At the start of the lockdown, close to 10,000 tonnes of fish had to be dumped in Mumbai, leading to a loss worth crores. This was an immediate crisis that the fisheries community needed to survive and come out of. 

But let’s step back a bit more. Overexploitation of natural resources, weather changes, climate change has had a deep impact on the marine ecosystem. Further, heavy industrialization, bottom trawling has disturbed the fish pattern to a great extent. This means that fishers to spend more time at sea, burn more fuel and still don’t earn enough to make a decent living 

Enter the picture, Ganesh Nakhawa, a seventh-generation Koli who went to Edinburgh Scotland for further education and to work in investment banking. Eventually, though, he returned to Mumbai, to his community and took a deep dive into improving their lives and livelihoods. He serves as the Director of the Karanja Fisheries Co-op Society and he is on a mission to promote sustainable fishing practices in the industry – instead of being customer demand-oriented, he wants fishing to be a fishers-driven venture. In simple words, supply will be of what is available in the ocean rather than hunting for what is being demanded.

Ganesh Nakhawa, #thelastfishermanofbombay, speaks to Samira Pillai on how he is working towards changing mindsets, educating various stakeholders and leveraging social media and technology to change his industry for the better!

What is the story behind the name The Last Fisherman of Bombay?
I have been the director of the Karanja Fisheries Co-op Society for about four years now. We’ve had to deal with some drastic changes like less catch in the current climate, and government policy, which doesn’t favour the fisherfolk. I started to feel that I will be among the last fishermen in these communities and wondered if anybody would join this industry again.

Also, around four years ago, I saw a poster about the last school year at an art festival in Colaba, which stayed in my mind. Our Koli community goes hundreds of years back. Once, all the seven islands of Mumbai were fishing islands, but today we don’t have a place for ourselves in this city. We can’t even say that the houses we have are ours, because we can’t register those houses. I have always thought of gathering the people together to uplift fisheries in the Indian market. There was a phase when the entire trade industry was ruled by the middleman. I started this to do something. I changed my Instagram account handle to The Last Fisherman of Bombay to inform people what fishing was actually about.

Did you see an increase in the traction when you changed to this name?
That same night, around 3:30 am, I got two to three DMs from powerful Instagram accounts and a few Facebook friends. Questions like “What happened?” and “Are you okay?” started to come in. I realized I could use Instagram to convey my message to people. Initially, I would give out a lot of news articles, which didn’t bring in any change. I thought instead of reading, pictures make a lot more noise. I started my Instagram updates on fishing etc., and just didn’t stop. People were curious about sustainability in fisheries and climate change. Nobody paid attention before that, not till it came in the form of an emotional story.

Can you take us through some of the initiatives you have been taking for different groups that get impacted by the fishing industry? What has been your focus with them?
The Last Fisherman of BombayIt’s about using common sense. Prior to lockdown, when restaurants were open, you’d see a lot of people choosing the wrong seafood. Everyone was eating seafood, which was neither grown, nor caught in India. People asked for Alaskan Salmon, Norwegian Salmon, Vietnamese Basa. Bombay is a coastal city, but nobody wanted to eat the local Bombay fish. The fishermen selling only pomfret was already a part of the problem. But another part of the problem in the last 10 years was that people were consuming a lot of imported seafood.

At one end you are trying to help the fisherman and thereby help the economy. At the other end, you are trying to import seafood. The volume was too much and to convert that volume to regional seafood, you need knowledge. In our textbooks, you will find different types of vegetables and fruits, but only one type of fish, which is not really a fish. They will show a golden fish and say this is what a fish is like. There is no guideline where one can see 20-25 types of fish, all easily accessible in India. This part of the food system information was never passed on to the kids.

Secondly, you need support from restaurants and chefs in the industry, who can guide consumers to eat these kinds of seafood instead. That’s why I started going to see all these good chefs for their support. For example, if someone wants to try a local cuisine using local fish like bombil or paaplet or kolbi, they will go to Google and type in how to cook it. But if there is no recipe around it, how will they search?

I went to these culinary art schools and hotel management schools to give seminars. The young chefs had no textual knowledge of what species of fish are available in Mumbai or around India. Even they were being taught about Alaskan Salmon, Norwegian Salmon and Vietnamese Basa. And for the locals, they know about pomfret or rawas only. The problem has always been awareness.

When you go out and speak to people, what is usually their reaction?
I always ask them, “What is your favourite fish?” Nine times out of 10, it is always prawns or pomfret, because people do not know any other fish. 

But imagine if a big personality like Amitabh Bachchan comes on your TV and says that we have 20-25 species of fish in India that should be eaten, or even advertises such a campaign, people will be curious and go to see what kind of fish are there. Such a campaign has not happened in the last 70 years. That’s the whole problem.

Do you believe that the lockdown has contributed to helping your cause in creating more awareness? 

Sea Food Lockdown

Safe Delivery During Lockdown

The lockdown has helped. If the business would have carried on as usual, nobody would have listened to me. There was no regular fish in the market because of lockdown. The suppliers and the wholesalers weren’t available. When we started selling fish again, that was the whole turning point. I could go back to selling pomfret and surmai, where I would make a lot of money. But this was my chance. If you want to tell people something or pass on a message, then educate them. Even if they don’t buy it, at least they will understand that this should be eaten and this shouldn’t, what is available and what isn’t. Now a lot more home chefs are following The Last Fisherman account and asking pertinent questions like “Is this fish in season?”, “What are the other available options?” 

What would you consider to be the bigger challenge – the lack of education or the middlemen?
I find the middlemen more problematic. They have a very lacklustre approach. The middleman buys something, sells something and gets something in return. Why would he try something and cause an imbalance? When things get back to normal post the lockdown, I’ll be the one facing problems, because the crowd I cater to is very small. The crowd, which the middleman caters to, is very huge.

Do you speak to the Koli community directly about what they can do to increase the sustainable fishing practices and how they can improve?
In 2015, we had the first sustainability program arranged by a Marine Product Export Development Authority and all the fisheries institutes. It was an eye-opener. All this has already happened in Japan and other western countries, where fish stocks are better than ours. With sustainability, came policies and strict regulation. In India too, we are going down the sustainable fishing route. But here, most of the fishermen are traditional. There is no corporate lobby in the fishing industry. Next, other corporate players will enter this industry and take over. We don’t want that. I want the younger generation to come back to the fishing industry and make it respectable. The change has to come within the community.

With the older generation, it is difficult to make them understand what sustainability is and why it should be practised. Recent phenomena with adverse climate are changing this. People have started realizing that for survival, we will need to catch limited stocks so that we earn better. This is a vision for the long run. It’s not going to happen overnight.

We try to form groups, where younger people can come together and be a part of the change because older people are not going to change. The fishing sector is controlled by the cooperative societies. Like any fishing village, there is a presence of a fishing cooperative, where you deal with politics. 

As a seventh-generation Koli, how has your London education played a role in coming back to this industry and within the community?
It mattered when I needed to communicate policy level work in a lot of research institutes. The Kolis were not able to reach that platform or raise their voice, even if they held a big position in a cooperative society or government group. One will find tons of information about farmers’ rights and protests if you Google it. But it’s not the same for fishing, because no one is talking about fishing. 

The cooperative society gave me a platform to raise my voice and it slowly started being heard. Work started at a policy level. But at the same time, there were some adverse reactions.

So, the community was not very supportive initially. What was the turning point for you?

Karanja Kolis

Karanja Jetty

Every community has this problem. I was an educated guy, so they could not understand why I wanted to return to fishing. They insisted that there’s nothing left in fishing and I was better off in London. Initially, nobody was listening to me, because I was not part of any association. When I became a part of the Karanja society, I tried to make some reforms. For example, in 2015, there was a strike for the weighing scale. The fishermen were supposed to be given electronic scales, but it was not being done. They still used the old weighing scale. The reform for electronic fishing scales started at all harbours in Maharashtra. 

Then there was another protest when the new government came into session that was attended by 25,000 fishermen. We would go to Mantralaya and speak to the secretary and commissioners to explain what real sustainability is. And then that problem was solved. I stressed on the message that if you want to sustain this generation and encourage people who want to come back into the fishing industry, there should be some fish left for fishing. If there is no fish, what will they do? I use the same language about saving the fish with a lot of NGOs who come to talk about marine conservation. I tell them you have to save the fishermen first. Bring the community back to the fishing industry and they will take care of saving the fish.

In your opinion, what has been a more effective tool – letter writing or social media?
Social media works better than anything else because it helps make noise. If 100 people make noise, the government feels the pressure.

There are so many potential careers in the fishing industry, but most don’t consider it a lucrative career. 
Most of my friends from the village are not engaging in fishing. They’re engineers or working in IT or something like that. Fishing has become a dirty business. The government has made the fishing industry so complex that the regulations are not supportive. We are tired as well. Regulations are made in a fortnight and supposed to be followed after a day’s notice. That is what leads to corruption. We have officers at random come to the harbour and tell us about the new regulations, that we are not following them and will be fined, or our stuff will be confiscated or we will be taken to court. 

The lockdown has been a problem for many but has given the entire fishing community an opportunity to think about how things can change ahead.

Tell us more about BluCatch, your seafood delivery service that provides for the consumer and helps the fishermen as well. How does Oh Fish come into this?

Sustainable Fishing Delivery

Delivering Local and Sustainable Seafood

I began in 2015 and continued through 2016 for a year and a half. But I launched it in Navi Mumbai to be safe, fearing the competition in the main Bombay city. When I failed, I realized what the problem was. I have been talking to many chefs since 2018 and all were very excited. But again, in 2018, the climate change issue cropped up and there was no fishing happening. With no fish coming in, what would I supply?

Oh Fish and BluCatch are partner companies. We will make the fishermen our partners, bring them to the platform and give them their QR code. It is already live. We are promoting this on Instagram stating that your seafood is coming from a known source. If you are getting prawns, then you will know from where they are coming from, the fisherman who caught them and whether they are in good condition. Already, we have supported over a hundred fisherfolk. 

We are a small team without any rental or separate space. We are operating from home and my car. My car was the distribution centre. My colleague, Myron [Mendes], and I have been working together for the last three years. He looks at sustainability, traceability and climate change and makes sure it reaches the right audience, besides taking care of the ethical part of the branding. Then there’s Devleena [Bhattacharjee], who looks after the Oh Fish and BluCatch platform. That is our team combination.

What is your vision and plan for the future and how will you put in motion? 
My vision is simple. Local seafood should be consumed in India. There should be awareness on seafood and sustainability. The per capita of seafood consumption, which is three kg, should increase to at least seven or eight in the next five years. And then in the next 10 years, it will reach a global average of 16 to 20 kg. When we become aware, then we’ll definitely eat seafood like vegetables.

I’ve been talking to the government. The commissioner changes every four months, so a new person comes for inspection every four months. It is a tiring process because by the time one commissioner is made aware of our problems, he has already been replaced and we have to go through the whole process again.

The government changes every five years and each new government has a new vision. It becomes very difficult in a changing political climate. They give us the excuse of insufficient finance to fund the workshops; they do not have money to bring in new subsidies. If they do not stop the harmful subsidies, how can we continue with fish production? How will export factories run? We need pilot projects on a national level. Small-scale changes won’t have any effect. 

Adopt one fishing village at a time and make a role model out of it. Support the fishermen; give them good equipment. If they make losses, give them subsidies. Tax should not be levied on the fisherfolk, but the exporters. Right now, exporters get subsidies because they’re exporting fish and bringing in foreign revenue. But none of it gets passed on to the fisherman. That’s the funniest part.

– Written by Sneha Kamat Bhavnani