Faced with deteriorating groundwater, high running costs and low profits, ornamental fish breeders of Kolathur find the going tough

For C. Mukkiah, an ornamental fish breeder from Retteri, the day begins very early. At 2 a.m., he sets out on a long journey to areas beyond Velachery and Perungudi to buy live feed for his fish at economical rates. And the rest of the day is consumed in laborious tasks at his farm that include fish breeding. But the money he earns hardly matches the effort.

The mounting costs of running a farm, a decline in groundwater quality and the poor prices fetched have made life difficult for many like Mukkiah. But he has no plans of switching trades.

“I don’t have the skills for any other business,” says the fish breeder. Many others of his ilk in Kolathur, Madhavaram and Retteri, considered a hub for ornamental fish breeding, have also resigned themselves to this situation. Around 10 to 20 percent of the breeders have quit the trade.

The 400 breeders who continue to operate in these three northern neighbourhoods have reduced their output. As a result, only 40 of the 200 marine species sold in the Kolathur retail market are home bred. The rest come from international and other domestic markets.

Mukkiah has cut down his output from 40 to 30 species. “In the last ten years, my expenses have increased, but my income has stayed the same. For a month-old juvenile gold fish, I get 60-80 paise. But, it sells at Rs. 5-Rs. 50 in the retail market. We earn Rs. 25,000-Rs. 30,000 a month. There is hardly any profit,” says Mukkiah.

Among the other contributing factors to the slump in this trade is the deterioration of groundwater in these areas. Quality water, essential for ornamental fish breeding, attracted breeders to this area in the 1980s. However, in recent years, the total dissolved solids have gone up from 110 parts per million to 800 ppm, say breeders.

Lack of resources to develop the trade is also cited as a reason. M. Sivakumar, another breeder, says a minimum investment of Rs. 5 lakh to Rs. 10 lakh is required to start the trade. Most of the fish farms are leased out and only 15 per cent of the breeders own them.

On the positive side, efforts are being made to reclaim lost ground. A co-operative society for ornamental fish farmers was started last year for the development of the trade. N.U.S. Veeramaindan, president of the Kolathur Ornamental Fish Farmers Co-operative Society said: “The society aims to equip its 250 members with skills to increase production of the species and market them better.”

The members have asked the government to provide loans and subsidies to breeders. They point out that the government recently sanctioned a mobile lab for ornamental fish breeding, but the project remains on paper.

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