Since October 27, Goa’s fish markets have worn a deserted look. Reason? The government has choked imports to restore consumer confidence, and its own credibility, in the wake of July’s formalin scare.

For nearly two months during the monsoon when fishing is banned along much of India’s western coast, Goan traders source fish from the east coast states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. This year, on July 12, spot checks by Goa’s Food and Drug Administration detected formalin in fish samples collected from supply trucks from the southern states. Formalin is a chemical known mainly for preserving biological specimens in laboratories. But unscrupulous traders employ it as a cheap preservative for fish in place of ice or refrigerated vans. It is potentially carcinogenic for humans if consumed over a long period of time.

In a series of damaging decisions that July day, a minister intervened and the impounded fish consignments were released for sale. The positive spot test for formalin conducted by the Food and Drug Administration officials was rescinded by their superiors, claiming the chemical was found to be present within permissible levels. Not surprisingly, this was seen as the government compromising public health to favour traders, resulting in near total loss of consumer confidence, which is still to recover. In September, Iva Fernandes, the official who first detected formalin in imported fish, moved the Goa Human Rights Commission, alleging that she had been victimised by her department for her work.

As Goa’s fish-loving population kept away from fish markets in the wake of the scare, the government banned the import of fish from July 18 to August 4. Thereafter, the Food and Drug Administration began checking trucks at the border but the initiative had petered out by mid-September for want of adequate staff. The controversy raged on, though, in both mainstream and social media. The Opposition and activists also kept the issue alive by filing court cases and police complaints and, after the Goa High Court’s intervention led to rapid testing kits being sold at pharmacies, embarrassed the government by conducting tests at the markets.

Consumers did not fully return to the markets even after the monsoon fishing ban ended, preferring to go to the seashore or the local jetty to buy freshly netted or trawler-offloaded catch. “I purchase fish only from local fisherwomen or at the jetty,” said Agnelo Remedios, a chartered accountant. “I do not mind stocking it in the freezer. I would rather not buy the so-called fresh fish that I am not sure about.”

Maulana Ibrahim, head of the Goa Wholesalers’ Association, said the fish business has indeed gone south. “Once the trust of the Goan consumer is lost, it is difficult to rebuild it,” he added. “Fish sales are down by 40%-50% due to the scare.”

If this trend continues, he said, 5,000-10,000 people in the retail fish business could go out of work.

Goa consumes 70-90 tonnes of fish daily. While traders such as Ibrahim bring in around 82 truckloads of fish a day from neighbouring states for domestic distribution, Goa’s exporters get another 100 truckloads or so to send abroad. “Twenty years ago, Goa imported just 2-3 truckloads of fish,” said Joaquim Borges, a retail trader for the past 43 years. The consumption growth has been driven by tourists; Goa receives 77.85 lakh tourists a year now, more than five times its resident population of 14.5 lakh.

Crackdown is good’

Finding it hard to contain consumer distrust and pushed on the back foot by the opposition Congress, two key ministers in the squabbling ruling coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party – Town Planning Minister Vijai Sardesai and Health Minister Vishwajit Rane – put aside their differences in a bid to regain public trust. They met with senior officials on October 9 and laid down guidelines requiring vehicles bringing fish to be insulated and traders to register with the Food and Drug Administration.

On October 27, the health department cracked down, turning back 40 trucks at the Karnataka border and 10 at the Maharashtra border for not complying with the new rules. It also deregistered at least 33 fish traders at the Margao Wholesale Market, insisting they comply with the new requirements before they are allowed to resume business.

The crackdown has left wholesale markets even quieter while vendors who sell imported fish complain of heavy losses. “Many of us are out of work,” said Kamal Suratkar, in Margao. “Fish from local trawlers is more expensive.”

Vendors who source locally feel differently. “The crackdown is good,” said Francine Estrocio, who sells freshly netted fish at the Panjim market. “Who wants to eat formalin-laced fish?”

In protest against the crackdown, the wholesalers association held a rally of fish vendors in the capital Panjim on November 5, demanding a two-month window for registration and Food and Drug Administration labs at markets to rebuild consumer confidence. Pointing out that fish is now being brought into the state in buses, they sought action against those involved in this as well as the resignation of the health minister.

The protest has sparked an ongoing war of words between the association and the health minister. On Saturday, Rane threatened to ban the import of fish for six months until independent testing facilities are set up and traders comply with the new regulations. And while Rane is talking tough with the wholesale traders, Sardesai’s Goa Forward Party is taking on politicians in Sindhudurg who had threatened to retaliate after trucks belonging to fish suppliers from their district were turned back at the border on October 27.

“They are just staging a mock drama to clear their name,” said an Opposition leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Both ministers have faced opprobrium from the Opposition, the media and the public because they are perceived to lean towards business lobbies at the cost of endangering public health.

The controversy over imported fish has played to the advantage of local purse seiners and fishing communities. Goa-based trawler operators have long accused “neo-settler” wholesale traders of running a cartel that uses imports from other states to drive down the prices of the local catch. They have also accused the wholesalers of restricting local fisherfolk’s entry into wholesale markets. Now that the formalin scare has raised the value of local catch, these fisherfolk are beginning to regain their lost importance in Goa’s fish trade.