Far too much miscellany

By Amanda Vincent

I’m not sure whether to be enthralled or appalled by the trawl fisheries of southern India. Probably both. I’ve spent the past week hanging about fishing communities of Tamil Nadu, guided by our wonderful Indian PhD student, Tanvi Vaidyanathan. It’s been a considerable education, even for somebody used to Asian fisheries. I’ve been particularly struck by the amount of miscellaneous marine life that goes off to chicken feed. 

We have focused initially on the Mandapam area, near the Hindu holy city of Rameswaram.  On this narrow isthmus, trawlers operate on both sides.  The small wooden trawlers on the southern side, the Gulf of Mannar, can go out every day.  In contrast, those on the northern side, Palk Bay, are only allowed to go to sea three times a week to avoid conflict with traditional gear.  They may fish for a maximum of 28 hours, leaving and returning in the morning.  Both bring back an assortment of fish, crabs, octopus and squid, shells and more.  

Most animals are sorted on the boat between hauls of the trawl net. Everything of value is then dumped in piles on the sand once the catch is landed. Throngs of people, men and women, gather around the pile of marine life, which is then sold in a cacophony of noise, very loud for a supposedly silent auction.  It’s fascinating to wade into the melee and watch, watch, watch the interplay of humanity over dying animals.  It’s also a bit hideous to know that many of these sandy, overheated, badly handled beasties become the food we eat.  I can see why Tanvi decided to become vegetarian after a few months of this fieldwork…

Even among the nurse sharks and endless pufferfishes, the most extraordinary sight is the piles of small unsorted fish and invertebrates.  I’m dismayed by how many fisheries people call them trash fish or waste, names that dismiss them as being of no account.  I’ll just call them miscellany, the random piles of marine life kept only as a source of organic material.  They are shoved into large plastic baskets, a great many of them, and left to fester while the main catch is addressed.  All these small ocean animals are then sold as a job lot, to be turned into chicken feed.  

At least Mandapam does some sorting. I gather that other landing areas and ports won’t even make that effort, so much miscellany do they have.  We’ll be seeing them soon...