Beyond the blue waters

Seafood forms a major part of the local diet in and around coastal Karnataka. But for the community risking their lives to put this local delicacy on people’s plates, this is more than a profession, one with few returns.


Another day in paradise

Udbhavi Balakrishna

The Mogaveera is a traditional fishing community, the members of which involve themselves in marine activities in and around coastal Karnataka, mainly the coasts of Mangalore and Udupi. Having practised the trade for many decades, many elders in these families continue to practise this risky profession even though many of the younger populations have found better prospects to move on to. How has their trade been affected, especially during these months, with the initial lockdown and the weather conditions along the coast now?

“The lockdown didn’t affect me as much; some of us had to maintain a distance but our work continued regardless,” said Yogish, a fisherman who has been fishing for over 30 years. He is seated just opposite the Chitrapura Devi temple, with few other men from the same community. There is a look of resignation in his eyes. “I know that some of my colleagues and I received some aid from private parties, some from members of the Sangha, but many people didn't."

The stretch of sea at Chitrapura has choppy waters, not very favourable for fishing boats to set sail now, he said. These months, they have had to begin and end their sailing from the nearby harbour and local port of NMPT (New Mangalore Port Trust).

The days when the weather isn’t favourable, they’d know. “We observe the waves and know if it is a good idea to set sail. We also keep an eye on the weather updates and any high tide alerts that we get from local authorities,” said Kunal, another fisherman.

But the situation hasn't been easy. Rates have decreased considerably since the pandemic broke out, with fewer people venturing to markets to buy fish, he said. "We have to follow set timings to set sail and sell our catch for the day or people will not show up and we will lose whatever meagre earnings we get," he said.

"It is a risky job, but we have no choice," he added, rueful.

The beach is dotted with many small huts with terracotta roof tiles, standing in stark contrast to some wealthier sea-front dwellings and apartments. Walking on the beach, one cannot miss signs of the previous night’s tide, with swash marks as close as few feet from the doorsteps of several houses. This means, undoubtedly, that water levels have been on the rise. Yet, relocation to higher ground would mean leaving behind ancestral homes and community connect. “Our profession is linked to our lives, it is part of who we are. Where we live, the job asked of us entail risks of course, but we need to continue doing it despite those risks because this is all most of us know,” said Kunal.

Deep-sea fishing was banned from March 20 due to the lockdown. And although traditional fishing resumed in April, there have been restrictions put in place. Yet the fishermen and women who sell fish in markets have had to work non-stop, only allowing themselves to rest when the weather conditions weren’t favourable for work or there wasn’t much to sell that day.

Looking for alternatives isn't an option, said one of the women. "We have been doing this for as long as we remember, this is what we are known for. How can we just leave it because of what is happening now?" one of the women declared while arranging fish in concentric circles in baskets. One such basket weighs about 25 kilograms and is priced at about ₹2500, although market fares change depending on the conditions. “When demand is high, we can hope to earn more, but now, even getting most of our catch sold is a task,” they remarked, in unison.

In another location nearby, a similar sorting of fishes is taking place, only this time, these women are packing fish to take them to the markets the next day. “We have paid the fishermen rupees 2700 for these baskets. When selling them tomorrow we need to set prices based on demand to ensure that we get minimal profits, otherwise, what is the point?” said Yashoda, a fisherwoman involved in selling fishes. These baskets will make their way to the city’s famous fish markets at State Bank via tempos to be sold the next day.

In April, Yashpal Suvarna, Chairman of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi District Co-operative Fish Marketing Federation, had urged the state and central governments to provide compensation and benefits to the fishing community. However, it comes as a surprise to the fishermen and women, when asked about compensation and aid, for everyone echoes similar statements: “we got nothing from the government, no aid, no security, no easing of the financial burden. We just needed to continue our work and hope for better returns.”

*statements have been translated from Tulu and Kannada and have been edited for length and clarity.

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