By Tarun Basu
Pallikera (Kerala): If the fish on the menu of your hotel is not what you were looking for, what do you do? Complain to the chef? Change your hotel?
If it is Chef Ashok Pillai, of Vivanta by Taj, Bekal, the newest of the Taj properties in northern Kerala, he will simply drive you down to the nearby Kappil Fishing Village, buy the fresh fish that you like straight off the boats as it were and have it cooked for you for lunch. And that’s an experience you are unlikely to forget.
Contrary to my fears, the trip was not too early in the morning. In fact, it was after a leisurely breakfast over ragi dosas, rice kanjhi (a kind of local gruel) and rich filter-coffee that we set out for Pallikera, about 15 minutes from the resort. Along a winding village road, past fast-urbanising rural settlements, with money from expatriate Keralites in the Gulf turning the pastoral landscape of thatched village huts into fancy suburban villas and corner supermarkets selling every goodie that pouring-in remittances can buy.
As the sun goes up over the 17th century battlements of the keyhole-shaped Bekal Fort, the largest in Kerala and well-preserved, that rises almost sheer from the emerald green Lakshadweep Sea on India’s southwestern coast, the first of the boats come in. With whoops and shrieks, they almost crash into the shore, laden with shimmering, silvery catch filled to the brim in their wooden hollows. Most of it are palm-sized sardines and mackerel with occasional catches of pomfret, seer fish, cat fish and prawn.
Ebony-skinned, scrawny women, their faces crinkled by years of exposure to the elements, hover around expectantly, hoping to earn a princely sum of Rs.30 an hour for carrying a basket to the auction site some hundred yards away. Their wicker baskets teem to the brim with fish, some of which leap out and are either scooped away by swooping eagles or crows or become the lucky meal for lurking beggars and destitute fishermen who are too old to work.
Moinuddin, however, is least interested in the “small fry”. He waits for the big catch and it comes in another boat that ventured almost up to the commercial fishing zone to net a large catch white pomfrets. Within no time a deal is struck, his agent is the highest bidder in the spot auction and the fish is whisked away to a tiny warehouse where it is put in ice for onward journey to the larger fishing markets.
Explains Pillai: “The big fish doesn’t come too often and the small fish is not something that goes well with the resort’s clientele. And the prawns, sardines and mackerel largely head to the export market – to the Gulf and Southeast Asia.” But the moment there is a big catch, Moinuddin alerts Pillai and the hotel arranges to pick it up.
Of late, families, instead of heading to the typical fish markets, reach where the fishermen come with their catch and join in the auction.
“I have been doing this for the past one year and, believe me, when a kilogram of seer fish costs around Rs.550 in the fish markets, since I buy it off directly from the auction spot, the price drops to as low as Rs.250 a kilogram. The only problem is if you buy from these places, you have to buy a full fish and at times I have purchased a 15 kg seer fish,” remarked P. Ajaychandran, a local businessman.
Xavier John, 70, a former fisherman today ekes out a living by helping people buy fish directly from the source.
“You know, I have more than two dozen customers who call me up to help them get a good fish. I wait for them to come and once I do my job, they give me something and am happy because of the confidence of my regular customers, I make around Rs.500 a day for around two hours of work,” said John.
The fish catches from the Kerala coast include more than 300 different species, but the high-value species among the fish catches are still few. The quantity of these high-value species in the total catch ultimately decides the income of the fishermen. Unfortunately, the share of these high-value varieties in the total marine fish catch has been remaining stagnant. The rest are left to harvest on the small fish which are sold off in nearby markets by the fisherwomen.
About half the population of Kasaragod, in which Pallikera falls, is involved in active fishery, the highest such percentage among the state’s 14 administrative districts.
The Kerala coastline is 590 km long and there are 10 fishing harbours and 34 fish-landing centres like Pallikera in the state. There are more than a million men involved in inland fisheries, with over 350,000 fishermen engaged in marine fishing operations. There are nearly 30,000 fishing craft operating throughout the state, according to Kerala government figures.
Kerala’s rivers, backwaters and other brackish water bodies endow it with a multitude of fish, besides the marine life bestowed by the Arabian Sea. Fisheries form one of the most important sectors of Kerala’s economy, contributing three percent of the state domestic product.
Kerala’s share in the national marine fish production is close to 25 percent. Kerala stands second in marine fish production in the country with nearly 700,000 tonnes, with sardines alone accounting for more than 200,000 tonnes.