Beyond Vanjaram and Pomfret: A Chennai collective promotes sustainable seafood

InSeason Fish helps fish lovers diversify their menu, pick alternative seafood and connects them with artisanal fishermen who source these breeds in a sustainable way.
Beyond Vanjaram and Pomfret: A Chennai collective promotes sustainable seafood
Beyond Vanjaram and Pomfret: A Chennai collective promotes sustainable seafood

'There's plenty of fish in the sea' is a phrase that Chennai based Dr Divya Karnad might be averse to. With unsustainable forms of fishing in the waters around India, there exists a risk of certain species being wiped out forever, says the marine geographer. 

“In temperate countries you will find huge populations of fish such as cod and haddock. But very little diversity. But that is not the case in the waters around India where you will find hundreds of fish species, but in smaller populations,” Divya explains. Over decades, extensive trawling and a skewed market demand for very few species of fish has led to unsustainable seafood production. To find a solution to this, Divya along with Chaitanya Krishna, wildlife biologist, started a unique initiative called InSeason Fish, which completes seven years in the field this year. 

In simple terms, InSeason Fish is a collective, a seafood guide and a consultancy which helps their clients ‘eat seafood right’. This includes diversifying their clients’ seafood menu by helping them pick alternative seafood options and collaborating with artisanal fishermen who fish ethically, as opposed to fishing in trawlers. But how did Divya decide to start something which would marry her love for fisheries with environmental conservation?

“It started when I was doing my PhD in Fisheries Management. I was reading up a lot and interacting with fishing communities. A lot of our literature portrays these fisherfolk as greedy and bent upon harming nature. But what I understood was that the reality is quite different,” she explains. Many of the fishers in India’s fishing communities were already practising healthy and sustainable ways of fishing. 

“I noticed that the fishers would decide where people can fish at what time of the year, so that they do not catch threatened species. They would also decide what kind of fishing gear is allowed and what is not. They would never soak their fishing gear for too long to avoid overfishing and they would check the gear often to ensure no threatened species were trapped. They would also modify their nets and decide at what depth they should lay the nets. These are international best practices for fishing,” Divya says. 

The market gap 

But what is unaddressed is the huge market gap in the demand for fish. Especially in urban areas, only 10-15 varieties of fish are constantly in demand, says Divya.

“In Tamil Nadu, upper middle class and upper class households mostly buy Seer fish (Vanjaram) and Pomfret, which are priced higher. Other popular species include Pink Perch or Navara/Rani meen which is in demand. In Kerala, Sardine or Mathi is in high demand among other fish breeds,” Chaitanya explains. 

Three spot swimmer crabs, Mackerel (top left and right), Lady fish, mud crabs (bottom left and right) 

The negative effects of this skewed demand are many. For starters, fishermen are forced to catch the fish that consumers want, and as collateral damage, a whole other bunch of fish are caught which get wasted. 

“Further, fish species breed at different times of the year. Catching them during their breeding season could affect their population. This leads to overfishing and unsustainable methods. I only realised this when the fishers pointed out to me that people only ate a few varieties,” Divya says. 

Eating fish right 

The collective attempts to help urban fisheaters unlearn their older ways and be more open to eating consciously. This also means not buying from markets, and instead, sourcing fish from small-scale fishers who have the lowest impact on the ecosystem. 

The difference between trawler-caught fish and the ones caught by small fishermen is evident when you visit any huge fish market. 

“In Chennai, it is the Kasimedu fishing harbour from where the city gets most of its fish. One visit and you can tell which ones are bought from trawlers and which ones are caught by small scale fishers as there are placed in diffrent areas. In Nochikuppam, a popular fishing village in the city, on one side of the road, women sell huge quantities of fish, including seer fish, snappers and even sharks. On the other side, you see fishers removing the fish from their nets. And their catch is very different and includes smaller fish like the lizard fish, silver bellies, small sardines, lady fish, certain species of crab and shrimp and individuals of prawn,” Divya explains.

Prior to the pandemic, their collective used to conduct guided tours of a fish market or a fishing village which they call ‘fishplorations’, to help clients identify seafood caught sustainably. In Chennai, Divya, Chaitanya and the rest of their team have done these tours in the Lighthouse Kuppam or Nochikuppam near Marina and the Urur Olcott Kuppam in Besant Nagar. 

An InSeason Fish 'Fishploration' in Chennai where a fisher lays out ribbon fish for sale. 

They also put out a season calendar of fish which are breeding on the Coromandel Coast, every month, with an advisory on what fish are safe to source and what breeds are not. A quick look at the January advisory on their site will tell you that Sardines or Choodai, the Threadfin Beam or Kaala and Kawakawa or Choori meen are safe to eat this month as it is not their breeding season. 

InSeason Fish's January calendar on the seafood varieties that are safe to eat. 

Among its many partnerships, the collective partnered with Sea Salt, a Chennai based restaurant that sources its fish sustainable, for the Pulicat Seafood Festival which took place in January 2020. The Pulicat Festival had fisherwomen cooking traditional recipes to highlight the imminent threat that Pulicat's wetland ecosystem faced from the Adani group's port expansion plans. The collective has also worked with chefs Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad who worked for The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai on sourcing fish sustainably. 

Fisherwomen cooking shrimp and crab at Pulicat. 

Seafood cuisine —  a lost knowledge 

A direct impact of our unsustainable seafood choices is seen in our kitchens, says Divya, as our recipe choices shrink. Traditional seafood eaters who live close to the coast have a huge repertoire of seafood recipes. 

“This is even for uncommon species which have no demand in the current market. But with the demand for seafood shrinking to a few species in urban areas, we also don’t make use of this vast repertoire,” Divya adds. 

The collective has curated videos of traditional and continental recipes for not so common seafood breeds as well. This includes Crab Thokku, Navara or Pink Perch Meen Kuzhambu, Kumaari Paarai or Coconut Milk Trevally Fish fry, Puthina Paarai, Sardine fish curry, Kathalai Karuvaadu Thokku (dried fish) and others.

The other recipes also include Steamed Grouper, Bouillabaisse Fish Soup, Goa style Barracuda steaks and others. 

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