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Treasure or Trash? When Unwanted Fish Sustain Livelihoods

The tussle, between the conservation of natural resources and ecosystems and people’s incomes, extends well beyond overfishing the most coveted varieties of fish from the sea

By Manini Bansal and Trisha Gupta

We’re standing on Malvan beach, in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district, among countless crates filled with small, mixed fish. Asif, a fish trader, negotiates a price to buy them and tell us: “All fish are the same to me, I buy and sell them because I need to do something to make a living.”

India is known to be a major agricultural nation globally, but it may come as a surprise to some that we are also one of the largest fishing countries. However, the development and mechanisation of fisheries has also triggered a number of environmental problems. One significant issue of concern emerging in the country today is of “trash fishing”. It refers to the thousands of undersized or non-commercially important fish that are unintentionally captured in fishing nets alongside the species that fishing communities target. Because of their low value and often damaged state, these fish are commonly called trash fish. Fishers collect and sell them for fishmeal production, which is used as feed for chickens, cattle, and even other farmed fish. Most trash fish are juveniles. Removing them in large volumes from the sea can be highly unsustainable as it compromises the species’ capacity to reproduce and maintain populations. Despite this threat to marine biodiversity, reducing and regulating the capture and sale of trash fish is far from straightforward. Fishers are becoming increasingly dependent on this fish for their income, and it supports the livelihoods of thousands of traders, labourers, processors, and distributors in this industry. Trash fishing is therefore an example of a multidimensional environmental issue where human lives are intertwined with conservation problems. Our project looked to understand the complexity of the trash fish story in Malvan, a fishing town in southern Maharashtra.

Trawler fishing began in India to target and catch prawns, a favourite, highly-sought-after crustacean that’s also called ‘pink gold’. Photo: Manini Bansal  A typical pile of trash fish contains various species of juvenile fish that consumers don’t usually buy, and have no value in the retail market. Cover Photo: Manini Bansal

Trawler fishing began in India to target and catch prawns, a favourite, highly-sought-after crustacean that’s also called ‘pink gold’. Photo: Manini Bansal
A typical pile of trash fish contains various species of juvenile fish that consumers don’t usually buy, and have no value in the retail market. Cover Photo: Manini Bansal

The Malvan seascape is dominated by trawlers, one of the most common types of mechanised fishing boats. Because of the small mesh sizes of their nets and their method of fishing, trawlers catch significant amounts of trash fish and are the major contributors to the fishmeal industry in the country.

“We generally sell all the small fish, or the ones with no market value, for fishmeal. Yes, lots of these fish are juveniles. But what can we do? It comes in our nets when we’re fishing for prawns, so we collect and sell it,” says Chandu, a trawler fisherman, as he unloads crates of these fish on to the beach during the evening fish auction.

The fish auction at Malvan is a chaotic event where the daily catch from fishing boats is sold to the highest bidders. Customers and traders flock around the fresh catch, while crates of the less attractive trash fish are stacked to the side to be weighed and sold by the kilo. These crates may be filled with hundreds of different species, from sardines, scads, and soles to inedible species like the pufferfish. Birds occasionally swoop down to try and snatch a fish for dinner, while an old man picks out a few choice fish to feed his cats at home. Local children hover around, carefully collecting the few fresh fish they find to take home, until they’re shooed away by the trash fish traders.

“It took me a year to get used to this work. I could smell the fish from the other end of the beach, and wanted to cry because I didn’t want to work with it,” says Abdul, another trash fish worker, as he transferred a particularly rotten batch of fish into larger crates after weighing. Hailing from Mangalore, Abdul has spent the last 21 years working in the fish trade industry in Malvan. It is not a glamorous job, but it enables him to support his family back home.

Thousands of fish caught by a dozen different boats are aggregated by traders for fishmeal production (left). Crates of trash fish neatly stacked to be weighed and sold. Up to one tonne of trash fish can be generated from a single fishing trip of a trawler in Malvan (right). Photos: Manini Bansal

Thousands of fish caught by a dozen different boats are aggregated by traders for fishmeal production (left). Crates of trash fish neatly stacked to be weighed and sold. Up to one tonne of trash fish can be generated from a single fishing trip of a trawler in Malvan (right). Photos: Manini Bansal

Fresh catch is neatly tucked away under ice, whereas trash fish is sent without preservation to the factories for processing. Photo: Manini Bansal

Fresh catch is neatly tucked away under ice, whereas trash fish is sent without preservation to the factories for processing. Photo: Manini Bansal

“Before the trash fish industry started, we used to trade dried fish. That was exhausting work, taking all day to salt and dry the fish. With fishmeal industries opening, our lives have become easier. It’s less labour for us as we don’t have to process the fish, just store and pack it away into trucks for transportation,” Asif explains.

It’s hard to believe that these fish were once unwanted and discarded back into the sea by fishers. Now it’s more treasure than trash, generating a steady and valuable income. Another trader called Suresh tells us: “The fisheries business is one of loss. You never know how much you will get and how much you can sell it for. That’s why I prefer to get trash fish — there’s always some profit and no risk.”

Traders wait for trash fish, as the catch of fresh fish has declined in the region over the past few decades. Photo: Manini Bansal

Traders wait for trash fish, as the catch of fresh fish has declined in the region over the past few decades. Photo: Manini Bansal

Given that trash fish is captured in trawler nets anyway, it seems to be better to sell it for fishmeal — hence supporting the livelihood of these traders — rather than discard the already dead fish back into the sea. The problem here is that prawns and other commercially valuable fish like pomfret have dwindled so much that profit from trash, although relatively low, is what sometimes keeps these boats afloat.

The trash fish industry may be driving trawlers to fish beyond the capacity of the ocean. Now, boats sometimes go out specifically to target and capture tonnes of these fish for fishmeal, as it is a reliable source of income. This practice of fishing is only going to cause further decline of fish in the sea, which will come back to impact the lives of the fishing community — a vicious cycle between people and nature.

So, how do we balance the needs of people today with future needs? Trash fishing has become a concerning and complex issue across India’s coastline, but for the people involved this is a mundane activity that gets them their daily meal. Asking a fisher why he sells trash fish is like asking city dwellers why they collect and sell old newspaper for recycling. It exists, it’s unwanted, and they might as well sell it for some amount of money and have it utilised rather than wasted. Who are we to tell them otherwise, and why should they listen to us?

During fish auctions, Malvan beach is bustling with boats from the all over the Sindhudurg area. Fishers, customers, and traders flock around the fresh catch, each trying to get themselves the best possible deal. Photo: Snehal Jeevan Pailkar/Shutterstock

During fish auctions, Malvan beach is bustling with boats from the all over the Sindhudurg area. Fishers, customers, and traders flock around the fresh catch, each trying to get themselves the best possible deal. Photo: Snehal Jeevan Pailkar/Shutterstock

That’s where research comes in. Environmental issues like this tend to be viewed as black-and-white problems, and tackled with simplistic solutions like fishing bans or imposing ill-informed regulations. Instead, we need to understand all the dimensions of this issue. Awareness and information on the fisheries problem can help in better decision making, both for average consumers as well as policy makers. There’s no denying that we need to conserve our natural resources and ecosystems, but people and their livelihoods are also a priority and must be taken into consideration.

“Fish catch has reduced a lot, but who can speak of the future? I will stay in this business as long as it keeps me going” says Bashir, another fish trader, as he packs away the last crate of fish for the evening.

Some of the names of people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

The authors would like to thank the Duleep Matthai Nature Conservation Fellowship for supporting their work, and the traders and fishers of Malvan for their stories.

Manini Bansal and Trisha Gupta
Manini Bansal and Trisha Gupta

Manini Bansal is a visual communication designer and photographer. Trisha Gupta is a marine biologist and researcher at Dakshin Foundation.

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