restrict them. “Other countries use fish ladders,” says Johnsingh, “here we fragment their territory.” Symptoms of dying oceans are beginning to surface. New research shows that sea water may be growing acidic more quickly than the climate change-model predicted. This carbonisation is dissolving coral reefs and affecting the shell-development of mussels and oysters. As many as 405 dead zones or ‘lifeless pockets’ have been identified globally. Jellyfish blooms are quite common along the Tamil Nadu coastline now. This is an overfishing indicator. By feeding on fish larvae and eggs, jellyfish curb fish population. Rather than crisis-awareness, we had an orgy in 2006, where Chinese and Japanese foodies chomped down 500,000 tonnes of Asian jelly fish. We need more than a sea change. The oceans can recover from abuse, says Carl Safina, if we declare 20 per cent of the reefs and fishing grounds off-limits, limit greenhouse gases, outlaw destructive trawling and the use of explosives to catch reef fish. In America, millions of consumers are clamouring for sustainable seafood. Here, in India, we’re barely conscious. When asked if it’ll be the Parsis or pomfret that will vanish first, Tanaaz regrets: “It’ll probably be my community. Fish stakeholders are what we need to manage our menus and oceans.”