Jewels of the sea: Machilipatnam locals find livelihood in jellyfish during fishing ban

Jellyfish breed around the time of the fishing ban and mass reproduction makes them an abundant resource for the locals of Machilipatnam.
Jewels of the sea: Machilipatnam locals find livelihood in jellyfish during fishing ban
Jewels of the sea: Machilipatnam locals find livelihood in jellyfish during fishing ban

The annual two-month fishing ban has just ended in Andhra Pradesh. At Machilipatnam’s Manginapudi beach, fishermen are hauling in their first catch of the season. As you walk further away from food stalls and tourist attractions at the beach, nestled away in one corner amidst coastal shrubbery, men and women are busy at work.

Some of them are unloading huge sacks of salt from one truck, while few men are loading hundreds of white buckets into another truck. Next to them, a group of women is cleaning, sorting and packing something you would least expect: Jellyfish.

“After a three-year lull, the catch has been good this season. We usually come right after the fishing ban as that’s when jellyfish are abundant and we have been lucky this time,” says the owner of one unit, as he supervises the labourers.

Every year, the Fisheries Department enforces a strict two-month ban on fishing from April to June along the coast of Andhra Pradesh. This ban is to facilitate breeding of fish. For fishermen that depend on fishing as a livelihood, this ban affects their main source of income. While the government pays the fishermen ex gratia of Rs 4000 for the 62 days, many claim that this hardly suffices.

At such a time, when fishermen are forced to look for work to tide over the two-month period and a the following few months when fish is scarce in the sea, the jellyfish has become their treasure trove.

Jellyfish – a menace or a saving grace?

Jellyfish are umbrella-shaped marine animals with long tentacles that are found all across the world from surface waters to the deep sea and are known to have been present in the oceans for over 500 million years and have managed to survive till the present day.

Interestingly, Jellyfish reproduce at a speed that is alarming the world. Over the years, the exponential rate at which they have been growing has become a cause of concern. Jellyfish are not greatly affected by global warming or the rising pollution. In fact, they thrive in such conditions since they need very little oxygen to survive. And not many fish eat them. So, at a time when marine life is dwindling, jellyfish are thriving.

And given their growing numbers, some marine biologists in Britain are urging citizens to eat them to reduce their infestation. This gives the business of jellyfish export immense scope.

In a memoir written by ocean scientist and science writer Juli Berwald, titled Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, she makes some interesting points.

“In 1963, overfishing was rampant off the Namibian coast, one of the world’s most productive fisheries. Today, jellyfish dominate the ecosystem and sea lions are starving for lack of fish. In Japan, giant jellyfish, which grow to a massive 220kg, appeared only three times during the 20th century. They’ve appeared every year of the 21st, probably as a result of overfishing, pollution and warming. The Mediterranean’s largest lagoon, Mar Menor, suffers from massive agricultural pollution. The jellyfish grew so thick in 2002 that you couldn’t drive a boat through the water. Near Israel, jellyfish that invaded from the Indian Ocean blanket the coastline for dozens of kilometres each summer. The swarms chase swimmers from the beach and gum up the cooling systems of power plants, forcing shutdowns.”

Indian scenario

In India, jellyfish are mostly found in abundant numbers in Gujarat, followed by Machilipatnam and Kakinada. While jellyfish season in Gujarat is June to July and November to December, Machilipatnam sees them in abundance from June till the end of July.

“The types of jellyfish are different though. In Gujarat, it is white. What you get here in Machilipatnam is light yellow and these ones have more market value,” one of the workers explains.

A source of livelihood

Jellyfish breed around the time of the fishing ban. Their mass reproduction makes them an abundant resource for the locals of Machilipatnam twice in a year, once just before the ban is imposed and then right after the ban.

“During the two-month fishing ban is when the jellyfish breed but the department officials don't let us fish during the time. So once the ban is lifted, when there is less fish, the fisherman catch jellyfish. For them and for the labourers in the village, this becomes a much-needed source of livelihood during this period,” says Nageswara Rao, who supervises one of the jellyfish units.

Jellyfish are found roughly five nautical miles (9.26 km) from the coast, which is a 20-minute journey approximately. Fishermen set out every morning and return by afternoon with the catch. Some fishermen even go twice a day.

Once caught, the jellyfish is brought back to the unit, unloaded from the boats and then washed thoroughly in salt water. This process takes about five days. It is then soaked in salt water and alum for 10 days. Salt water and alum act as preservatives. The jellyfish is then packed in buckets with some salt and taken to Chennai port from where it is exported to Southeast Asian countries.

In India, especially Machilipatnam, jellyfish isn’t eaten. In fact, many locals in Machilipatnam are averse to it and advise labourers and fishermen against working here because of the stench that comes with it. It can get worse for the fishermen. Not only is there a bad smell, jellyfish also causes irritation on the skin when being caught and unloaded. “It causes itching, but we don’t really have a choice. If we want to make good money, this is a very small price to pay,” a fisherman says.

Not just fishermen, their wives and labourers in the town too profit from the unconventional business.

The economics of jellyfish

On a good day, fishermen manage to catch 30 to 50 boxes of jellyfish on each trip. Each box weights roughly 40 kgs and can fetch the fishermen a price between Rs 1,000-1,500 a box. The more they catch, the more money they make. On a good day, fishermen say they can even make over Rs 1 lakh.

Each hand on the deck is paid around Rs 4000. These are the workers, who help with unloading jellyfish from boat into boxes, carrying the boxes from the boat to the units, unloading them into the cleaning tanks.

On the ground, workers, who are mostly women involved in sorting, cleaning and packing the jellyfish are paid between Rs 200-400 for a day’s work.

“When there is no work, we get work here. Otherwise we have to sit at home. And since we are coming to work here, we are getting paid Rs 200 a day for labour, which is a source of income for us,” says Vakalamma, who works at one of the units.

While the jellyfish trade has been around for more than a decade, it has been picking up pace in Machilipatnam and Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh over the last four to five years.

After being packed into the buckets, the jellyfish are loaded on to trucks and taken to the Chennai port by road, before being checked by customs and boarded on to a cargo ship.

When asked about why the truck isn't sent to the Visakhapatnam port in the same state, one unit owner explains, "The way it works is that if we send a truck tonight, it will reach the Chennai port by tomorrow night. However, even after loading it on to the ship, it can set sail in 8 hours or 80 hours to the destination from there because in ports, a cargo ship only sets sail if it has been filled up to a certain extent. So the goods I send on the first of any month, may set sail by the 5th. If it doesn’t fill up by the end of the month, then it may even go the first date on the next month." 

"While we can ensure that the stock stays fresh, no matter how much the delay, the problem is that we can’t be delayed on our economic commitments as things have already been paid for in certain situations," he adds.

The state government is also presently drawing plans to build a port at Bandar, close to Machilipatnam town, owing to a long-pending demand by the locals. Plans are also afoot to take up construction of a larger industrial region in the area to promote trade. 

However, the unit owners say that this will not make much of a difference to them, as a cargo ship might set sail from Chennai port twice a week, while the same can't be guaranteed for the Visakhapatnam port.

"It may take much longer, as we are barely able to even fill 1% of the ship. However, it may help us if we get feeder ships here as that makes more sense and the ships will fill up more quickly. Then we could send to Visakhapatnam port itself," one owner says.

Feeder ships are medium size cargo vessels, which collect containers from various ports and transport them to a centralised port, like in this instance, Chennai or Visakhapatnam.

Many also lament that each port also has customs charge, and requires the owners of businesses to sign up for a membership and fill out lot of paperwork. The bureaucracy involved to export the jellyfish is also troublesome, they complain.

Like any business, this too has its share of challenges. But unit owners do agree that it is a very profitable business and while it is beneficial to the business owners, it is much more profitable to the fishermen.

While some fishermen manage to make several lakh rupees in this season, the women and labourers also make a hefty cut from the profits.

This way, something that was once considered a waste has now managed to turn into a healthy annual source of income for the locals, when they need it the most.

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