COVID-19: The Goan Fishing Industry

We are investigating how labour is being impacted by the coronavirus crisis and lockdown in Goa.

On March 24th, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nation-wide lockdown as a response to the spread of the coronavirus: from March 25th, all non-essential services were suspended. As part of our Future of Work and Sustainable Goa initiatives, we are investigating how labour is being impacted by the coronavirus crisis and lockdown in Goa. This is the Covid 19: Goa series.

Here we focus on the fishing industry, which provides livelihoods for thousands of people in the state: 9.7% of the population work directly or indirectly in this industry. As well as local Goans, there are around 10,000 migrant workers, who travel from states such as Bihar and Jharkhand, to work on fishing trawlers that depart from the Goan coast.

We have outlined the current situation for workers in the industry as of mid-April, and some measures for how to support their livelihoods moving forward. (1)

The situation on the ground

The first and direct impact on the fishing industry in India was the suspension of all fishing—all vessels were instructed to remain in their respective docks. Any vessels that were already out to sea were requested not to return until the lockdown was over. According to a notice issued by Dr.(Smt). Shamila Monteiro, Director of Fisheries, any boat or ship that required groceries or rations, could apply to the District Magistrate through their online portal. In a second notice, certain vessels that were already out and were facing a shortage of rations or ice could return to the docks to unload their catch until 31st March 2020

The fishing industry and migrant workers

The fishing industry, before Covid-19, was already in a precarious situation. Trawl fisheries were introduced in Goa in the 1970s and the fishing effort gradually increased over the years. Years of unsustainable fishing practices resulted in an overall decline in the numbers and quality of fish caught. With this decline, many traditional fishing families in Goa have slowly left, creating a vacancy that has been gradually filled by migrant workers. The informal nature of these arrangements typically means that there are few protections in place for these workers. Many of them stay near the docks where the boat owners provide them with accommodation. Right now, many of these workers are living either on the boats themselves or in the docks. The implementation of the sudden lockdown in Goa initially left the state in a temporary state of crisis with a shortage of supplies. A crisis that hit the migrant worker communities harder than anyone else. Stranded on boats, or in some cases left homeless, these workers are facing the brunt of this lockdown on both their physical and mental health.

At the beginning of the lockdown, locals were consuming dried fish usually stored for the monsoon and fish from local fish farms. As of the 13th of April, the ban on sales of fish has been lifted partially. This decision has been taken due to a combination of demand and the need to use stocks that are in cold storage before they rot. However replenishing this stock will be problematic: every year, the 1st of June marks the start of a 61-day fishing ban which was created to allow fish species to replace themselves. A combination of this lockdown and the upcoming ban means that fishermen are not able to regain any profits in the upcoming months.

Additionally, there have bee disruptions along the supply chain. In Goa, typically 80% of the fish caught is set aside for export. Portions of the fish caught are also set aside as animal feed or for other industries. The remaining 20% of fish is sold at local markets or to intermediaries to be sold to larger markets. In terms of work, there are many jobs in processing (cutting and cleaning the fish), selling, transportation, cold storage, and tourism, which have all been affected by the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. As a result of current disruptions to the supply chain such as a lack of ice storage and transportation, fish stocks were being thrown away, meaning a devastating waste of protein and loss of income. On 15th April, fresh guidelines were issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs that state that certain activities including inland and marine fishing, aquaculture, processing, sales, etc can be resumed from the 20th April 2020.

Short-term measures

In the short-term, the state fishing industry needs to act quickly to secure the safety of workers within the fishing industry. The first step must be to allow all fishing trawlers currently banned from docking on land, to return to land so as to ensure the wellbeing of the workers on board. If the workers are migrants who are from outside the Goan state, they should be given compensation to cover their wages and provided with shelter until the end of the lockdown period. Although a “paid quarantine” scheme has been announced, it is not clear whether this will include migrant workers from outside Goa.

Another initial measure would be to permit some traditional fisheries, that would allow fishermen to work in uncrowded, safe conditions and to earn an income from this catch. This could include fisheries in the backwaters. Although this will not provide the volumes of fish that are required to feed the state, this will provide some aquaculture produce during the lockdown period.

As was suggested for the Keralan state, fishing in Goa could be divided by village through a rotation system that would limit the number of boats going out. This would mean that fishing could restart at an incremental pace that limits the number of people in close proximity to one another and the volume of fish being collected, due to processing and transportation hold-ups. However, if this kind of strategy is introduced, it would have to be done in a highly organised controlled manner rather than an ad-hoc basis, to be meaningful.

Long term solutions

In the long term, the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need to make significant changes to the fishing industry in India and beyond.

Firstly, the conditions of selling fish in ‘wet’ markets must be improved. As emphasised in an article on the wildlife trade in The Conversation, the hygiene of markets must be improved to prioritise the health of humans. Although fish markets have a reputation for being crowded, noisy, atmospheric spaces, regulations must be introduced to limit the volume of people at any one time and ensure the hygienic storage of produce.

Secondly, the devastating ecological impact of overfishing has been known to the industry for a long time. As we experience this pandemic, many analysts have argued for a major realignment to our relationship with nature. The fishing industry has long been known to cause ecological damage to the oceans, and there must be renewed calls for better management and regulation of the global fishing industry to reduce overfishing and the unselective ‘scraping’ of the ocean floor, in favour of a sustainable approach that provides time for populations to replenish themselves to avoid extinction and subsequent ecosystem collapse.

Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the difficult and insecure conditions of migrant workers, including migrant fisherman, in India. Protections and social security measures must be brought in to improve the labour conditions of workers within the fishing industry to ensure both their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as their financial security. Migrant labourers are essential to the fishing industry and they should be treated with respect and dignity, especially during such an event.

As well as migrant labourers, women whose livelihoods are based within the fishing industry must also be protected. Of the 16 million fish workers in India, around half are women, who work along the supply chain in the processing and selling of fish. These women may have lost income due to fishing bans and interruptions to the supply chain.

There is a need for a renewed long-term strategy to strengthen the fishing industry, not just in terms of sustainability but with a focus on labour and gender rights as well.

(1 )Research for this blog was sourced from secondary research and an interview with Aaron Savio Lobo, a marine conservation scientist.

The publication was first published by the authors under auspices of erstwhile Tandem Research.

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