Climate Change

Odisha’s fish stocks are depleting, courtesy warming seas; here’s how

Rampant catching of baby fish, migration routes changing thanks to climate impact coumpounding problems 

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Friday 05 May 2023
The warming seas are also affecting the movement of fish, particularly in the shore areas. Fisherfolk report catches are scantier now. Photo: Ashis Senapati
The warming seas are also affecting the movement of fish, particularly in the shore areas. Fisherfolk report catches are scantier now. Photo: Ashis Senapati The warming seas are also affecting the movement of fish, particularly in the shore areas. Fisherfolk report catches are scantier now. Photo: Ashis Senapati

The fisherfolk of Odisha are paying the price for the warming world and seas. Fish migration routes are changing thanks to climate impact, according to an expert. Combined with multiple low pressures areas and regular extreme weather events, fishing communities in coastal Odisha report scanty catches amid frequent fishing bans. 

The spell of heatwaves began earlier than usual in 2023, with Odisha suffering from heatwaves for five days by April 20. Climate models also predict an El Niño event in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which generally causes more intense heatwaves in India.

El Niño events are associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific. Further warming of seas may impact the livelihood of fishing communities even more, according to locals.

Read more: New draft coastal regulation allows tourism in sensitive zone, poses threat to fishers

“We depend on the sea, but weather is bad frequently. The Mahanadi river mouth near the port town Paradip is also turbulent, making the navigation difficult even for the seasoned fishermen,” said Arabinda Mandal (45), a marine fisherman of Kharinasi village, Kendrapara district.

There are more low-pressure areas in the sea, according to the fisherfolk. “We are in deep trouble as we have been facing many low pressures in the sea for the last few years,” said Sumant Kumar Biswal, secretary of Odisha Marine Fish Producers Association.

“Untimely rain, strong winds and severe heat have led to fewer fish being caught,” said Mahadev Das, a fisherman from Sandhakuda village, Jagatsinghpur district.

The warming seas are also affecting the movement of fish, particularly in the shore areas. The marine animals are cold-blooded creatures and can’t regulate their body temperature.

“Fish movements are diurnal and seasonal according to the temperature, which impacts the near-shore catch during warmer days,” said Rajesh Kumar Pradhan, fisheries scientist with the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Puri.

Depletion of fish combined with unpredictable weather conditions is compounding the troubles for the fishing community.

The Odisha government places a three-month-long fishing ban from April 15 to June 14 to protect brood fishes and provide an undisturbed breeding ground, Pradhan said.

Read more: Aid to Odisha fisherfolk doubled for fishing ban to save turtles; Is it enough?

“The lean fishing period, especially on the east coast, including Odisha, helps fishes breed during the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons. The restriction helps naturally recruit more fish to the sea,” the scientist said.

However, there are fewer fish despite the restrictions, thanks to climate change.

“Erratic summer rains, cyclones, low-pressure areas and less rain in the monsoon interrupt the migration routes of hilsa fish,” said Manoranjan Mohapatra, the assistant fisheries officer with the directorate of fisheries, Cuttack.

Many fisherfolks also continue to use ring nets, which were banned as they trap larvae or baby fish, said Jagannath Rao, the assistant fisheries officer of Paradip. These ring nets are a big reason behind the depletion of the fish population in the sea.

The fisheries department in 2002 banned the use of certain fishing nets and traps of different mesh and sizes, including ring nets with mesh squares of less than 7 centimetres.

“We warn fishermen through microphones in the coastal pockets not to use ring nets. The fisheries department has the right to cancel licenses and boat registration if any fishermen are found to be violating the norms and using ring nets,” added Rao.

The use of ring nets by some has hit traditional fisherfolks the most, claimed Narayan Haldar, the secretary of Odisha Masyajibi Forum. “There has been no action on the issue,” he alleged. The nets also harm endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles, horseshoe crabs, dolphins and other marine species.

Earlier, marine fisherfolk would discard trash fish, baby fish and non-edible fish if caught. But now, some deliberately use ring nets to catch larvae for shrimp seed and poultry seed factories, said Hemant Rout, the secretary of Gahirmatha Marine Turtles and Mangrove Conservation Society.

Read more: Discarded fishing gear threatens Ganga dolphins, turtles

“Catching baby fish is leading to wanton destruction of fish resources,” added Rout.

The state has enormous fishery resources thanks to a coastline of 480 kilometres, said Manoranjan Kumar Patra, managing director of Odisha Aqua Traders and Marine Exporters Pvt Ltd.

“Shrimp is the biggest earner, and commercial shrimp farming has become a vital source of income for nine coastal districts,” he said. “Bad weather due to climate change is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in front of Odisha fisherfolk's livelihoods.”

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