The southwest monsoon has kicked off in earnest, and while this marks the start of the agricultural growing season in Goa, it has long been recognised as a lean period for seafood availability in this coastal state.
If the monsoon’s overcast skies and rough seas are not enough to deter fishing trawlers, the well-enforced monsoon fishing ban, which has been in place since the 1980s, does.
The fishing ban
The ban was introduced as a way to avoid overfishing and specifically targets the mechanised sector, which includes larger boats with inboard engines, such as trawlers, purse seiners and gill netters.
Another rationale for this ban was to safeguard the rights of the traditional fishers, many of whose livelihoods have long been threatened by the trawling fleet.
To take this a step further, in 2015, through a central government notification, the fisheries department in four states along the west coast of India – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka – uniformly extended the ban period from 45 to 61 days. Besides giving the sea a longer respite from destructive fishing gear, it also ensured that fishing vessels from states with no bans, did not stray into those where the ban was on.
To try and balance the needs of people, the fisheries department in Goa launched a number of mobile fish vans to supply fish during the monsoon months. At present, there are five such vans in operation.
The move was welcomed as these vans continue to supply local favorites, albeit frozen, including mackerel, shrimp, king fish and silver pomfret during the lean monsoon months at suprisingly competitive prices (sometimes barely 5% higher than the wholesale price), and often better than market prices in season.
In the days before trawlers and fishing bans however, it was the weather that determined when fishermen could or could not fish. This also formed the basis of what we ate and when.
During the monsoon months, when meeting their protein demands from the sea was difficult, coastal communities still managed a smaller – although continuous – supply of fish from artisanal fisheries in rivers and estuaries that became active during this time.
Fishers knew that when the rainfall was heavy, the rivers brought down with them large quantities of silt from the Western Ghats, where they originate. Satellite maps often reveal these reddish brown muddy plumes extending from the river mouths into the Arabian Sea. During this time, many marine species make their way into the estuaries and the bays they enclose to feed and breed.
One such prized quarry during the rains is the mudoshi, or ladyfish. Shoals of this fish venture into estuaries to feed on marine worms and small crustaceans that thrive in these nutrient-loaded environments.
In North Goa, at Morjim, near the mouth of the Chapora river, one can see fishers standing in waist-deep water with long bamboo rods baiting their lines with marine worms or with clams they glean from the river’s mud flats when the tide is low.
During spring tides when the currents are at their strongest, bag nets are set between the cured trunks of the betel palms called harri locally. These trunks are flexible enough to withstand the current, yet strong enough to bear the load of the bag nets which quickly fill up with fish and other debris that the river may carry after being left there for a couple of hours.
While these bag nets trap a whole potpourri of species, there is one – the tambdem bhalem – that deserves a special mention. Literally translating to red eel, they actually resemble thick pink worms that rarely grow longer than the palm of your hand.
This fish is a burrowing goby with the unforgettable Latin name Trypauchen vagina, and lives in holes that it digs in the river bed. They are only caught for a few days when the rains are at their heaviest and the strong tides disturb and dislodge them from their burrows, during which time they are actively sought by those who dare to venture beyond what meets the eye.
They survive for a considerable period after being caught and can be seen writhing in the fishmonger’s basket even in the market. This local delicacy, which despite its repulsive looks, is very easy to clean with just one central bone and is best enjoyed as a Goan ambot tik (sour and spicy) curry with par boiled rice.
Varied haul from mangroves
While the harri is set in the main river channels, cuttauni, or stake nets, are set like veils between bamboo poles when the tide is high along the river bank, particularly in areas lined by mangroves.
From predatory fish like tambuso (red snapper), chonak (sea bass), palu (sea bream) and dodiyare (croaker) that hunt in the mangrove root tangle, to the smaller species that take refuge here, this barrier net traps fish that make their way out as the tide recedes.
Moving further inland and into the narrow channels where the water is less salty, the monsoons herald the emergence of the khorsani (butter fish or the tank goby).
Village folk, sometimes entire families, are seen standing on culverts dragging their lines, weighed down with lead and baited with shrimp along the river floor where these ambush hunters, well camouflaged on the yellow clay bottoms, lurk for unsuspecting prey only to fall prey to the fishers. However, it is very unlikely that you will ever find this fish on a restaurant menu.
Fishing on land
When these creeks overflow and flood the fields, gill nets are used to catch shevtali (mullet). After a heavy day’s work of either ploughing their fields or transplanting rice seedlings, farmers spend time collecting conge (apple snails) that are abundant in these environments.
Some village folk venture out at night using a torch and cutlass to hunt nocturnal denizens such as the tigur (walking catfish) that emerge on land under the cover of darkness. The light causes the fish to freeze and the cutlass is brought down – a gentle blow just below the head – that kills the fish without decapitating it.
Then, there is the manshekar, the fisher at the sluice gate, or manos. The manos is a component of an integrated system of farming and fishing unique to Goa called the khazan system. Khazan farming is an age-old practice that happens on low-lying reclaimed (by the construction of clay/laterite bunds) saline lands, primarily used for paddy cultivation, with fishing being the secondary activity.
The sluice gates located at strategic points of the embankment regulate the flow of water and function as follows: the water from the river on an incoming tide pushes open the gates, bringing along with it a diversity of fish, shrimp and crab from the adjoining river, filling in the specially-constructed dykes that mark the periphery of the raised fields. The gates shut automatically when the tide is at its highest and reopen again on the outgoing tide, at which time, a bag net is set at the sluice gate that traps the fish.
Although these operate through the year, they are particularly significant during the monsoon when fish is scarce.
Avid anglers also seek their local manshekar for live shrimp, good bait for the big catch like red snapper, sea bass and sea bream that make their way into the large estuaries during the monsoons to breed.
For this style of fishing you require more than just the gear and technique. These fishing communities were deeply connected with the seafood they produced and the environment from which it was harvested. They ate a diversity of fish, in their respective seasons, which was in turn strongly linked to local availability.
Today, despite dwindling marine resources in India, Goans continue to be guaranteed a steady supply of the fish of our choice, irrespective of the season.
Much of the fish in Goa’s mobile vans – as fresh as we would like to believe it is – has been transported from the East coast, mainly Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh that observe a different fishing ban period.
The remainder is mostly constituted by the catch that has been hoarded during the fishing months, while some may actually be fresh, high quality fish from the estuarine traditional fishers.
This fresh fish, however, is sadly mixed in the same basket as the other unsustainably caught seafood.
Our globalised seafood markets tend to blur price signals and mask the actual condition of local stocks and the environment from consumers, most of which is in a bad state of decline.
Rather than celebrating our frozen fish mobile vans that keep us satisfied during the monsoon, let us instead recognise, celebrate and support the many fishers who exist in Goa’s rivers and estuaries so that they continue to do what they have done best for generations – producing quality fresh catch as the monsoons lash our coast.
Relying on the sound knowledge of their water world, rather than technology, they go about using their passive (albeit relatively) environmentally friendly-techniques fully aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy environment to produce catch.