Why sardines are suddenly flooding Mumbai's fish markets

Climate change is forcing the fish, generally found and consumed in Kerala and Tamil Nadu to migrate northwards towards Maharashtra, say marine experts

When Gopal MS posted a photo of his Sunday lunch on his hit Instagram account (mumbaipaused) last week, followers were curious about the fried sardines on his plate. Gopal, whose family hails from Kerala, mused that global warming could be behind the South Indian staple ending up on the Mumbaikar's plate.

Leela Koli at Lalbaug fishmarket with her sardine catch of the day and (above right) three small piles are sold for Rs 50. Compare that to the pomfret sold at Rs 300 each. Pics/Datta Kumbhar
Leela Koli at Lalbaug fish market with her sardine catch of the day and (above right) three small piles are sold for Rs 50. Compare that to the pomfret sold at Rs 300 each. Pics/Datta Kumbhar

Called the peduva in Marathi, the humble sardine has been making a frequent visit to Mumbai fishmarkets recently, and the catch is only likely to get larger. Unlike Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where the sardine is consumed popularly, the fish is a novelty in Maharashtra.

Surveys conducted by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) recorded the total catch of sardines in 2013 as 17,013 tonnes. Compare that with last year’s catch of 30,039 tonnes.

In research conducted by the institute in 2008, marine biologist E Vivekanandan, who is credited for pioneering research on sardines, explained, “With the northern latitudes becoming warmer, the oil sardine, which is essentially a tropical species, is able to establish itself in the new territories and contribute to the fisheries along the northwest and northeast coasts of India.”

And, with 2015 declared the hottest year on record, largely due to man-made global warming and the El Nino, the sardine population is only set to increase.

At the Parel and Lalbaug fishmarkets, customers and fisherwomen are in divided camps about the sardine, known to have numerous bones and perceived as the poor piscatarian’s option compared to the elite pomfret and popular Bombay Duck.

Dr Vinay Deshmukh, retired principal scientist, CMFRI, recalled a heavy catch of sardines in 2006, “such that the fishermen were taken aback. But, with no takers for the fish and that it’s impossible to dry — given its oily consistency — the fishermen promptly threw the catch back into the waters.”

The northward migration of the sardine, says Deshmukh, is because it is in search of cooler environments, away from tropical waters that are seeing increasing temperature.

“A 0.8°C rise in temperature has been recorded over the lat 40 years. This may seem insignificant to us, but for fish, it is a huge shift,” he said. The same phenomenon has been observed along the coasts of West Bengal and Bangladesh, where sardines used to be a rare phenomenon.

But, does the change in fish-catches mean Maharashtrians are going to change their eating habits? There are bleak chances believes Sudhir Shetty, manager at Mahesh Lunch Home in Fort. “It is a native of Kerala, not coastal Mumbai. While I have seen the fish in the markets, it is too oily and not a favourite with our customers. Bombay Duck continues to be a city favourite.”

Bye-bye Bombay Duck?
Unlike the strong-muscled sardine, the jelly-like Bombay Duck is a weak swimmer. It prefers to be cradled in the alternating extreme low and high tides that Mumbai is known for, says Deshmukh.

“With the northward migration by several species of fish, the Bombay Duck may need to head to Pakistan,” he says. However, the Bombay Duck rarely migrates and the need for research into its doomed status needs urgent attention, warns Deshmukh.

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