Catch As Catch Can

The unsustainable rise of trash-fish trawling

India has around fifty fishmeal factories, each processing between two hundred and fifteen hundred tonnes of trash fish per day. Manini Bansal
31 December, 2020

In January 2018, we sat in a trawler on its fishing trip out of Malvan, a fishing centre and tourist town in southern Maharashtra. The boat cast a trawl net that was dragged over the sea floor, catching not only prawn, crab, and other commercially important fish, but also thousands of other animals in its path. These “accidentally” captured species, called “bycatch,” can range from tiny fish and invertebrates that have little commercial value to animals such as sea snakes, and even sea turtles and dolphins.

The massive mound of catch was piled on the deck, and the fishers began sorting through it. While precious prawns and other valuable fish were quickly sorted out and safely stored, the snakes were discarded into the water and the small, often damaged fish that made up the bulk of the catch were dumped unceremoniously into large crates. The latter portion of the catch was to be sold to produce fishmeal and oil, a newly emerging industry in the country fuelled by high demand and easy availability of the raw material.

These fish are termed “trash fish,” a seemingly apt name given their apparent low value and semi-rotten state. Trash fish may seem like an obscure issue, but their part in the economy is actually larger than one might think. Fishmeal is used for a range of purposes—largely as feed for cattle and poultry, but also in fertilisers and pet food. These fish are connected in some way to many of our lives, yet there is very little information about them.

As researchers on conservation and natural-resource management, we sought to analyse the trash fish caught at Malvan. Our work involved regularly taking samples of trash fish to investigate their composition, speaking to fishers and traders to understand where the fish came from and where they go, and documenting the entire process that feeds it into the economy.