“We are selling our fish at rock-bottom rates. Fish that was sold at Rs 350 per kg is now being sold at Rs 150 per kg. We do not even have money to pay for our workers. We are buying fish at higher prices in the harbour and selling them for low rates,” laments Anto, a fish exporter from Thoothukudi.
Seafood exporters from the coastal district believed that once fishermen enter the sea, business will return to normal. However, with no clarity on new export routes, exporters are bewildered over their business prospects.
“This is our peak season. (Usually), immediately after the annual fishing ban is revoked, fisherfolk will enter the sea. People from Kerala, Karnataka, and foreign countries will buy the catch from us. However, the pandemic has left us confused; there is no clarity on the future of the business. Currently, Thoothukudi has started exports. Maybe if ports in all the countries begin to operate, we will get clarity. But it will take till August and soon, the monsoon will set in Tamil Nadu, washing away our business,” he says.
Anto and fish exporters like him are worried about storage facilities while they wait to get route clearances.
“We do not have the capacity to buy an insulator fridge for Rs 5 lakh. We just use open ice boxes to transport fish. With the lockdown, we are finding it difficult to transport immediately after the catch. Squids do not have much demand in local markets so we transport them to foreign countries. However, COVID-19 has stopped the export even of essential items.”
The fishermen of Thoothukudi, the only district to venture into the sea amid the lockdown period, are getting good catches but are finding it difficult to sell the fish for the same price as before, according to fishermen associations.
“In Thoothukudi district, mechanized boats will go for fishing only between 5 am to 9 pm every day. Unlike other districts, we will not be in sea for three or more days till we get a haul. Now, on account of the lockdown and the coronavirus crisis, only 120 boats are sent everyday on an alternate basis. Though we have enough catch, we are not getting the usual price for the fish due to less demand for fish in the market,” says RJ Bosco, Joint Secretary, Thoothukudi Deep Sea Mechanised Boat Fishing Development Association.
Many fishermen associations, except those in Thoothukudi, have decided to stay off the coast till June 15. The Central government gave its nod for fishermen to resume fishing by June 1 but fishermen have decided to extend the ban period.
This is because fishermen are faced with a slew of problems, forcing them to remain on shore. The lockdown period, followed by the fishing ban, has given them little time to repair their boats and mend the nets needed for fishing. The lack of labourers has made fishermen halt operations and wait for the government’s nod to resume activities.
Mechanized boat owners are largely dependent on exports for survival. Hence, fishermen associations say that they will wait till June 15 for transportation systems to ease and resume fishing operations.
“Since we stayed on shore during the lockdown period, the boats and nets need repair. The government has allowed scrap shops and fishing to commence on June 1. So we need to wait till the workers come and help us with mending the nets,” says K Bharathi, President, South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association.
“The fishermen are also facing problems with the export. Dry ice is not easily available and amid the lockdown, with no adequate transportation in Chennai, we have decided to wait. We will venture into the sea on June 15,” he adds.
As fishermen are gearing up to venture into the sea during the pandemic, Anto says, “The government should provide us a loan amount. We are completely relying on government banks but they don’t give us loans during a pandemic and instead, give loans for buying vehicles. The vehicle loans cannot be of use for us. The government should help us pay our dues in installments to reduce our burden.”
TNM has reached out to Fisheries Department Director GS Sameeran and will update this story once we receive a response.