On May 18, the morning after Cyclone Tauktae thundered through Mumbai, Janardhan Koli and other fishermen from Madh Koliwada trooped towards the shore to assess the damage to their boats. The cyclone was fiercer than any storm he had seen before, and Koli had braced himself for the worst.

Still, he could not help but cry out in agony at the sight that awaited them at the shore.

“There were broken boats everywhere,” Koli said. “Two of them had completely split apart in the middle. Many were so damaged, it will cost lakhs to repair them. My own Trimurti had a big crack at the bottom, and many other smaller cracks.” Trimurti is one of the two small vessels that the 42-year-old fisherman depends on for his livelihood.

After the cyclone, the Maharashtra government offered fishing communities a compensation of Rs 25,000 for completely damaged boats and Rs 10,000 for partially damaged ones.

This amount is a joke, says an indignant Koli. “The government needs to do much more. Repairing Trimurti could cost up to Rs 2 lakh, which I don’t have,” he said. After a year of Covid-19 restrictions and high diesel prices hitting the fishing industry, his threadbare savings have been wiped out.

“These days I don’t even have the money to buy proper rations for my family,” said Koli, who lives with his wife and two young daughters in a 100-square foot room. “Some days we just eat roti and chai.”

In August, when the fishing season resumes after the annual two-month monsoon break, Koli will have just one functional boat to survive on. It means earning only half the profits he usually makes, and last year he made barely Rs 10,000 a month.

But the impact of Cyclone Tauktae is not the only threat to Koli’s precarious economic condition. One of his biggest fears is returning to sea and having yet another year of low fish catches.

“For the past five years, the number of fish available in coastal water has grown smaller and smaller, and good income is never a guarantee,” said Koli. “The sea is changing so much. Lately it feels like there are hardly any fish left.”

Janardhan Koli with his wife and daughter at their one-room home in Madh Koliwada. Photo: Aarefa Johari

LED in the sea

The depletion of fish stock in the Arabian Sea is a growing concern for Mumbai’s Kolis, an indigenous community of over two lakh fish workers living in villages like Madh Koliwada, along the city’s coast. They practice small-scale coastal fishing in the shallower seas within a distance of 4-5 km from the shoreline. For years, they have complained about indiscriminate fishing by large, mechanised bull trawlers that drag their nets across the sea bed to capture hundreds of kilograms of fish in one go.

The phenomenon is not limited to India’s western coast – data from the union government-run Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute points to a 9% decline in overall fish catch across India from 2017 to 2018. In the same period, however, Maharashtra saw a 22.5% drop in fish catch, from 3.81 lakh tonnes in 2017 to 2.95 lakh tonnes in 2018 – the lowest it had reached in 45 years.

Data for the years after 2018 is not yet available, but Janardhan Koli and other fish workers claim the depletion of fish has only grown worse in and around Mumbai.

The reasons for this trend are complex and varied – a combination of urban pollution, ill-advised development in coastal areas, rising sea temperatures triggered by global climate change.

But what Mumbai’s traditional fish workers are most irate about, however, is overfishing through unsustainable fishing practices. While indignation towards trawlers is still widespread, they now have a new target for their rage: “LED fishers”.

The term refers to large boat owners who lower artificial lights – often high-power LED lamps – into deep sea waters to attract shoals of fish during the night. When large numbers of fish gather, they are scooped up in nets.

“LED fishing is illegal in India, but it is still carried out by hundreds of boats in our waters,” said Kiran Koli, a fish worker from Madh Koliwada and the general secretary of the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti, an association of fish workers in the state.

“LED fishers end up catching massive loads including young baby fish, which is affecting the population of many types of fish in the sea. It has become a huge problem for traditional fishermen like us,” he said.

A banned practice

Artificial light-based fishing is relatively new in India, but has been widely used in Norway, Japan and several east Asian countries for a few decades. In 2010, this method of fishing brought in approximately 1.6% of global fish catch.

In India, the use of artificial lights for commercial fishing began in the mid-2010s, largely in Karnataka and Goa. As it grew more popular, it triggered inevitable conflicts with traditional fishers who use bag nets, long lines, gill nets and other fishing practices that capture relatively smaller loads of fish.

Light-based fishing aims to capture commercially valuable fish, but much like trawling, it leads to inadvertent capture of large numbers of juvenile fish (young ones that have not had a chance to spawn) and by-catch (fish that have low commercial value but serve as a food source for several other commercial fish).

In 2016, Goa was the first to ban the practice in its coastal waters. In November 2017, responding to pleas from traditional fishing groups, the central government issued a ban on artificial light-based fishing across Indian coastal waters.

In January 2019, even as fishing communities in several states complained that LED fishing was continuing in practice despite the ban, the Karnataka High Court passed an order allowing purse-seine boat operators in the state to carry out light-based fishing beyond 12 nautical miles from the shore. Purse seining is an equally controversial fishing method in which large rings of net are used to capture fish like tuna, mackerel and other specific fish species.

Fewer fish, higher costs

In Maharashtra, where the national ban on LED fishing is still in place, fish workers and environmentalists blame the state fisheries department for doing little to implement it.

“There are very few fishermen from Mumbai who practice LED fishing – most of the boats come from Raigad, Ratnagiri, and even Goa,” said Ranjit Kale, a fish worker from Mumbai’s Versova Koliwada and the chairman of the village’s Vesava Nakwa Mandal, an association of large boat owners. “We have complained so many times to the authorities, but nothing is done to control them.”

According to environmental activist D Stalin, most LED fishers are wealthy, politically-connected and have boats that can travel at up to 16 nautical miles per hour. “But the fisheries department’s patrol boats operate at barely six nautical miles per hour. The department is understaffed and simply does not have enough infrastructure, arms, speedboats or political will to take on the LED fishers.”

Officials from Maharashtra’s fisheries department did not respond to phone calls or email queries from Scroll.in.

In Versova Koliwada, however, Ranjit Kale spoke at length about the impact of overfishing on the lives of traditional fish workers like him.

“I have three big boats that employ ten labourers each, so at least 30 families depend on the income from my boats,” said Kale, sitting at the edge of Versova creek. Most of Mumbai’s boat owners hire migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other north Indian states. “Because of LED fishing and overfishing in general, there has been a definite drop in the number of fish available for catching in the past four or five years, and it has become harder and harder to earn any profits.”

Ranjit Kale says at least 30 families depend on his three boats for their livelihoods. Photo: Ayush Prasad

A decade ago, Kale says he could take his boats out for a four or five-day fishing trip and return with a few hundred kilograms of catch. “Now we have to spend at least 14 or 15 days at sea in order to get the same size of catch, and sometimes it’s not even that much.”

Spending more days at sea is an expensive affair, since boats require at least three times the amount of fuel than before. With the steep hike in diesel prices in the past two years, investing in low-yield fishing trips is becoming increasingly untenable for many Kolis.

“Diesel that used to cost Rs 54 per litre a couple of years ago is now at Rs 93 per litre. How many can afford that?” said Kale. “Our village has 300 boats, but because of high diesel prices, only 60-70 boats have been actively sent out since last year.”

According to activists like Ganesh Nakhawa, the more expensive fishing becomes, the more it is likely to trigger a disruptive cycle of overfishing through unsustainable fishing practices.

“The cost of fishing operations has increased so much, traditional fishers know that in order to make profits in the industry, they too have to have larger catches,” said Nakhawa, chairman of the West Coast Purse Seine Fishermen Welfare Association, who has been raising awareness about climate change, sustainable fishing and marine wildlife conservation in the Konkan region.

Down to four months a year

While traditional deep sea fish workers are more directly affected by widespread LED fishing and trawling, small-scale coastal fish workers in Mumbai also have to deal with the impact of depleting fish stock in the deeper seas.

Part of the reason is because fish in the shallower sea closer to the shore have also shrunk in population.

“There is so much plastic, sewage and chemical acid dumped into Mumbai’s creeks, that the water we have traditionally fished in is almost completely polluted,” said Balkrishna Koli, 55, a coastal fish worker from Madh Koliwada. “Many of the fish that we used to find close to the shore are moving further away towards cleaner waters.”

In recent years, Balkrishna Koli claims he has seen crabs, lobsters, prawns and fish like Bombay duck, catfish and golden anchovies dwindle in population. This depletion has also forced small fish workers to halve the number of days they traditionally spent for seasonal fishing.

“Around 10 or 15 years ago, we used to fish for eight months a year,” said Balkrishna Koli. “Now, we go for just four months – September, October, April and May – and even then the catch is getting smaller and the costs of staying in business are rising.”

Balkrishna Koli at his home in Madh Koliwada. Photo: Aarefa Johari

Like Balkrishna Koli, many coastal fish workers in Madh have no other vocations or businesses that can bring them an income in the remaining months of the year. To make up for this, the residents of Madh Koliwada have devised a system in which large boat owners auction their catch to small fish workers instead of directly selling it in wholesale markets.

“After buying the fish from the bigger fishermen, we are the ones who sell it in the markets and keep the profits, if there are any,” said Balkrishna Koli. “This has helped to sustain us during the months when we don’t go fishing. So if bigger fishermen don’t have enough fish to catch, it will mean less income for us too.”

Missing ‘signs’ of the cyclone

The incomes of small-scale fish workers are, of course, also increasingly threatened by ambitious infrastructure projects along Mumbai’s coast. They include the proposed statue of Maratha warrior king Shivaji off the coast of south Mumbai and the controversial 10-km coastal road for which reclamation of vast portions of the sea is rapidly underway.

Kolis in Mumbai have been vociferously opposing such projects, which will not only swallow the shallow seas that coastal fish workers depend on, but also alter the tide patterns and currents that govern the behaviour of fish.

This would exacerbate the effects of global climate change that have already caused India’s coastal water temperatures to rise by over half a degree in the past three decades. Warmer oceans are linked to a rise in extreme weather events, and experts have predicted that the Arabian Sea is likely to witness more frequent cyclones in the years to come.

For Kolis who are still reeling from the devastation caused by Cyclone Tauktae, this is a frightening prospect.

“Tauktae was the biggest storm we have seen in our lives, and none of us could have predicted it would get so bad,” said Kiran Koli of Madh Koliwada. “The strangest thing is, this year we did not see any of the natural isharas [signs] that normally signal the arrival of a storm.”

His reference is to ancestral wisdom that has been passed down for generations in the region’s fishing communities. One signal, for instance, is spotting large shoals of silver pomfrets close to the surface of the water five or six days before a storm. “Our ancestors used to say, ye machhi toofan ke aage daudti hai – these fish run before a storm,” said Kiran Koli. “We also usually see many small crabs climbing on to boulders before a storm. But we did not see any of these before Tauktae, and we have no idea why.”

According to fisheries researcher Siddharth Chakravarty, this odd absence of natural storm “signals” could be symptomatic of the unusual nature of the cyclone in May.

“A lot of the recent cyclonic storms have deviated from their usual patterns,” said Chakravarty, a researcher with the National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers. “Because cyclones are intensifying and forming much faster, their paths are different from traditional cyclone paths. Perhaps this is why Cyclone Tauktae messed with the traditional knowledge of fish workers.”

A fisherman tugs at a boat in Versova creek, Mumbai. Photo: Ayush Prasad

Reporting for this story was supported by the Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic.