A Tour of Unloved Fishes
In India, a marine geographer helps consumers make sustainable fish choices by bringing them straight to the source.
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Behind a lighthouse on Marina Beach in Chennai, the capital of India’s southeastern state Tamil Nadu, two clashing scenes play out. On one side, early morning walkers wander the vast expanse of sand embracing the sea. On the other, opposite a row of identical green and pink buildings where the local fishing community lives, the atmosphere is frantic. Fishers are pulling in their boats and folding their nets on the beach. Vendors aggressively clean their fish stalls with water and brooms, readying them for customers.
The fish that the sellers begin to stack into slippery pyramids on their tables represent a mix—some of it landed on this beach by small-scale fishers, while the rest was caught by industrial trawlers operating farther away. That combination makes this open-air market an ideal place for a lesson in sustainable seafood, explains marine geographer Divya Karnad of Ashoka University in Sonipat, northern India.
She’s addressing a group of college students and professionals from Chennai who have gathered at the lighthouse this February morning for a Fishploration event—a scientifically guided walk through fish markets that aims to help urban seafood eaters in India make more sustainable choices.
Many city consumers tend to be familiar with just a few varieties of high-value fish like seerfish and pomfret, Karnad says. This partly has to do with where they get their fish from. City consumers are increasingly relying on supermarkets and online stores that predominantly stock popular seafood varieties. Most restaurants, too, have just a few types of fish on their menus. The result is a mismatch between what small-scale fishers can provide and what people frequently seek out, says Karnad. “I feel like at least with the younger generation, they’re totally disconnected.”
This rings true for Yogabhavani Manogaran, who works at Barclays bank. A regular fish eater, Manogaran has long steered clear of fish markets, letting her father do the shopping. But today, she’s eager to get a clearer perspective on what the city’s beachside market has to offer. “Because I eat fish regularly, I want to know if I’m doing it ethically,” she tells me.
Building a connection with seafood and buying more responsibly requires three things, Karnad tells the Fishploration participants: identifying fish correctly; understanding which varieties are in season and okay to eat—that is, choosing non-threatened species that aren’t breeding that month; and recognizing how the fish was caught, to avoid destructive fishing practices.
“You should be able to go out and identify exactly what fish you’re eating because the greater diversity of fish you eat, the healthier it is for you and for the ocean,” she says.
To help the participants identify fish, Karnad hands out A3-sized posters displaying more than 50 marine species from India’s east coast that are safe to eat in February.
Karnad has compiled this guide for every month of the year and for both of the country’s coasts as part of InSeason Fish, a collective she started with her wildlife biologist husband, Chaitanya Krishna, and friends to create awareness about seafood sustainability. InSeason Fish’s website also lists species that should be avoided each month. To make the lists, the team scoured official government data and scientific studies for details on species’ breeding seasons. For about 10 percent of the species, the team corroborated the scientific information with knowledge from local sellers, who are mostly women. The fisherwomen are the ones who cut the fish and see when the eggs are inside, so they know when the breeding season is, Karnad explains. Where scientific data wasn’t robust enough, such as for threadfin bream and ribbonfish, Karnad’s team relied mainly on the fishing communities’ knowledge.
A participant asks if anchovies will be available today. “Everything will be available,” Karnad says. “The question is whether you want to eat it throughout the year.”
After the briefing, we split into two smaller groups, led by Karnad and Krishna, and head to the seaward side stalls first, making our way through the swarming crowd. With the help of our guides, we identify big seerfish, pomfret, tuna, prawn, squid, and some sharks, cross-referencing what we see with the poster in our hands. A couple of stalls have piles of rays that Karnad hasn’t included in the lists or on the website. “We have not put them because they are so difficult to distinguish, so we ourselves get confused,” she says. Many rays are also threatened, she told me the previous evening over a cup of coffee, and we need to encourage eating species that are not.
Nearly every beachside vendor we ask confirms, after some prodding, that much of the seafood on their tables is from Kasimedu, Chennai’s main fishing harbor, about 12 kilometers away. “A truck comes from Kasimedu every day and we buy fish from that,” says Rani, a vendor who goes by a single name, through an interpreter.
Lata Velan, another vendor, who has several dogfish and a milk shark on sale—both on InSeason Fish’s avoid list for February—goes to Kasimedu to buy fish for her stall, she says.
Ironically, some of the fish the women have purchased from Kasimedu may have originated on Marina Beach. Small-scale fishers are increasingly selling their high-value catches like seerfish to traders at harbors such as Kasimedu for export, S. Velvizhi, a marine researcher at M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, who’s not involved with Fishploration, later tells me. At the harbors, fishers are assured a sale at a good price, unlike in the local markets where customers are less reliable. But then, on busier market days, the fishers’ own family members or neighbors might pick up the same fish and bring it back to their stalls. “They feel like unless they have a seerfish on their table nobody is even going to look at the table,” Karnad says.
Much of the catch at Kasimedu comes from large mechanized boats like trawlers, widely regarded as a destructive form of fishing that involves dragging weighted nets along the seafloor. Some of the largest trawlers can stay out at sea for weeks at a stretch in pursuit of commercially valuable species, which are then kept frozen until sale. As we walk, Karnad points out clues to look for when trying to identify a fish that has been previously frozen—pale gills, rather than red; cloudy eyes instead of clear; and fins that are slightly bent out of shape from being crammed into boxes.
By contrast, the fishing practices of Tamil Nadu’s beach-landing fishers, like those of Marina Beach’s fishers, are more ocean-friendly, and the catch is much fresher, Karnad says. This is because the fishers stay out at sea in small fiberglass boats for just a few hours every night, keeping their nets in water for a short duration, which means that the fish reach the market within hours. This practice aligns with recommendations for reducing by-catch given by international organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. A short soak time, in theory, lets fishers monitor what they’re catching, allowing them to release endangered species and unwanted catch while the animals are still alive. If nets are kept in water for too long, more animals are likely to die and decay in the nets, making them unsalable. Many of the beach-landing fishing villages in Tamil Nadu also voluntarily establish temporary no-catch areas, Karnad says, so they have an area to fall back on when other fishing grounds are depleted.
Karnad’s team has found through surveys that while Chennai’s small-scale fishers go out to sea hoping to catch more varieties that are of higher economic value, they end up catching a diverse mix of more than 100 different species in a month. These include some highly valued fish, as well as several less-valued varieties like lizardfish or silverbelly that mostly get sold within villages for local consumption or are dried and sold as fish meal for the poultry industry.
We see an indication of this lack of enthusiasm for so-called low-value fish on the other side of the road where the market continues. Sandwiched between parked scooters and cars, some vendors have spread tarpaulins to display small silverbelly, parrotfish, threadfin bream, sole, anchovy, crab, and conch—all caught during last night’s fishing trip in this part of the sea. Few customers cross to this part of the market, sticking instead to the bigger beachside stalls, which predominantly have Kasimedu fish for sale.
When Karnad has encouraged fishers to sell the mix of fish they can catch during each season and not go after high-value fish alone, they’ve been understandably reluctant. “They said that you have to give us guarantee that people are actually going to buy from us,” Karnad says. Those conversations sparked the realization that to support sustainable fishing, she would also need to promote lesser-known species to the public.
The diversity of fish at the market is already a revelation for Manogaran. “I thought there were only four to five varieties of fish, but now what I was able to witness here was that there are more than 40 to 50,” she says.
For Sathya Priya Ganeshkumar, a university student and a vegetarian, it is the ability to observe the dynamics of fishing as a livelihood up close that’s drawn her to the walk. “This is my first time in a fish market,” she says. “I’m interested in labor [issues] generally, so I was fascinated by all this.”
Her interests align with one of Karnad’s secondary goals: she not only wants to introduce people to the diversity of non-threatened, seasonal fish caught by more sustainable small-scale fishers, but also to get participants to interact with the fishing community. “There’s a deeper connection when you actually meet the fishermen,” says Karnad. “What we’ve heard from participants is that the next time they’re faced with the decision of what fish to eat, they remember the people they met.”
After our walk, some of us head to the fishing hamlet of Semmancheri on Kovalam Beach, a 45-minute drive from Marina Beach, for a scrumptious homemade lunch of rice with masala squid, tamarind-based halfbeak curry, and fried halfbeak. The seafood was freshly caught that morning by R. Ramadoss, a 40-something small-scale fisher, and cooked by his wife, Thangam. The squid is safe to eat in February, according to the InSeason Fish poster. The halfbeak, whose breeding seasons Karnad has yet to confirm, isn’t listed.
As we eat, Ramadoss tells us how he started fishing with his father as an 11-year-old. He tells us about the fish he supplies to local hotels and restaurants; the metal cabinet he found in a shipwreck 10 years ago that adorns his living room; and his four children, who after having eaten fish throughout the week, crave chicken biryani on Sundays.
This visit to Ramadoss’s house is a second component of Fishploration that Karnad added in 2018. Participants visit a small-scale fisher family after the market tour and share a meal.
Changing consumer behavior takes more than a single walk and meal, Karnad recognizes. “[B]ecause we’re doing it at such a small scale, it’s not having the level of impact that would be ideal to really change the conversation about seafood,” she admits.
When I speak with Yugraj Yadava, director of the Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation, who is not involved in Fishploration, he expresses doubt that consumer preferences will ever shift enough to reduce pressure on high-value fish. He anticipates species like seerfish and pomfret will remain coveted. “Fishers will always try to target these fish,” he says.
Even when consumers want to change their habits, there can be barriers. Some former participants of Fishploration say they still struggle with correctly identifying fish, for example. Shivani Unakar, a freelance researcher based in Bengaluru, has started asking her fish vendor for a species by its local name that she looks up on InSeason Fish rather than trying to spot the safe options herself. “Visually, it’s very hard for me to identify at the fish market,” she says.
Popularizing a diverse seafood menu also requires people to experiment with unfamiliar fish. The larger, fleshy seerfish and pomfret, with fewer and bigger bones, are easier to fry or cook into curries. “But cooking the smaller, bony fish and eating them is something we need to learn, and I don’t think I know as yet where to start,” says Mihir Ranganathan, a freelance marketer on my tour.
To keep driving forward with their goal of shifting buyer behavior, Karnad’s team has added new initiatives. They’re documenting recipes for the lesser-known fish varieties, for instance, and are collaborating with chefs and restaurateurs to get them to offer more diverse, in-season fish varieties sourced locally from small-scale fishers.
The learning curve to becoming a more mindful seafood consumer can seem steep. But Karnad’s work is helping city people take the first steps. At the end of our afternoon at Ramadoss’s home, as everyone gets ready to leave, I jot down the recipe for the mouth-watering tangy halfbeak curry. Walking through the fish market, with the poster in hand, opened my eyes to the diversity of seafood I could be eating, yet it was meeting Ramadoss’s family that showed me how to savor it.