Plastic Perils

The impact of plastic pollution on Mumbai’s fisherwomen

A woman offers prayers at Badhwar Park in Mumbai’s Colaba peninsula during Narali Poornima, on 11 August 2022, a festival observed to mark the start of the annual fishing season. For fishing communities, dealing with plastic is an ongoing struggle. Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times
29 February, 2024

“I’ve been doing this since before I got married,” Shardha Pandhare Koli, a fisherwoman from Trombay, an eastern suburb of Mumbai, told me. “We used to catch both big and small fish then. We have the urge for fishing, but sadly there’s no fish.” Climate change, extreme weather events, and escalating pollution have led to a significant decline in fish populations off Mumbai’s coast. Another alarming predicament for Mumbai’s fisher folk is plastic pollution—and women disproportionately bear its consequences. The US Consulate General Mumbai highlighted the pervasive nature of the plastic crisis in an Instagram post, on 16 September 2023, from a beach-cleaning drive. The post showed two participants of the drive, who said, “Moving into Mahim brought us face-to-face with the magnitude of the oceanic litter problem. The entire stretch of Mahim was buried under layers of plastic and other waste, up to 3.5 feet high in some places.”

For fishing communities, dealing with plastic is an ongoing struggle. According to a 2016-2017 study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, fishing areas near Mumbai have the highest concentration of plastic waste in the country. “Earlier, we used to see organisms trapped or entangled in plastic debris, now we can see plastic in their stomach content, which means plastic is abundantly available and increasing along coastal waters,” KV Akhilesh, a scientist from CMFRI Mumbai, told Hindustan Times. “Even during our deep surveys, plastic debris was collected more than 1000 [metres] deep from Arabian Sea.” Globally, India ranks as the second-largest producer of plastic polymers. Maharashtra contributed 311,254 tonnes in the 2020-21 period, as the leading state in plastic waste production in India, with Mumbai, its capital, accounting for a third of this output.

The Kolis, Mumbai’s oldest residents and fishing community, face not only environmental challenges but also a decline in fishing families. The Marine Fishery Census of India states that there are 30 fishing villages in Mumbai. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of fishing families declined from 10,082 to 9,304.

In traditional Koli communities, men are typically responsible for fishing, while women handle the tasks of cleaning, sorting, drying and selling fish. However, during fishing trips, especially during high-tide and rainy days when the plastic load increases, men also separate plastics from the catch. The struggle is further compounded by difficulty in transporting plastic waste back to land, leading to its disposal in the ocean, creating a vicious cycle.