Here’s How Bengal’s Aquaculture Boost Is Damaging Marine Ecosystem

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Researchers claim demand for fishmeal, is visibly accelerating the decline of fish stocks in India, and fuelling overfishing.

Fishing for Catastrophe, a report published by Changing Markets Foundation in October last year, revealed that every year, billions of sea fishes are dried, pressed and ground into oil and fishmeal. The majority of this material is then fed to other farmed fish or aquaculture industry. Based on findings in India, Vietnam and Gambia, the report presented damning evidence that the production of fishmeal and oil for use in the global aquaculture industry is destroying natural fish stocks, marine ecosystems and traditional livelihoods as well as undermining the food security of vulnerable communities. In 2016, 69% of fishmeal and 75% of fish oil were used for seafood farming globally.

Demand for fish is growing more rapidly than the human population. Aquaculture currently accounts for roughly half of world fish consumption and is projected to grow even further. Researchers claim that farmed fishes are expected to contribute to an increasing share of global fish consumption, reaching about 60% of the total in 2030. FAO is estimating that 33% of stocks are fished at biologically unsustainable levels.

India is one of the world’s leading aquaculture producers and holds a dominant role in global fisheries, owing to its approximately 7,517 km of coastline. India exports 1.05 million tonnes of marine fish every year. It is also the world’s second-biggest exporter of prawns.

Workers drying fries at landing site in Sagar island before sending to Fishmeal factories.

According to the government data, West Bengal has 405,000 hectares of brackish water that making it the largest area in the country for potential shrimp production. Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) statistics says that the production of shrimp in West Bengal reached 76,534 tonnes in 2017-18, up from 28,000 tonnes in 2007-08. As aquaculture production is increasing in the state, the demand for fishmeal is also rising. As a result, trawlers are engaging more into bottom trawling, and even smaller fishers are also forced to catch small aquatic creatures to feed local fishmeal factories.

Soula Fish Harbour in East Medinipur; Trawlers returned from deep sea with huge amount of trash fish.

Sanatan Bhuiya, a local fisher of Haripur in East Medinipur, claimed, “trash becomes cash for us”. Earlier, the local fishers didn’t get any buyer for these trash fishes, but now, agents buy trash fishes from fish landing centre itself. “They take everything and send it to local fishmeal factory at Juneput, and we get twenty rupees per kilogram,” Bhuiya added.

Trash fishes arrive at Sagar island in South 24 Pargana district. There are around 30,000 marine fishers in South 24 parganas who are struggling to survive.

There are six fishmeal factories in East Medinipur district. However, there are many fishmeal units developed in North and South 24 Parganas in past decades. In West Bengal, significant quantities of food rather than trash fish are being diverted to the fishmeal factories.

Workers sort trash fishes at landing site in Sagar island, South 24 Parganas.
Trash fish includes small molluscs, crustaceans and echinoids. Due to unsustainable trawling in Northern Bay of Bengal large number of rare bottom dwelling aquatic creatures caught into nets.

Debasish Shyamal, president of Dakhhin Banga Matsajibi Forum, claimed, “some small fishers took this as an alternative to compensate their earning, but damages are done by trawlers. They have put their (small fishers) livelihoods at risk.” He further elaborated, “Government is always pushing to increase production numbers without thinking the environmental consequences. Moreover, Union Minister for Finance Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget speech said the government aims to raise fish production to 200 lakh tonnes by 2022-23, while there is nothing left in the sea, many species vanished, and illegal trawling overexploited the natural fish stock.”

The Marine Fishing Regulation Act has limited the size of mesh used in trawling nets to 35 mm but ignorance about the small mesh sizes of fishing nets used by both traditional fishermen and trawlers, which destroyed the fries in huge numbers regularly.
Workers drying trash fishes at Dahasunamoi fish harbour in East Medinipur before selling to Fishmeal factories.

About the author: Tanmoy Bhaduri is Kolkata-based independent photojournalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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