At the Kasimedu fish market in Chennai, fisherfolk are seeing a decline in their catch. Throvnica Chandrasekar captures the sights and smells of the market, and examines the reasons for the dwindling fish along the coast.
As I walk into the street that leads to the Kasimedu market, it is not the typical flurry of a fish market that startles me, but the strong smell of fish and the sea. The salty smell hangs heavily in the air, clouding my nose and throat.
A variety of fish lie lifeless. Lifting a small flap away from the eyes of the fish, a vendor calls out, “Look, its eyes are red and clear, very fresh stock.” When a disinterested customer walks away, her face droops in frustration.
The Kasimedu fish market, known for selling fish wholesale, is set amidst the bustling neighbourhood of Royapuram, within the Chennai Fishing Harbour. This part of Chennai, from the north of Marina beach onwards, is also known as Vada (North) Chennai, and is home to thousands of daily wage workers who work as sanitation staff, auto drivers, hawkers, peddlers, and so on.
In the last decade, Vada Chennai has inspired some of the best gangster sagas in Tamil, such as Madras and Vada Chennai. Popular narratives often portray this part of Chennai as rather menacing; what tends to be overlooked is how its inhabitants constantly strive for upward mobility in spite of numerous setbacks. An important manifestation of this everyday struggle can be seen in the Kasimedu fish market.
My first visit to the market was during the Tamil month of Puratasi, which falls between September and October. Considered sacred, this is a cultural and religious practice (for Hindus) across the state during which they refrain from eating animal meat. Perhaps that explains why the market was slower than what I had imagined.
Despite this, the Kasimedu fish market, which hardly sleeps, is not one for stillness. Men load and unload trucks, sharp knives land on butcher blocks with a wet splash, huge blocks of ice are shredded, and the bargaining and negotiations never quite stop.
It is during the weekends that the market really comes to life, with trawlers returning with fresh catch after being out on the sea for at least 10 days. Local vendors and traders from across the country start bidding for the best and largest catch as early as three in the morning. In spite of an auction hall, which is largely unused, fishers prefer to lay their catch on the shore, right by their trawlers.
Most archival pictures do justice in capturing the pandemonium of the market and trade, but what is amiss is its smell—an integral part of any fish market. For outsiders, this smell can be overpowering and even ‘off-putting’. But what does it mean to the fisher community, for whom it is a persistent part of their trade?
I ask a group of fisherwomen eating at a food stall to describe the smell of the market. They use the Tamil word koutcha (கொச்ச)—often used to describe an unpleasant smell of rotten or ‘impure’ food. Parvathi, aged 55 says, “It is the smell of our life and livelihood.” I understand that she doesn’t consider the smell to be ‘bad’. She uses the word koutcha with acceptance, not with the negative connotation implied by those unacquainted with the ways of the market. “This is just how we speak, our language is rough around the edges,” she adds.
It is only after sunrise that local fish vendors set up their stalls along the shore. This is fish that they have bought from trawlers as well as small-scale fishermen. They set up the day’s catch on makeshift tables; the catch is diverse, and not easy to predict on any given day. In the early hours, this is where you would go if you want to buy large portions of fish, or want access to a wider variety of seafood.
Over a couple of visits to the market, I spot a range of fish including vellai vavval (white pomfret), kadal veral (cobia fish), parai and thenga parai (trevally fish), vanjaram (seer fish), seela (barracuda fish), and paal sura (milk shark). I’m told that one of the most sought after fish, by both vendors as well as consumers, is the seer fish, or vanjaram in Tamil. Commonly consumed in fish curries in Tamil Nadu, this large fish can be sold at a high value. For a vendor, a single large vanjaram—sometimes measuring up to six feet—is often enough for an entire day’s business. Other common fish found here are sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and small red snapper.
As I speak to some of the fish vendors in the market, what comes up frequently is how poor the catch has been in the last few years. Divya Karnad, award-winning marine conservationist and co-founder of InSeason Fish, has also observed the dwindling catch across coasts in the country.
Working on issues of seafood sustainability, Divya has been a witness to how the catch has been impacted by overfishing, pollution, and changes in the climate. But in this case, she explains, it is also because the coast around Kasimedu is polluted with waste from industrial plants along the Ennore Creek (roughly 10 kilometres away). It is here, into the shallow waters north of Kasimedu and the polluted Ennore estuary that most trawlers go to fish.
In the last few months alone, Ennore has been at the receiving end of an oil spill as well as an ammonia gas leak. And while this has been alarming to most people, for those living in the area, this comes as no surprise. The levels of pollution have steadily increased in their neighbourhood.
S Palayam from Urur Olcott Kuppam, a fishing hamlet in Chennai, used to be a traditional fisher. Recalling a time when Chennai’s rivers used to be clean, he says, “Even the Adyar River used to have sharks among all the other fish.” At present, he collects marine data for research, assisting with various conservation projects.
When asked about the decline in catch, Palayam explains, “Earlier, many fish laid their eggs in the rivers, which reached the sea in monsoon. But barely any fish come into the rivers anymore, and if they do, they die soon because of the polluted waters.”
When it comes to catching fish, there’s also a significant difference between the use of traditional methods and the large trawlers. In the past, many small-scale fishers were more knowledgeable about the different types of fish and their breeding cycles. Fishing during the breeding season can cause a significant decrease in fish population, leading in turn to poor catch. They used line nets, and their acquired understanding of the sea, its depth and currents, and other parameters helped them to be more selective in their fishing. At Kasimedu, there are still a few of these traditional fishers who use lines and baits to catch fish.
On the other hand, trawlers use large nylon nets that are non-selective of the fish they catch, which means that it does not discriminate against fish that are in breeding.
According to Palayam, the nylon nets used now contribute significantly to overfishing. These strong synthetic nets drag all fish out of the sea, including ones that are in breeding, as opposed to traditional nets made from plant fibre (paruthi nool) and leaves. “These nets took us a year to weave, and lasted only a year as well. They were easily destroyed by rainwater. We used specific kinds of nets for each type of fish depending on its size, weight, and shape,” Palayam shares.
I was curious about the awareness of the breeding patterns of fish among fisherfolk at Kasimedu. “We can’t afford not to fish at any time of the year. As a community, we take a break during the annual fishing ban by the government,” says Siva, the owner of a fibre boat, which is smaller than trawlers. “On those days, the government provides us with meagre stipends.”
The annual fishing ban is placed along the east and west coast from around mid-April to July. Although it is believed that fishing bans allow respite for fish that go into breeding during this period, it’s not entirely the case, especially on the eastern coast along Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
The ban on the western coast across Kerala, Karnataka, and Maharashtra takes place from June to July, and is in tandem with the south-west monsoon that brings harsh rains, preventing fishers from going into the sea. This is also the period during which many fish in the region are in breeding.
On the east coast, the ban takes place from mid-April to mid-June. But unlike on the west coast, this is not the period when most fish go into breeding, and instead it is the ‘lean’ period. Divya shares, “It is peak summer, and because the water is too hot, fish tend to go into deep waters making fishing hard.” According to her, the ban on the east coast does not accommodate breeding patterns, but acts as an effective respite period for fish populations.
Over three visits to the market, what also strikes me is how apart from serving as a place of commerce, it is also a communal hub for those that work and live around it. The market is surrounded by kuppams—small residential hamlets usually along the shore—where many of the vendors working in the market live. Catering to them, there are small shops that offer an array of products including everyday groceries, fresh vegetables, plastic trinkets, water-proof shorts, and mobile recharge.
Between lanes of seafood being sold, small huts sell meals for the vendors. Customers huddle, sitting on whatever they can find. Small stools if they’re lucky, if not, upturned buckets. But everyone finds a way to sit down to eat, and no one is left standing. They can’t always eat at leisure since their stalls are being looked after by neighbouring vendors.
The food is affordable; you can get a filling meal for around Rs 40. On the menu are dosas, idlis, pooris, lemon and tamarind rice. Fish curry is an option, served on the side.
At the end of the day, some fish remain unsold. Some of it is taken home to feed children for dinner. The rest, limp and often mutilated, are laid out under the sun to make karuvadu (dehydrated fish) the next day. No part of a catch is taken for granted or wasted—there are always possibilities.
There are many lessons to be learnt at the Kasimedu fish market, and it really is a living testimonial to the rich and diverse food resources available in the most significant littorals around the country. But it also makes you reflect on the everyday struggles of a community that toils to feed our endless desire for fresh seafood. And yet, we understand so little of how it gets to us.
In an attempt to grasp the everyday economics of the market, I asked Parvati, a boat owner and Siva, a boat operator, how profitable their business is. Buying a boat, a running motor, and other one-time investments had cost them around ten lakhs. On a good day, they could earn a profit of around Rs 5,000, they tell me. On a bad day, around Rs 1000. And on some days, nothing.
Recovering their investments is an uphill task, and it would likely take them many years. Just as I wonder what keeps them going, Siva says, “Our pride is in being a fisherman. It’s the only art and trade we know, and we can’t abandon it.”
Throvnica Chandrasekar, is a writer and editor based in Chennai. She works as a storytelling intern at the Locavore, and explores stories around indigeneity and environmental inequality.
Thanks to Divya Karnad (co-founder of In-Season Fish), and Saravanan and S Palayam from the Coastal Resources Centre for their insights on sustainable fishing.
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