Journey to the Centre of your Plate

– Rasikapriyaa T S


It is raining, and you are craving a nice hot plate of fried silver pomfret. You pick up your car keys, drive to your favourite seafood restaurant and place your order for their famous pomfret fry. Have you wondered how your favorite fish has been getting more and more expensive over the last few years? Have you wondered about how this fish that you are all set to devour, reached your plate? This pomfret embarks on a long winding journey to reach your plate. Why you should know about this journey, you may ask. This journey tells you all about how your tasty dish has a dark past and is staring at a bleak future and how your choices could make a small, albeit significant difference. If you want to know what this is all about, read on, I will let Mr. Pod, a distinguished individual belonging to taxonomic group Copepoda, which are like tiny crabs in the sea, begin with an account of his unexpected adventure.

Mr. Pod here, is a survivor. And he has a story to tell.

“mm bluh bluhh bloouglue blug…” began Mr. Pod, the story of his daunting day in the world of fishes, nets, weird contraptions, humans and more humans. For the purpose of clarity, I shall provide the translated to English version of his account in this article.

There began Mr. Pod. “One fine morning I was doing my morning thing, just swimming around and looking for a small piece of alga to breakfast on. Little did I know that I was being spied on to be made a meal out of, by a certain silver finned gentlefish, a silver pomfret. It came charging at me and there was nothing much I could do to stop being swallowed whole by him, except swim away as fast as I could. Just before he closed his jaws around me, both of us heard faint gurgling like something big was approaching us. I was stuck, swallowed alive, but not eaten yet, and the pomfret hadn’t realized because the pomfret himself seemed to be agitated by something. I could feel forcefully being swayed in a straight line, pushed steadily by something that looked like a thin white wall. Within minutes, I knew we had company. It is when I started looking outside through the gaps in his teeth that I realized that this was an enormous thin wall and it was dragging everything in its way. I saw some prawns, a whole lot of fish, I couldn’t identify which ones some of them were, they were too young and I saw this large turtle. I was aware that I was in some kind of danger, and so were these guys, but I couldn’t escape, so I just stayed put and watched through the gaps in his teeth, everything that happened.

The dragging ceased after a while and things became very still for a few seconds. Just then, the wall pushed in on us and squeezed us all together and we were now pulled upwards into what looked like the turned shell of a very weirdly shaped large turtle, floating on the water, with some creatures that were walking on two fins. They are humans, are they? I see. When I looked out to see the floor of this boat, as you call it, I saw heaps and mounds of small fish, sea snakes, some dead turtles, some dead sharks, and prawns, these humans were making by separating them from heaps such as the one I was in. Some of the snakes were still writhing in the hope of being put back in the sea. What was left of some heaps was thrown back into the sea, but I didn’t understand why, because if the humans were trying to let them live again, because they didn’t need them, they didn’t realize that they were all dead. These humans seem weird to me.

A picture of bottom trawling. All contents of the ocean floor covered by the trawler are pulled along and displaced resulting in severe disturbance, in a single trawling operation. This is an example of what Mr. Pod may have seen in his day’s exploits. Photo credits: Brain Skerry.

I was still alive because I had some water in the pomfret’s mouth to get by on, but that fellow didn’t have any water. Out of the water, he quickly died. When the human saw the pomfret, he picked us up and placed us inside this very cold room. After what seemed like eternity, we finally got out of that room and we got taken out of that cold room by what seemed like one more human, but he looked a lot plumper than the ones on the boat. Like he seemed to be getting a lot more algae to eat than the humans who caught us. I heard him muttering about how expensive fish has become now, but, funnily enough, how the fish that reached his cold box seemed to be getting smaller. He first placed the pomfret on something flat and started pouring water on it. When some water was poured near where I was, I quickly swam through the teeth and escaped. The water somehow got me back home. On the way back, I started thinkingabout how mama always says we are safer now, that there are fewer and fewer of these pomfrets around. I only realized that it was because these humans, they were pulling everything out from the sea. They are indeed pulling everything out from the sea. We are safer, but we are kinda hungrier too, these days. That large thin white wall that I got caught in, it has at times taken away rocks which we used to live on and find great food in. I wonder who else this is happening to. I suppose I was better off in a lot of ways. All those big guys, like the turtle, the shark and even the sea snakes, get caught, get killed and don’t even get used by these humans for anything. I mean, even when my arch enemy, the pomfret, wants to chase me and eat me, he doesn’t catch and chew up a load of other things, only to spit them all out to no avail. This is beyond me. I can only hope that these two finned creatures find some ways to hunt like the pomfret, take what it needs, and nothing more.” Having told me the journey of this pomfret form the middle of the sea to the centre of a plate, Mr. Pod walked away. Being one of these two finned creatures, I got thinking about Mr. Pod’s parting words. “Learn to take what it needs and nothing more.”

A photo of bycatch in bottom trawling. Many slow growing, rare species, such as several species of sea turtles and sharks are caught as bycatch, resulting in rapid depletion of their populations with not enough time for recovery, due to their long lifetime. For every fish that reaches a plate, at least twice the amount is discarded as waste.

An unfortunate artefact of the fishing practices that are being followed today is the rapid depletion of several target and non-target species. Earlier, fishing practices were designed for one or very few target species. With the advent of boat mechanization, the frontiers became easier and easier to expand, allowing access to farther and deeper parts of the sea. A growing population, global markets, shift of diets towards more meat and seafood consumption and a demand for year-round availability of previously seasonally available fish are placing immense pressure on the fishing industry. Fishing practices today are predominantly volume-focused and not target species focused and levy ecological costs on the target species, non-target species and the ocean ecosystem in general. Bottom trawling for instance, pulls and alters the ocean bed so much that it effectively destroys the habitat of several species. Mr. Pod seemed to have gotten caught in a trawling operation. As he describes, trawling results in the catching of many non-target species like turtles, sharks and snakes and also of the juveniles of many species. Once the trawling is done, all this non-target catch or by-catch, depending on what it is, is either discarded back into the sea or used as poultry feed. This results in the mortality of adults in slow growing species which jeopardizes the future populations of these species severely. Further, fishing out of juveniles effectively removes an entire generation of that particular species from the population.

One might be tempted to ask what one can do about this issue. I will say that the future seems bleak, but the future is also in our hands. Apart from doing their research on several aspects of the biology and ecology of Indian West coast fishes, some scientists are attempting to collect data on fish reproduction and population trends, fishing methods and catch trends that can be used to inform policy. Fishing is an industry that is influenced heavily by market trends.

In addition to attempting to bring about changes in policy and consequently fishing practice, scientists at Know Your Fish have been trying to change market trends, by trying to encourage fish consumption that is ecologically sound. They have collected and collated data on several species of commercially consumed fish from the west coast of India and based on their biology, their reproductive cycles, fishing practices used to catch them, the nature and amount of by-catch involved in catching these species and several other factors, come up with a calendar on which months of the year are most vulnerable for which species of fish and which months of the year are relatively better for consumption. Market trends are driven by people’s demands and desires. If you would be willing to make some small modifications in the nature of their seafood consumption, you would be contributing to making the future less bleak. If you want to continue enjoying your favourite plate of hot fried pomfret, far far into the future, you could start by picking up this calendar and taking a look at it!