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Changing landscape spurs decline in ginger prawn fishing in Little Rann of Kutch

Gujarat’s Little Rann of Kutch supports two seasonal livelihoods – prawn fisheries and inland salt farming. The region is the largest nursery ground of the ginger prawn species endemic to the Gulf of Kutch and almost 50,000 fishers on foot earn an income from fishing it juvenile. After the fishing season is when salt production from sub-soil brine takes place. However, the expansion of salt works is impacting prawn fisheries which is on the decline, says Ravleen Kaur, writer of this article

Diesel fumes and dust hit as one climbs the Surajbari Bridge in the Kutch District of Gujarat. The noise from trucks and trains follows. As the eyes stretch beyond the bridge, there are salt pans – as if a huge wetland has been cut into plots by mud embankments. On the map, Gujarat looks like an open mouth. Surajbari is the joint where this mouth opens to the Gulf of Kutch and the vast Arabian Sea. A network of creeks here, called the Surajbari creeks, join the Gulf of Kutch (GoK) to the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), a barren salt desert in the state.

A bridge over the creeks, known as the Gateway to Kutch connects the industrialised regions of Saurashtra and Kutch, which explains the traffic. The massive 2001 Gujarat earthquake made the first Surajbari Bridge unusable. Abandoned and half demolished, it now overlooks two new road bridges and two railway bridges. A dirt track, off the highway, goes to the creeks. The fumes are replaced by a strong fish smell. This is Cherawadi Bandar, once a hotspot of prawn trade in Gujarat. However, the trade of the delicate ginger prawns is declining and locals feel the heat.

Maliya Fish Market. Ginger prawn (Metapenaeus kutchensis) is a species endemic to the Gulf of Kutch and its fishing is a primary source of livelihood here.

Season mein yahan mela lagta tha,” says Sama Siddik Osman, ex-sarpanch (panchayat head) of Surajbari, reminiscing about the seafood fair that would be organised in the area. “Seafood exporters from Veraval and Porbandar used to set up offices here during monsoon and trucks full of jheenga (prawn) were lifted every day.” Sixty-year-old Osman has closely witnessed the highs and lows of prawn fishing in Surajbari. “I always wanted to wear white clothes, something not easy for a sagar khedut (sea farmer), says Osman, referring to his desire to move from fishing to becoming a fisher rights advocate, which he achieved when he quit active fishing about 20 years ago to become an advocate for fishers’ rights. “Now I wear white every day,” he smiles.

“Prawn fishing today in Surajbari is not even 20 per cent of what it used to be. The fishers are poor and illiterate. For a long time, we did not realise what was going wrong,” said Osman, his expression grave now, referring to the decline in prawn fishing because of change in the hydrological regime on account of expansion of marine salt works near Surajbari and reduced freshwater runoff from rivers. A proposed freshwater lake in the region could worsen things.

The Little Rann of Kutch serves two nature-based livelihood systems – ginger prawn fishing and salt production from sub-soil brine. Fishing in LRK lasts for the duration of the monsoon, from August to October. When the Rann starts drying up after the monsoon, small salt workers (Agariyas) move inside the Rann. The salt production takes place till March-April. There was a time when the two livelihoods coexisted. But as salt bunds expand and the Surajbari creek gets choked with big salt production units, ginger prawn fishing is declining, impacting the livelihood of the fishers. Further proposals, to build a bund and convert the LRK into a freshwater lake, are also looming threats for the fishers.

The water source for Venasar fishers polluted by salt-washing.

Ginger prawn, indicator of LRK’s well-being
Ginger prawn (Metapenaeus kutchensis) is a species endemic to the Gulf of Kutch. Identified locally as samri, soniya, Kutchi jheenga or medium jheenga, ginger prawn constitutes 90 per cent of the fish biomass in LRK. When commercial exploitation of ginger prawn began in the 1970s, Surajbari became its biggest supplier, said Sahauddin Habib, a ginger prawn trader from Hanjiasar Village in the nearby Malia-Miyana Block of Morbi District. In 2013, the last recorded good fisheries season, ginger prawn generated an annual revenue of Rs 746 million. “In the 1990s, Surajbari prawn was a brand of its own. Packaged like exotic dates, it was exported to Japan, China and Europe as Surajbari Tiny or Surajbari Shrimp,” said Sahauddin.

“A good ginger prawn catch is an indicator of the LRK’s well-being. The decline in fisheries here not only impacts livelihoods but also the floral and faunal biodiversity of the Rann,” said Arun Dixit, founding trustee of the Centre for Environment and Social Concerns, Ahmedabad. To make sense of what Dixit says, it becomes important to understand the complex LRK landscape – the crucial factor in why ginger prawn fishing became a primary livelihood here.

A cracked land mass of 5000 square km, not a tree, grows here due to the saline groundwater. In revenue records, the LRK is identified as ‘Survey Number 0’ and has no permanent habitation. Its boundary touches five districts of Gujarat. In 1973, the Rann was notified as the Wild Ass Sanctuary (WAS) after the Indian Wild Ass, another species endemic to the region. Other species found in the landscape include 300 bird species including 97 aquatic birds, 33 mammals, 20 species of fish and 11 prawn and shrimp species. LRK is the only nesting site of lesser flamingos in India.

The south-western edge of the LRK touches Surajbari. During monsoon, saline water from the GoK inundates the low-lying Rann through Surajbari creeks. At the same time, nine seasonal rivers from the upper regions of Rajasthan and North Gujarat, including Banas, Rupen and Machchu, drain into the region. Thus, rainfall, run-off from the rivers and tidal waters combine to make the Rann a shallow phaphra (brackish water) wetland for the four months of monsoon. This is the time when the prawn seedlings enter the Rann. “Ginger prawn breeds in the deep sea but wind currents drift the hair-like larvae to the inter-tidal zone near the creeks where it sticks to mangroves. When it rains and salinity inside the Rann reduces, it moves inside with the tide,” Dixit told Mongabay India.

The rivers bring along detritus (organic matter) from their catchment area of 10,500 square km, which the prawns feed on, apart from crustacean (a type of shellfish) and zooplankton species that come along with them from the sea. “The detritus from rivers forms the diet of not just the prawns but also the species that the prawns feed on, completing the food chain,” said Dixit who co-authored Economic Valuation of Landscape Level Wetland Ecosystem and its Services in LRK, a 2014 study by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), India Initiative under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

The prawns grow to the juvenile stage in 10-15 days and start migrating back to the sea. This is when the LRK fishers capture them. The surviving prawns grow to adulthood in the sea and contribute to commercial trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Kutch. “By the time it leaves Surajbari, the prawn has achieved 70-75 per cent of its size at maturity, which is significant for fisheries in the GoK and open sea. LRK, thus, serves as the largest nursery ground for ginger prawn,” said Dixit.

But, this ecosystem, responsible for prawns’ growth, is changing. “The huge wastewater discharge from salt works into the creeks raises its salinity,” said Dixit. Since 1960, ten large dams and many irrigation schemes have come on the ephemeral rivers in LRK’s catchment, the largest being the Banas from Rajasthan. This has reduced freshwater flow to LRK by 48 per cent, according to the 2014 report by TEEB, a global initiative to mainstream biodiversity values and ecosystem services into decision-making. Reduced fresh water from rivers means a decrease in the volume of food for prawns. “Every million cubic metre of run-off assists in the increased catch of ginger prawn by 2.2 tonnes,” the report says.

Fishermen clean the prawns.

A source of livelihood for many in LRK
On a sunny autumn morning in October, children at a dhassi, or a temporary fishing settlement on raised ground at the edge of LRK, in Venasar Village hovered around men who had just come back with the previous night’s fish catch. Sometimes, an occasional crab gets stuck in the nets and the kids get their toy for the day. All of them have their pockets full of dried salted prawns that they keep munching like peanuts. Against the blue wetland, the dhassi is a yellow landscape dotted with orange prawns and nets drying on the ground and temporary shacks made with plastic and jute sacks. Unlike creek areas like Surajbari, where fishers have their houses, the Venasar fishers migrate here only for the monsoon period.

Commercial fishing of the ‘tiny’ (to distinguish juvenile ginger prawns from adult prawns caught in GoK) happens mainly at creeks like Surajbari and near water channels in low-lying parts, mainly the southern and south-western parts of LRK. Including Venasar, there are 11 such sites and numerous dhassis within them. The fishing technique followed inside LRK is different from creek areas like Surajbari. “We set up a V-shaped katar (nets nailed to the ground with the help of small wooden sticks) that directs the movement of the prawn to a chatti, a net with smaller mesh where they get caught. Men also walk in chest-deep water with a handheld bag net (gunja) within the katar area,” explained Haider Aamad Katiya, a community elder at Venasar. In creek fishing, a series of round nets that taper towards the end are tied on poles across the creek. When the tide ebbs, fish and prawns enter the net from the wider hole and get captured near the smaller one. Fishing in LRK is mainly on foot, though people who can afford it have started buying boats now.

Ginger prawn fisheries are mainly practised by the Miyana Muslim and Koli Communities. According to a 2011 study, out of a population of 67,000, 97 per cent Miyana people are concentrated in the Maliya-Miyana Block, earning the area its name. “75 per cent of them migrate for fishing in the season. The Miyanas don’t own land and work as agricultural labour or in salt works the rest of the year. At the dhassis, fishers have to survive without basic amenities like water supply, electricity and education,” said Ramesh Parmar of Anandi, an NGO that works with fisherwomen in Maliya. Well-off members of the community operate as traders or middlemen and give loans to the fishers in lean times, much like middlemen in agriculture.

The prawn is sold in fresh and dry form, while a byproduct, atti (the dust from cleaning the dried prawn), makes good poultry feed. Fresh prawn rates vary from Rs 80 to 100 per kg, depending on the count. “Lesser the count, better the quality. One hundred prawns in a kilo would make 100 counts. But if there are 200 prawns in a kilo or 200 counts, the quality is not as good,” said local trader Habib. Stock that is more than 200 counts is usually boiled in salt water and dried. Seven kg of fresh prawn make one kg of dried prawn, fetching Rs 500-800 in the state market. “Earlier, all the catch was dried and sold in the local market. In the 1950s, the government started giving contracts for fresh prawns. But the real boom came in the 1970s when exporters came. The rate was one rupee for a dabba (accommodates 12-14 kg) then, now it is Rs 1100-1200,” said Habib.

“From Surajbari to Kharagoda (the southern periphery of LRK), 50,000 people currently earn from ginger prawn fishing. The Miyana Community used to earn enough in two months to survive the entire year,” said Kanubha Jadeja, a prawn trader from Dhrangadra Town in Surendranagar District. Jadeja claims to be the first trader to have started prawn export from the LRK belt. “Ginger prawn has huge export potential. If the government focuses on it, it can earn huge revenue. But instead, they are bent on killing it,” lamented Jadeja.

The prawn is sold in fresh and dry form, while a byproduct, atti (the dust from cleaning the dried prawn), makes good poultry feed.

Bad business
In 2023, from all of LRK, only 50 tonnes of fresh prawn came to the market, of which only 2-3 tonnes were export worthy, said trader Habib. “Earlier, in every season, I got a stock of 200 tonnes. This year, I got just 20 tonnes,” he said. Revenue from prawn fisheries was Rs 746 million and Rs 400 million in 2013 and 2014, respectively, according to the TEEB report. “The total average catch from 1992 to 2009 and 2013 and 2014 was about 3637 tonnes,” it says. A Gujarat Fisheries Department official informed that they had not collated data on ginger prawn, but in 2022-23, the catch of mechanical boats from Surajbari and Morbi Districts combined was 1138 tonnes, reveals a data shared by the fisheries department. This excludes the prawn catch by Pagadia fishers, those in Surendranagar District and dry prawn stocks.

“The business is not even 10 per cent of when we started. We exported at least 500 tonnes every season. Now, the quantity is limited to 50 tonnes. After cleaning and sorting, only 20 tonnes are export-ready,” said Jayantilal H. Bhariya, manager at Castle Rock Fisheries Pvt Ltd, a Mumbai-based company. The first one to export prawns from Surajbari in 1969, Castle Rock now buys prawns from traders at Rs 80-120 per kg and exports them for $3-4 (Rs 320).

Porbandar-based Salet Seafood Pvt Ltd stopped lifting ginger prawn stocks from LRK last year after suffering losses for two years, said Karsan Ramji Salet, the owner. Out of 400 families in Surajbari, more than half have quit fishing and migrated to tile and cement factories in Malia and Morbi, informed Osman. Of his four sons, two now run a chicken shop in Rajkot.

As of 2014, out of the 115.90 ha of potential fishing area in Cherawadi, the hotspot of prawn fishing in Gujarat, 92.29 ha had been taken over by salt works, leaving a mere 20 per cent open for fishing, according to the TEEB report. Sahauddin Habib says that the situation has only worsened in the last ten years.

(Courtesy: Mongabay-India/ india.mongabay.com)

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