At 4 am on a mid-September day, the harbour at Cuddalore, nested in an estuary, was lit by streetlights and masthead lights from docked boats. The boats had timed their arrival from the sea for a Sunday, the busiest day for the fish market in the city, which is a 30-minute drive south of the colonial villas and chic cafes of Puducherry. Many trawlers had arrived after a seven-day voyage, traversing up and down the Coromandel coast, some going as far as Andhra Pradesh for a good catch.

On one trawler, with “Vaazhga Valamudan” – Live Long and Prosper – inscribed on the hull, workers in lungis and T-shirts tipped big blue plastic barrels on to the floor. Out came a flood of thawed ice water, leaving behind chilled fish whose smell hung low and heavy in the air. The workers sorted the fish from the barrel into different baskets. They passed some baskets to women vendors who waited by the boats, and hauled the rest over a gangway onto a tarmac, where more vendors awaited them, at a makeshift auction site.

As the cacophony of the auction filled the air, Bhagyam, a middle-aged woman with a fading smear of ash on her forehead, and a white stone nose ring, settled down to sell her catch, which she had bought directly off the boat. Bhagyam’s acquisition was a mix of small fishes, ranging from two to five inches in length. She segregated them into tiny heaps – Ottam paarai (razorbelly scad), Sankara (red snapper), Nethili (anchovies). She also had silverbellies, croakers, mullets, terapons, and several others.

After setting up their vending stalls, also on the tarmac, the women sipped their tea, seated on upturned aluminium tubs behind small mounds of fish, as buyers came and went – mostly women who would go on to sell the catch in markets elsewhere. Crows and seagulls, perched on top of boats, and stray dogs, lounging around, watched the proceedings expectantly.

Dawn broke and the sky brightened. By this time, Bhagyam had sold some of her stock. But, she wasn’t pleased. She would have liked to have bought more fish, so that there would be enough left over to make karuvadu, or dried fish, to sell later. For much of her life, it was the dried fish trade that brought in the bulk of her income. But the economic chain that linked fishers to dried fish traders like Bhagyam had been disrupted over the last decade, limiting their access to fish.

This disruption was apparent at the other end of the harbour. Babu, a boat owner from Dasapete village, eight kilometres away, was overseeing the unloading of crates from his trawler. His boat had returned after seven days in the sea – bringing about two tonnes of fish. The catch comprised mainly small fishes, such as red snapper, mackerel, razorbelly scad, lesser sardines, and yellowstripe scad – all fish that Bhagyam would have been happy to buy from Babu.

But for Babu, it was easier to offload it to the “company” even though Bhagyam would pay Rs 20 a kilo, and the company only Rs 13. “A local buyer will take only 20 kg. The company takes everything I catch,” he explained.

At the Cuddalore harbour, small-scale vendors have to compete with seafood firms that supply fish to fishmeal companies. These companies pay trawlers advances to book their catch. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

The company that Bhagyam and Babu were referring to was a fishmeal firm that processes fresh fish to make feed for farmed fish and shrimps.

Workers carried crates of fish to trucks owned by NPS, one such local firm. A man opened the rear doors of a truck, revealing large blocks of ice. Another worker set up an industrial ice crusher right below the doors and slid an ice block into it. Crushed ice piled up on the tarmac floor. The worker scooped up crushed ice and poured it over the crates, burying the fish under it. Then, the crates were loaded onto another truck. The men loaded 26 crates, each with around 45 kg of small mixed fish, more than a tonne of fish in all.

Then, the doors of the truck were slammed shut, and it was driven away from the tarmac, even as the same road filled up with a steady stream of trucks, waiting for more boats to arrive.

Over the last decade, marine fish catch in India has risen by 4.7 lakh tonnes. Competition for fish has also increased intensely. One reason is that as cold storage capacities improved dramatically over the past decade, fresh fish is supplied to far-off cities rather than being locally consumed. But another major reason is the rapid growth of the fishmeal and fish oil industry, often abbreviated to FMFO, which targets small and inexpensive fish, the only varieties the poor can afford.

Fishmeal is a product made from small fish, typically in the form of pellets or powder, which is used as feed for farmed shrimp, prawn, fish and other animals. Fish oil, meanwhile, is oil extracted from fish tissue, and may be processed for human consumption, as well as used in the manufacture of feed for animals. Across the world, farmed shrimp are commonly fed a high-protein diet, comprising up to 25% fishmeal.

The FMFO industry began innocuously enough, as a means to use “waste fish”, or fish that is unfit for human consumption. But over the last decade, a shrimp farming boom in Andhra Pradesh, particularly of the vannamei, or Pacific whiteleg shrimp, has created a huge demand for fish feed. Successive political leaders encouraged the aquaculture industry, and vast tracts of agricultural land were diverted to it. Today, Andhra Pradesh is India’s largest fishmeal consuming state.

Despite a lull in the mid 1990s and early 2000s, the shrimp industry has grown 30 times, with production rising from 28,000 tons in 1988-’89 to 843,633 tonnes in 2020-’21. This growth has made India the world’s second-largest exporter of shrimp by volume, after Ecuador, and the largest exporter by value.

P Jaya Rao, Deputy Director of Fisheries, Amalapuram, East Godavari district, explained that the wide availability of brackish water was the main reason behind the huge growth of aquaculture in the state. “Farmers themselves have taken it up and developed it,” he said. “The state has supported them through several schemes and subsidies.”

To feed this burgeoning shrimp industry, the FMFO industry has expanded rapidly too. From around 10 factories in 2010, India today has 93 FMFO factories registered with the Marine Products Export Development Authority, or MPEDA, with a total capacity of 3,224.50 tons of fishmeal and 877.68 tons of fish oil per day.

Karnataka hosts the highest number of these plants, followed by Tamil Nadu. Several multinational aquafeed giants have set up shop in India recently. Cargill, the largest privately held firm in the United States (with an annual revenue of $100 billion) opened its first dedicated fish feed plant at Vijayawada in 2018.

These factories are increasingly cornering bigger quantities of “food fish”, or fish consumed by humans, according to Fishing For Catastrophe, a report by Netherlands-based Changing Markets Foundation, which conducted on-ground investigations in India, Vietnam and The Gambia in mid-2019.

“Prawn cultivation is taking away fish that is cheaply available – the bread and butter of poor people – and serving the plates of those in rich countries like the US,” said Arun Padiyar, a project manager for World Fish, who studied the aquaculture industry in Andhra Pradesh in the 2010s, when prawn farming took off in a big way.

This has had a major impact on the dried fish trade, according to Amalendu Jyotishi, an economist at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, who has analysed the utilisation of marine fish in India. Between 2010 and 2018, FMFO plants have increased the percentage of the total marine catch that they use from 5% to well over 30% while the share that is processed into dried fish has declined from 30% to 20%, he said.

This is why dried fish processors like Bhagyam can’t buy enough fish. It has had a considerable impact on their livelihoods, even as they endure increased climate stress and falling incomes from small-scale fishing. A 2020 report on the impact of climate change on marine fisheries in India, published by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, noted that the “small scale fisheries sector comprising of artisalan and subsistence fishers” would the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change “as low and irregular income from fishing activities shall lead to poor adaptability to the economic effects.”

This is particularly troubling because dried fish is a cheap, portable and durable source of protein and micronutrients. It serves as a “superfood” for millions across the country, particularly the poor – not just those who live in coastal areas, but also Adivasis, plantation workers and others in the hinterland.

Alienating small scale processors like Bhagyam has serious implications, not just on their livelihoods, but on the nutrition of marginalised communities across India. “We have seen the price increase for all varieties of dried fish, with reduced availability,” Jyotishi said.

India utilised 1.25 million tonnes of marine fish to feed shrimps that were exported in 2018-’19. As a 2020 report in the journal Samudra Report by Jyotishi, along with Joeri Scholtens and Karuppiah Subramanian, estimates, this fish would be sufficient to meet the iron and zinc requirements of 35 million children, in a country that has the highest number of wasted children.

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Seventy-five-year-old Alamelu is among those whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the decline in the dried fish trade.

Alamelu is known in this area as puli, tiger in Tamil, for her fine swimming skills – though the name might also refer to her reputation as a moneylender. Over the years, she built a successful small-scale dried fish business, and made enough profits to start a lending business on the side. For Rs 10,000, she charges a steep interest of Rs 1,000 a week. “Dried fish gives great profits. I used to make a profit of Rs 1,000 a day,” she said.

Now, her business is declining. On the day we met her, she had bought 20 kg of catfish for Rs 500. The sale of this fish would earn her a profit of between Rs 200 and Rs 400, after paying for labour. “Business depends on how much fish you can buy at a good price,” she said. “These days, it’s dull.”

For many women, the dried fish business is a fallback when disaster strikes. Forty-seven-year-old Kalai Cheluvi’s husband died four years ago while working as an electrician in the Middle East. The skills of drying fish that she learnt as a child came to her rescue: gutting the fish, then mixing them with salt and covering them with gunny sacks, and then putting them out to dry 24 hours later. She joined her aunt Kanni Manickam, who sold dried fish to sustain herself and her four children.

But these days, Manickam is worried about whether the business can sustain her household. “Buying fish is getting tougher by the day,” she said. Earlier, fish was sold by the tub – at prices ranging from between Rs 50 to Rs 100 for between 15 kg and 20 kg of fish. Since the boom of the FMFO industry, fish has been largely sold by the kilogram. “The company buys the fish at Rs 10 to Rs 12 per kilo. For the same fish, I pay anywhere between Rs 20 and Rs 40,” she said.

Dried fish trader Kanni Manickam sets out a stock of ribbonfish to dry. Rising costs and falling profits mean Manickam cannot afford to hire the labour she needs to help her with her work. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

FMFO firms, as well as seafood companies that supply fish to them, skip traditional auctions with upfront payments, explained Karuppiah Subramanian, a researcher who has studied fisheries in Tamil Nadu for 25 years and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Amsterdam. Six or seven traders dominate the harbour at Cuddalore and they don’t allow auctions to take place when there’s a large haul, he explained. “Often, they enter into informal agreements with boatowners and pay in advance to secure a fishing vessel’s entire catch,” he said.

In such instances, Cuddalore’s more than 1,500 small scale traders for both fresh and dried fish lose out. “They don’t get a chance at the auction,” Karuppiah said. “They don’t have a voice.”

Karuppiah explained that Kalai Auqua Sea Foods and NPS were the largest firms operating out of Cuddalore. A local resident claimed that Kalai Auqua owned 40 trucks and 80 minivans to transport fish from the harbour. We phoned and sent text messages to the company to confirm this figure, but had not heard back from them at the time of publication.

Locals also told us that the proprietors of NPS partially owned an FMFO firm, Golden Fish Meal and Fish Oil Company. The company’s plant in Cuddalore was ordered shut by the state pollution control board, after complaints that they were polluting a nearby river, and that there was a foul smell emanating from the plant. Phone calls and text messages to NPS and Golden Fish Meal to confirm the link did not elicit a response at the time of publication.

Another casualty of the growth of the FMFO industry is the collapse of the informal credit system. Traditionally, local women got fish from boatowners and paid them after selling the fish and making a profit. This arrangement no longer works, with FMFO companies offering boatowners upfront payments, and even advances before they set out fishing, to book their catch.

All these changes have caused a reduction in the overall processing of dried fish.

To get access to fish at a lower price, women need to buy larger quantities of fish and pay the boat owner quickly. On the day we met her, Manickam bought 500 kg of fish to dry. But she can’t afford to do this often. Falling profits also mean that she can’t always hire the labourers she needs, but has to rely on just Cheluvi and herself.

Manickam’s extended family – four children and several grandchildren – depends on her income from dried fish for all their expenses. But she is unsure about survival, even after 50 years in the business. “I can’t do the karuvadu business for long,” she said.

Dried fish processors in other parts of India are facing similar challenges.

In Malvan, Maharashtra, “the time for fish drying is dead,”, a fish trader is quoted as saying in a paper published in 2020 based on a pilot study conducted jointly by nonprofit Dakshin Foundation and Dried Fish Matters, an interdisciplinary project mapping the social economy of dried fish in South and Southeast Asia. “Once the fishmeal industry started, no other fish processing stood a chance,” the trader said. The authors found that “fish for drying may be increasingly diverted to fishmeal, as the latter is less labour-intensive and generates steady profits”.

In Andhra Pradesh, too, the dried fish trade is on a decline, according to a study by District Fishermen Youth Welfare Association, an NGO based in Visakhapatnam. However, the paper attributes this to the increased longevity of fresh fish with freezing, rather than to the FMFO industry.

Labourers are also bearing the impact of this decline. Ponna Ammal, who helps dried fish traders with tasks such as salting and drying, isn’t sure of her age, but thinks she is around 80. When we met her, it was afternoon and she was toiling away under the harsh sun. The only break she had taken was for a lunch of five idlis, for Rs 10. Her shoulder ached and she had trouble lifting her right arm, but she had to work till 5 pm.

Ammal has been working as a labourer for 30 years. A childless widow from the hamlet of Sonankuppam, she has no immediate family to support her. On some days, a relative in the dried fish business hires her, paying Rs 200.

She is hard of hearing, and comprehended us by reading lips through her thick spectacles.

When we asked how she managed with such irregular work, which was also laborious and low-paying, she merely looked up at the sky and gestured to it with both hands.

Another woman with the same name, Ponna Ammal, nicknamed chinna pulla – little girl in Tamil, for her short stature – was also in a predicament. Her husband abandoned her many years ago when he married another woman. She raised her three children and married them off, working as a labourer in a dried fish business run by a relative – Bhagyam, who hadn’t been able to find enough fish at the harbour. She complained that Bhagyam didn’t pay her properly. Instead, her payment comprised two meals, a place to stay in Bhagyam’s verandah, and occasional cash when she demanded it.

But Ammal can’t afford to make too many demands, since she needs the food and accommodation that she gets with the job.

Workers load marine catch onto trucks marked with the name of a seafood company. The shrimp industry boom has led to seafood firms selling large quantities of "food fish" to fishmeal firms. Photo: Monica Jha

The fishmeal industry disputes that it is hoarding fish. “We’re actually doing the cleaning job,” said Dawood Sait, National Secretary of All India Fishmeal and Oil Manufacturers and Merchants Association. “Fishermen are investing substantially in buying big boats, paying for fuel and employing labourers. But, a lot of what they catch is bycatch – non-food grade fish, damaged or spoiled fish, juveniles, etc. Many days, the bycatch is 70-80% of the catch. Throwing it back will pollute the ocean. So, FMFO uses this biowaste to produce fishmeal that’s used in shrimp culture.”

But according to Fishing For Catastrophe, “Significant quantities of ‘food’ rather than ‘trash’ fish are being diverted to fishmeal plants. Local people rely on locally caught fish for their protein needs, and it is becoming harder for them to compete within the new system.”

Sait counted other benefits. “FMFO industry is a good income source for fishermen,” he said. “They earn even with unusable fish. Selling bycatch to FMFO pays for fuel on days they don’t land a good catch.”

He insisted that the industry did not engage in unsustainable practices such as purchasing juvenile fishes. “We have an internal regulation – none of our member plants should buy small fish below 7-8 cm,” he said. “We actually go by the count. If the fish in a kilo count more than 30, we shouldn’t buy it.”

However, he admitted that they didn’t always succeed in controlling the inflow of mixed fish. “We try but it’s difficult,” he said.

At Cuddalore, we witnessed FMFO trucks lining up for many hours, each being loaded with several crates of fish, mostly small fish. Not once did we notice the operators of the truck paying particular attention to the size or species of the fish or rejecting a batch of fish based on these considerations.

Indeed, Jyotishi found that the boom in the FMFO industry encouraged indiscriminate fishing in the sea. “So all kinds of illegal practices – bull trawling, bottom trawling, purse seine, neon lights to attract fish – are practised,” Jyotishi said. “All these illicit practices have an adverse environmental impact on the sea.”

The Fishing For Catastrophe report details how FMFOs are leading to the destruction of wild fish stocks in India. One of its key findings is that “Fish stocks of species traditionally used for FMFO (such as sardines) have collapsed, and new species are appearing in catches, suggesting dramatic changes and imbalances in the ocean ecosystem.”

Sait said the industry was working with IFFO, the Marine Ingredients Organisation, a certification body for marine products, to ensure responsible sourcing. However, Fishing For Catastrophe noted, “We found that FMFO and aquafeed plants with proven links to highly unsustainable fishing practices are certified by, or are members of, IFFO, which has a clear conflict of interests due to its double-hatted role.” The report stated that “IFFO is wholly unfit to serve as a certification body, and that retailers and aquafeed companies need to stop taking its assurances at face value”.

We emailed IFFO to ask about the concerns over its role as a certification agency, but had not received any response at the time of publication.

Sait said the FMFO industry was inclined towards sustainable practices. “We will support any regulation that the government brings in to promote sustainable fishing,” he said. “However, it would be more effective if the government regulates the fishing industry better and discourages fishers from landing small fish.”

But the government recognises FMFO’s excessive use of food fish as a problem: in the National Fisheries Policy, 2020, it promised to “take steps to control and proliferation of fishmeal plants taking in to consideration of the probabilities of overfishing caused by the same”. On January 1, 2020, the Marine Products Export Development Authority brought in a moratorium on the registration of new fishmeal or oil units as well as expansion of the production capacity of existing units.

This may not have much impact. “You can still install plants and process, just that MPEDA won’t register them,” Sait said. “So, you can’t export, or avail subsidy from MPEDA. But, you can sell it in the domestic market, which is very big.”

Nutritionally, fish is peerless. In particular, small fish that are consumed whole are among the best sources of micronutrients. Fish and other aquatic foods have been integral to the diets of more than a billion people worldwide. The newly formed UN Nutrition recognises the role aquatic foods play in sustainable healthy diets.

“Fish is one of the best sources of nutrition. It’s a nuclear weapon in the fight against malnutrition,” said Arun Padiyar.

Dried fish makes this an even better proposition. Not only is it a cheap, portable, and durable source of protein, it is a concentrated source of micronutrients like Vitamin A, calcium, iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids. As Shakuntala Thilsted, a nutrition scientist and the recipient of the 2021 World Food Prize, wrote on Dried Fish Matters, ­“We know that dried fish, as a concentrated source of multiple micronutrients and essential fatty acids, is a superfood and can combat malnutrition in many communities.”

Dried fish is a a cheap and durable source of protein for many communities, along the coast but also in the hinterland. The decline in the trade threatens their access to this nutrition. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

Jyotishi concurred with this view. “In a country that ranks101 out of 116 countries in the global hunger index, where we are number one in absolute numbers for wasting and stunting of children, and where every other woman is anaemic, dried fish can play a vital role in providing nutrition,” he said.

In the Indian hinterland, away from the coast, dried fish is crucial to meeting the nutritional needs of many poor communities. Residents of tribal areas consume significant quantities of dried fish, as do migrant labourers in tea and coffee plantations. “This can be seen in South India in Munnar or the Nilgiris, and the tea plantations of Assam,” Jyotishi said. “It is not surprising that Jagiroad in Assam has the largest dried fish market in Asia.”

Dried fish can also be a means towards economic independence for women, and a way for oppressed castes to ascend the social hierarchy. A decline in the trade can threaten these forms of social mobility.

Poongodi, whom we met in Cuddalore, is among those whose livelihoods are entwined with dried fish. She was a child when her mother first cooked ottam paarai kuzhambu – a spicy-tangy curry of dried razorbelly scads. Poongodi loved it.

“That taste, you will never get it with fresh fish,” she insisted.

Poongodi, a Dalit woman in her 50s, doesn’t come from a fishing caste. People in her Dalit-dominant hamlet, Chellamkuppam, worked as labourers on boats and at the harbour. Her grandfather worked as a cargo ship loader, and her mother would accompany him to the dock. Poongodi’s mother soon started working with dried fish for women from the Pattavanar community, a traditional fishing caste along the Coromandel Coast, and gradually set up her own small business. She would work with Poongodi in tow, and the young girl learnt the trade by watching her mother.

Getting into the dried fish business had a material impact on their lives. In her hamlet, where most Dalit families struggled to manage one square meal a day, Poongodi said, her family ate better. “Dried fish is delicious and healthy,” she said. “Earlier, we ate it occasionally, and that too only nethili. But with my mother in this business, we started eating a lot of dried fish, much more than others in my village.”

She added, “People in farming wouldn’t dream of eating like this.”

For Dalits, the dried fish business acted as a means to improve their financial situation and social status. But they haven’t been readily accepted within the fishing community.

“They think I shouldn’t be in their job because I’m lower caste,” said Vishalakshi, another Dalit dried fish vendor, who transitioned from labourer to business owner 12 years ago. Vishalakshi faced difficulties getting a loan and finding a place to work. Now, a Pattanavar woman sublets a shed and drying area to her, charging her a steep rent even though she herself skips her rent to the port authority who leases the land, according to Poongodi.

Poongodi set up an independent dried fish business in 1987, not long after she got married. She had very little capital. She would buy two dozen bananas at the village market and barter them with a boatman at the harbour for a basketful of fish. Then, she would process them and sell the dried fish for a profit.

“For 10 rupees, you could buy so much fish,” she said, spreading her arms wide. “Now, you get only this much,” she added, closing her palms together. Her voice was drowned out by an industrial ice crusher that shattered the afternoon lull as it crushed and poured ice into a trawler’s fish hold, preparing it for its next voyage.

While input costs have risen, Poongodi’s profits haven’t kept up with inflation. Now at 50, Poongodi is seeing a decline in her business. “Mother made a good profit,” she said. “I don’t make as much.”

Her husband earns only a small income in his daily wage job. She has four children, and has to marry off one daughter. She is looking for alliances, but doesn’t have the Rs 40,000 that she needs for a wedding.

“I have no savings. This nose ring you see, this is all I have besides my clothes,” she said, chewing on pori urundai, a ball of puffed rice mixed with jaggery, which serves as her lunch.

She was looking forward to cooking a dinner of ottam paarai that night. But it never tastes quite like what her mother cooked. “I miss that,” she said.