Dwindling fish landings on the Kerala coast and spiralling demand have combined to force the State to turn to neighbouring States for its fish supplies even as market sources said that consumers in Kochi were spared a possible fish scarcity during Easter and Vishu holidays with substantial imports of a variety akin to milk fish/white mullet (vila meen) from the Gulf.

Hundreds of tonnes of Kerala’s most relished fish, pearlspot (karimeen), and pretender to the throne tilapia, arrive in Kochi in refrigerated lorries from aqua farms of Andhra Pradesh; anchovy and sardines arrive here from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and even from fish landing centres further north, said a fish dealer here on Monday.

Charles George of the Trade Union Coordination Committee, representing the interests of coastal residents and fishermen communities, said there was no way to monitor the quantities of fish arriving in markets like Kochi from neighbouring States or even from countries with which India has a free trade agreement.

Kerala, as a whole, is facing an acute shortage of oil sardines this season as schools of fish are moving up to avoid warmer waters in the south. They are also moving further away from the shores, said Mr. George, who pointed out that Mumbai and some of the other centres in Maharashtra were seeing an abundance of oil sardine catch this season.

A wholesale supplier of fish to export factories said that Kochi’s fish landing this season has been marked by an abundance of tuna catch.

Tuna, weighing between 15 and 20 kg, has come in large quantities while high-end varieties like seer fish and pomfrets are virtually out of the scene, he said. Cuttle fish and squids are the other favourites the supplies of which have dried up this season.

This has prompted traders in Kochi to turn to captive facilities in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to meet the demand for everyday supplies, which comprise karimeen, tilapia and even shrimps.

Mr. George, however, says January-May is the lean season for fishing in Kerala as coastal waters warm up. Pelagic stock to which fish consumption in Kerala is hinged, move away to cooler waters during these months and traditional boats find it hard to net big catch.

Fish varieties that meet everyday demand in Kerala are sardines, mackerels, trevally, which flourish in water temperatures between 28 and 29 degrees whereas reports indicate that Kerala’s coastal waters are as hot as 32 degrees.

A trawl boat owner said that less than 40 per cent of the boats at the Thoppumpady harbour were venturing out into fishing operations these days.

The ones that are going out are not able to break even, he said, claiming that fish boat operators were able to stay afloat only because of the price of fish. For example, he said even small tuna was fetching good price in the wholesale market.

The retail market turning unstable with the price spiral is a common experience. Seer fish cost between Rs.350 and Rs.450 a kg on an average while pearspot costs between Rs. 300 and Rs. 350 a kg. Medium-sized prawns come at over Rs. 250 per kg and the common oil sardines sell between Rs. 60 and Rs. 70 a kg on days. A 300 gm mackerel will cost around Rs.35 in the retail market.

A senior official of the State department of fisheries said that Kerala’s per capita fish consumption stood around 27 to 28 kg a year, about 75 per cent of the landings going to the local markets.

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