Not enough fish in the sea?

May 01, 2013, 00:09 IST | Anjana Vaswani

Shortage of fish in the Arabian Sea. Rising diesel prices. Monsoon woes. The Guide travels to the heart of Mumbai, to Dadar's popular seafood eateries. Here, owners are getting into cautionary mode for the stormy weather ahead, on land and at sea, with the hope that their patrons will shell out more for their seafood fix

“Fishing trawlers are at sea for one to five days. Irrespective of the time or effort from fishermen, these days, there’s no guarantee they’ll return with catch; also, with rising diesel prices, many don’t want to risk a trip,” explains Francis Fernandes, owner of Fresh Catch, a quaint split-level Dadar eatery that boats of seasonal recipes like Rawa-Fried Oysters and Pala Fish Roe that draw seafood aficionados (celebrities too) from Juhu, Powai and Cuffe Parade.

A fisherman takes a quick nap on his fishing boat near the Bandra coast that lines the Arabian Sea. Pic/Shadab Khan

Something’s fishy
Though Fernandes’ regular suppliers in Mazagaon and Versova have raised seafood prices a bit, the difference so far has been absorbed into his profit margin. Serving us a large-sized Hara Bhara Pomfret (Rs 980), Fernandes says, “Six months ago I’d pay Rs 350 for a medium-sized pomfret, now it ranges from Rs 480 to Rs 550. If it continues, I'll have to raise prices too.” Many neighbouring restaurants already have. “In three months, even Bombil, the only fish that is available all year, sometimes wasn’t,” Fernandes complains, “...I wonder what will happen when the rains arrive?"

 A Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) Report, which tallied data up to 2011 showed a 15 per cent drop in Maharashtra’s overall fish catch and highlighted that Bombay Duck (Bombil) and Pomfret declined by 25 per cent, sharks and rays by 28 per cent, prawns by 35 per cent and Rawas by 42 per cent. VD Deshmukh, senior scientist in charge at CMFRI’s Mumbai office told reporters this was attributed to over-fishing and climate change. So, while the website of Seafood Exporters Association of India announces, “During the financial year 2011-12, for the first time in the history of marine product exports, the export earnings have crossed US$3.5 billion,” Dadar’s small seafood eateries like Gomantak Boarding House, (set up in the 1950s), must pay a heavy price.

Staying afloat
Forty-six-year-old Sudhir, the third-generation of Borkars to run Gomantak Boarding tells us they revised prices upwards two years ago so the Surmai Fry went from Rs 80 to Rs 120 but, he says, “It’s tough to keep prices unchanged with the current shortage, since we don’t have a fixed seafood supplier.” Though they do have regular seafood suppliers at Crawford Market and therefore “get a grace period” even when prices go up. Amit Acharekar, owner of Malvan Katta admits the only reason they haven’t raised prices since 2011 is because the neighbourhood is flooded with competition. “Stuffed Pomfret was priced at Rs 200 in 2011, today it’s listed at Rs 350,” Acharekar reveals, “Prawn Masala was for Rs 85 but now we charge Rs 145.”

Amit Achrekar, owner of Malvan Katta fries pomfrets in the eatery’s kitchen with his cousin Sujata and maternal uncle Pradip (background). Pics/Anjana Vaswani

Borkar has a different ploy. “We’ve added mutton and chicken dishes to our menu and have stopped our parcel-service so as to meet the seafood demand of walk-in diners,” he shares, stressing that, “Pomfret and Surmai are popular but the supply is very limited.” At Saibini Gomantak, a
12-year-old Malvani eatery where the Pomfret Masala (Rs 150) is a huge draw, manager Mohan Gowda says, “Our rates have haven’t changed for over 1.5 years. So far, we have taken the recent cost escalation out of our margins but we can’t afford wastage.” Jai Hind nearby adopts a similar approach but Harish Pujari, the man in charge, adds, “To curb wastage, we serve fish on Wednesdays and Fridays, our busiest days.” Pomfret or Surmai Thalis cost Rs 130, but he admits they serve small pieces as, “Pomfret, which is unavailable at times, can cost us Rs 1,000 per kg on occasions.”

Francis Fernandes, owner of Fresh Catch shows off his winner dish, the Hara Bhara Pomfret that costs Rs 980

Some more, please?
Despite these challenges, business is on the rise. Malvan Katta which started five years ago as a tiny eatery now has an AC section with two more rooms being renovated to seat 60 diners. The area is dominated by Maharashtrians who favour Malvani food. Acharekar estimates, “We have ten or twelve Malvani restaurants, of which four or five are very new; everyone is doing good business.” Of his own clientele, Acharekar says, “Almost 70 per cent order seafood, though we offer other meats too. Our Pomfret Fry costs Rs 180 but if you were to cook it at home, you pay as much. Some of our patrons come in for two meals a day.” Clearly, though their profit margins have reduced, these eateries thrive on large volumes. What will they do though when there’s just not enough fish in the sea?

Seafood specials
> Crab Butter Garlic (Rs 550) and Tawa-fried Bombil (Rs 220) fly off the shelves at Fresh Catch: Plot No 16, 144C, Diamond Court Building, PN Kotnis Road, off Lady Jamshedjee Road, Mahim West; Call: 32968981
> Pomfret Curry (Rs 20), Crab Masala (Rs 125) and Surmai Masala (Rs 120) are the most popular dishes at Gomantak Boarding House: 301 Mirinda Chawl, near Shivaji Mandir, NC Kelkar Road, Dadar (W); Call: 24305631, 24311370
> Mori Masala (Shark), only available on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and priced at Rs 124 is numbered among numerous specialities at Malvan Katta. Try their Bangda Tikhle (Rs 100) and Special Seafood thali (Rs 300). Malvan Katta: DL Vaidya Road, Shivaji Park, Dadar (W);  Call: 24216923, 32175923
> Pomfret Masala (Rs 150), Prawn Biryani (Rs 140) and Crab Masala (Rs 160) are Saibini Gomantak’s hottest sellers: Shop no 4, ground floor, Katrada Mansion, Gokhale Road, Dadar (W);
Call: 24328065, 24385429 

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