Porbandar/Dwarka/Gir Somnath: Rakesh Kumar from Porbandar, Dharmesh Goyal from Veraval and Ismail Bhai from Dwarka, marine fishermen from different districts on Gujarat’s western coastline, say changing weather patterns have impacted catch in recent years, and they are struggling to preserve their generations-old fishing traditions.

Kumar owns a small boat that two or three fishermen take to the sea. “As recently as five years ago, until the month of May, we would comfortably take our boat in the sea in the morning and return by evening. We could catch many fish throughout the day and we were living comfortably and earning Rs 1,200-1,500 daily,” says Kumar, 29, while he takes out the fishing net from the boat and wraps it around a long stick. “Now, after excluding the expenditure, we are left with only Rs 400-500. All the fish have disappeared.”

Gujarat, a state with a coastline of about 1,600 km, has about 336,181 fishers. Of these, 9% (30,937) are in Porbandar, 7% (24,583) in Veraval taluka (sub-district) and 4% (14,589) in Dwarka taluka. What fisherfolk in these districts face is similar to the predicament for all coastal districts on Gujarat’s western coast.

[It was only in August 2013 that Dwarka and Gir Somnath were carved into separate districts, and so the data are for Veraval taluka, part of Junagadh district, and for Dwarka taluka, part of Jamnagar district from the Marine Fisheries Census 2010.]

As part of our Climate Hotspots series, we are tracing and tracking the impacts of climate change on the ground. In this fourth part, we look at the repercussions of a warming sea on the fishers of Gujarat’s coastal districts.

Fewer fish

From left: Ismal Bhai from Dwarka, Dharmesh Goyal from Veraval and Rakesh Kumar from Porbandar. Fishers from Gujarat’s western coast complain of changing weather which is impacting their catch, and income.

In 2021-22, Gujarat had the highest marine fish production in India, at 688,000 tonnes. But, this production varies from year to year, and was at its second lowest in 2021-22 in five years, according to the Handbook On Indian Fisheries, put together by the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying. In 2020-21, marine fish landings had fallen to 683,000 tonnes.

Another source, the Marine Fish Landings in India, 2022, which estimates marine fish landings based on a national level sample survey, gives slightly different statistics for Gujarat, placing it at the fourth spot in 2022. According to this report, in 2022, at 503,000 tonnes, Gujarat’s fish production declined 13% from 2021. Since 2018, the state’s fish production has fallen 35.5%.

“The decline was majorly due to the lower fishing efforts (reduction of ~16,000 unit trips compared to 2021) and trade-related issues,” according to the report.

According to data IndiaSpend received from the Commissioner of Fisheries in Gujarat, fish production in Dwarka fell by 16% and in Porbandar by 32%, between 2017 and 2021. It increased by 3% in Gir Somnath.

Ismail Bhai, 74, lives in Dwarka and has been fishing since the age of 10. He owns a large boat that carries 8-10 people. He says the price of certain fish has gone up, but it is difficult to profit from the increased price as the catch has become rare, fishing days less frequent because of weather warnings due to storms and cyclones, and fishermen have to venture deeper into the seas to catch the same amount of fish.

“Till four-five years ago, the price of pomfret and lobster was Rs 100-150 per kg. Now they cost more than Rs 1,500 per kg. But it is not easy to trap pomfrets and lobsters in the net…We now have to spend 15-20 days in the sea to catch the same quantity of fish that we could earlier get in 4-5 days,” Ismail said.

A small fisher in Porbandar, Gujarat, left his boat abandoned, and quit the profession, because of lower catch and the increasing costs of fishing.

In addition, “for the last 4-5 years, the frequency of cyclones and storms has increased due to which there are prolonged gaps [in going to the sea to fish],” Ismail said. “It affects our incomes…Seeing the amount of losses we incur, our young generation and others don’t want to enter this profession.”

Case in point, cyclone Biparjoy, which recently impacted Gujarat’s Kutch, Devbhumi Dwarka, Porbandar, Jamnagar, Rajkot, Junagarh and Morbi districts. The cyclone, which made landfall on June 15, prevented fishers from going to sea for several days.

Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, explains that the rapid warming of the sea and cyclonic storms have adversely affected fishing days. After Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, there has been a significant increase in the number of cyclones as well as heat wave alerts, he said, which has drastically reduced the number of fishing days, affecting the livelihood of fishermen.

Cyclones Vayu and Maha in 2019 , Nisarga in 2020, and Tauktae and Gulab in 2021 were some severe cyclones that impacted the Gujarat coast.

Between 1969 and 2019, Dwarka and Gir Somnath (where Veraval falls) also had 111 heat wave days each, while Porbandar had 85 heat wave days. In an earlier story in the Climate Hotspot series, we had reported how Kutch district had more frequent heatwaves, which also impacted farmers and fishers.

Marine heatwaves, more cyclones

According to the IMD, the coast of Gujarat “is the most prone” to cyclones developing over the Arabian Sea, with about 23% of all cyclones developing over the Arabian Sea crossing to the Gujarat coast, compared to 11% each crossing Pakistan and Oman. Nearly half of the cyclones that develop over the Arabian sea dissipate before making landfall, the IMD says.

But this might be changing. In a research paper, titled ‘Changing Status of Tropical Cyclones over the North Indian Ocean’, published in the journal Climate Dynamics, a group of scientists have reported a 52% increase in the number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea between 2001 and 2019, an increment in the duration of cyclonic storms by 80% and threefold increase in the number of very severe cyclonic storms, as compared to 1982-2000.

This is partly due to a change in sea temperature, experts say.

The frequency of marine heatwaves (MHWs), which are prolonged warm sea conditions, has increased in the northern and southeastern Arabian sea near India’s west coast, between 1982 and 2019, as per this 2022 study by researchers from the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, the Cochin University of Science and Technology and the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies.

“Since the beginning of the satellite record, the years 2010 and 2016 have exhibited the maximum number of heatwave days when more than 75% of days of the pre-monsoon and summer monsoon season experience heatwaves,” the authors write, adding these heatwaves are because of a “rapid rise in the mean sea surface temperature (SST) of the Arabian Sea in the recent decade”.

The study, citing other research from across the world, adds that extreme warm events, such as marine heatwaves, have caused harmful algal blooms, loss of kelp forest off the coast of Australia and New Zealand, and have also been shown to impact economically important fishery industries in the northwest Atlantic, northeast Pacific and coastal Australia.

A store room for fishers in Porbandar, Gujarat.

The authors also predict the impact of heatwaves for the Indian coast, saying, “like other parts of the global ocean, MHWs [Arabian Sea, and thus the western Indian coast] in this region are very likely significantly influencing the local marine ecosystem, the migration of species, and the associated fishery-dependent economy”.

“The Sea Surface Temperature (SST) has increased by 1.2°C to 1.4°C over the last century. The surface temperature in the Arabian Sea sometimes reaches 31˚C-32˚C against the normal 28˚C-29˚C,” explains Koll.

“If ocean temperatures are above normal for a prolonged period, the effects can be devastating,” said Sudhir Razada, principal scientist at the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources, affiliated to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “We have seen this in Western Australia where 2,000 km of coastline was 5.5°C above normal for several weeks, leading to changes in the species of fish there.”

“Increased temperature impacts the coasts the most because the water is shallower. In this situation, the water heats up, and the level of oxygen reduces. This is a big reason that fish are moving to deeper waters,” said M. Jaykumar, chief scientist of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, Coastal and Marine Ecology, specifically mentioning Veraval, Dwarka and Porbandar. “In the years ahead, as the temperature increases, this problem will exacerbate and impact the small fisherfolk the most.”

IndiaSpend has reached out to Mukesh Patel, Gujarat’s minister for climate change, A.J. Asari, the head of the Gujarat State Disaster Response Department, and Nitin Sangwan, director of the fisheries department, for comment on climate change in the region, and its impact on fish production. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Venturing deep into the sea

Prawn, white Pomfret, dara, surmai, chapri, eel, palva, varara and Bombay duck were once abundantly available on the sea coast between Porbandar and Kutch. These varieties sell for between Rs 300 and Rs 1,500 per kg,” said Mukesh Panjri, the president of the Shree Porbandar Fishermen's Boat Association. “But in recent years, the arrival of these varieties of fish has gone down.”

“Croaker fish, which sells at a good price, has reduced drastically in the recent past. It is one of those varieties of fish that used to bring good profits to the fishermen,” he added.

The Bombay Duck (Harpadon Nehereus) is one of the major fish found along the coasts of Gujarat and Maharashtra. But statistics show that its availability has decreased during the last few years. In 2019-20, its production was 89,000 tonnes, whereas in 2020-21 its production decreased to 73,000 tonnes. Similarly, croaker fish (Sciaenidae) production has declined in Gujarat, from 133,000 tonnes in 2019-20 to 60,000 tonnes in 2020-21.

Ismail Bhai would earlier go 10 to 15 km (6 to 8 nautical miles) into the sea. But now, he says, they go as much as 50-100 km, almost every time. To help his boat stay afloat longer, and for greater security in the deep sea, about five years ago, he installed additional engines on his boat. Now there are three machines--one is 40 horsepower, one of 15 and the third of 8 horsepower. “Earlier, the boat used to return in one or two days. Now it takes 15 to 20 days. In such a situation, to make our journey safer, more machines with additional power are needed.”

Fisherfolk in Gujarat were advised by the government to not venture into the sea for several days in view of the Biporjoy cyclone last week. Image taken on June 15

Small fishermen, who fish in unpowered boats, and do not have the money to buy expensive boats are particularly impacted, Panjiri said. “Such small fishermen are quitting fishing and looking for opportunities in other sectors.”

As per the Department of Fisheries, Agriculture, Farmers Welfare and Cooperation, of the Gujarat government, the number of boats without machinery is decreasing year by year. Compared to 2017-18, mechanised fishing vessels have increased by 10% while non-mechanised ones have decreased by 13% in 2021-22.

“Today, it has been six days since we have gone out to sea, which means I have had no work for six days,” said Porbandar’s Kumar, on June 16, on the weather department’s warning for cyclone Biparjoy. Kumar does not have a mechanised boat, so he cannot venture very deep into the sea.

“I know it’s a long year ahead, but who knows how many such cyclones will come, and my little earning will be impacted. The threat to life is also there if I am not able to earn enough to feed me and my family…I feel like leaving this profession.”

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