Divya Karnad, the cofounder of InSeason Fish, is helping people identify different species of fish, and raising awareness on eating locally and seasonally.
The last time that Divya took a group of seafood eaters on a guided tour through fish markets in Chennai was in February 2020. Around 12 curious people turned up on Marina Beach at around 8:30 am, all set to find out what it means to eat seafood sustainably. These ‘fishplorations’, as Divya calls them, are usually organised on Sundays since everyone has more free time.
The group gathered before the market walk to discuss the day’s agenda. “There was some legal or political issue happening at the same time on Marina beach that day. So there were police, and when they came to ask us what we were doing, we made them also listen to what we were saying. We gave them a poster (with the fish in season) as well,” says Divya Karnad, a marine conservationist based in Chennai. In 2019, she was one of the recipients of the prestigious Future for Nature award for her work in conserving endangered sharks.
These walks are organised by InSeason Fish—a sustainable seafood initiative—to not only build awareness and encourage seafood eaters to eat seasonally, but also diversify their tastes. Founded by Divya and wildlife biologist Chaitanya Krishna (also her husband), InSeason Fish puts out seasonal calendars which offer consumers information on what seafood should be eaten at different points of the year, depending on where you live. I usually log on to their Instagram page very quickly before I buy seafood, and I’ve been following their work ever since because you can tell how meticulously they’ve put this together.
The fishploration walks are one of Divya’s favourite things to do. She enjoys accompanying people through the markets, helping them discover and forge connections. “People have lost the ability to identify what they’re eating, and also to negotiate in a market.” On these tours, they are taught to identify different species of fish, be able to tell the quality, and ask the right questions to assess if a fish is fresh and has been caught locally. The tour sounds so fascinating that I’m already telling her that I’d like to come along the next time I’m in Chennai.
And that’s not all. There are conversations with people from the fishing community, you get to see different kinds of fishing nets, look at fresh catch, examine why it’s important to go beyond the popular varieties, and if you’re lucky, even have a meal at a fisherman’s home. Divya feels that it is these face-to-face interactions with fishermen and fish-sellers that are likely to leave an impression, and convince someone to buy and eat more responsibly. Especially when it takes so little effort to get any kind of seafood right at our doorsteps.
The wonderful thing about the way Divya nudges people to make responsible choices is that she recognises the need to work with different stakeholders within the system. She works with small-scale fishermen, fish-sellers, consumers, restaurants, government bodies, and business owners. And it’s evident that she’s able to see these issues—complex and interconnected— from multiple points of view, which is so vital when you’re working with food and sustainability. After all, the last thing that any of us wants is to be made to feel more guilty.
The wonderful thing about the way Divya nudges people to make responsible choices is that she recognises the need to work with different stakeholders within the system.
Divya admits that her own consumption patterns have changed after her work with InSeason Fish. “Growing up, I’ve mostly eaten mackerel and seer fish. But I’ve now started liking a lot of the smaller fish. It depends on where I am really, but I love saundale (Maharashtra) and silver belly (Tamil Nadu), a bony but really tasty fish which is great in curries.” As she’s talking, I’m thinking of how I’ve eaten so few varieties over the years, and how this has narrowed down especially now that I live in Bangalore. I make a mental note to visit a fish market the next time I’m in Kochi, where I grew up.
Reviving lost connections
Having worked with fishing communities for over a decade, Divya has also come to understand the tremendous challenges of their work, and the uncertainties that come with it. “We put a lot of expectations on our resource-dependent communities. It’s easy to pass the buck, expect others to make sacrifices while we ourselves don’t give up much. But is it fair to ask these communities to do all the hard work so that we continue to have access to pristine coasts?” In a sense, Divya’s attempting to bridge the wide gap between those that catch and sell the fish, and the ones who eat it.
She tells me that there are common perceptions of fishermen as being greedy, and not caring about the environment. But she has come to realise that many of them are deeply concerned, and have been trying to find solutions of their own. Also what is little known is that within these communities, they have always had effective ways of managing their fisheries. There are rules around who can fish where, how to divide the catch equitably, where to fish and during which season, and so on.
Our fishing communities have understood things about climate change years before it came to be noticed by scientists.
In Divya’s line of work, fishermen across coasts have also always been rich storehouses of information. “In places like India, we don’t have sources for this kind of knowledge about the sea. Our fishing communities have understood things about climate change years before it came to be noticed by scientists. We shouldn’t lose out on their generational knowledge.”
While in the early years of her career, a lot of Divya’s work was at the grassroots level, with fishing communities, the scope has slowly expanded. She was recently asked by the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) to weigh in on the fisheries part of their election manifesto in Tamil Nadu. The covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the communities that she works with and while it’s been hard to organise market walks, Divya has been working on a new campaign to reduce the demand for shark meat in Goa’s restaurants (more details can be found on InSeason Fish’s Instagram account). She’s also currently teaching Environmental Studies at Ashoka University.
I ask Divya how she manages to stay so committed to this kind of work when we’re faced with the overwhelming realities of the climate crisis. “There are people who seem to be motivated by positive things, and there are those who are motivated by negative things. I think maybe conservationists are the latter kind, where you hear something horrible is happening, and you feel the need to step in and fix it.” And this is really what is inspiring about Divya’s work, both as a scientist and also her outreach efforts—that she consistently puts in time and effort, and is determined to revive fractured, but important connections—even when things get rough.
Yamini Vijayan works as an editor with The Locavore.
THE LOCAVORE CHAMPIONS
To learn to do good through food, we also turn to others for inspiration. The Locavore Champions is our way of gathering stories of people who create meaningful change in the Indian food system.