‘There are less fish in the sea’: Extreme weather takes a toll on Mumbai’s fishermen


The fishing boats slowly pull into the bustling dock in northern Mumbai on India’s west coast, carrying a fresh catch after spending hours at sea trying to net as many fish as possible. Those waiting on the shore look on anxiously. 

Members of Mumbai’s Koli community, who have been fishing these waters for generations, have been struggling to deal with an increasingly unfamiliar and volatile Arabian Sea, where warming temperatures are producing more frequent extreme cyclone events, disrupting fish habitats and marine ecosystems along the way. 

On the dock, Prema Baliram Koli, 50, stood surveying with dismay the 14 crates her helpers deposited at her feet. 

“Fishing nowadays is not the same. Sometimes we only get one or two crates of fish, when a good day is 40 or 50 crates,” she said, shaking her head at the day’s lacklustre haul. 

As she and other women worked on the dock to sort and clean the fish, Koli predicted the next few days would bring an even more disappointing catch. Expenses to maintain and run her boats are increasing, she said, while the fishing days available to her and her community are dwindling. 

“The rest of the time the boat is lying at the harbour for four or five days at a stretch.” 

After a meagre fish catch, Prema Baliram Koli can’t hide her disappointment, with fewer viable fishing days because of erratic weather and her expenses skyrocketing. (Salimah Shivji/CBC )

Kashinath Budiya Koli echoed her statements, saying that the price for the dried fish his community is known for was down, but expenses continued to rise. 

“There are less fish in the sea,” said the 62-year old longtime fisherman. “We now catch less than 10 per cent of what we used to catch.” 

Both Kashinath and Prema grew up with fishing in their blood in a cluster of villages on northern Mumbai’s Madh island, where the entire community is worried about changes in the waters they know so well. 

A fisherman pulls up to a small dock in northern Mumbai with the day's fish haul in bags and baskets.
Fishermen along India’s west coast complain of disappearing fish stocks because of environmental damage and rising sea temperatures. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The Arabian Sea is part of the Indian Ocean, which, since the 1950s, has seen the fastest spike in surface temperatures of any ocean, warming at 0.11°C per decade, according to reports issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  

The warming patterns as a result of climate change have provoked cascading effects on coastal ecosystems, said Medha Deshpande, a scientist with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. 

“The Arabian Sea was very calm and quiet in the past,” she told CBC News in an interview at the Pune-based government institute. 

Freshly-caught small fish are gathered in baskets by members of Mumbai's Koli fishing community before they are processed, dried, and sold at local markets.
People in the fishing communities that dot Mumbai’s coastline say they’ve noticed the number of fish in the sea dwindling, as the surface of the Arabian Sea is warming and affecting marine ecosystems. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“But now the increase in the ocean temperature … is giving birth to more cyclones.”

The tropical cyclones are also more intense, given the combination of warming water, rising global temperatures that have raised the air’s capacity to hold moisture and the instability in the atmosphere, which creates the storm clouds, Deshpande said.

A recent report that Deshpande co-authored studied severe weather patterns in the Arabian Sea over the last 40 years and found that in the last two decades, from 2001 to 2019, the number of cyclones to hit the area increased by 52 per cent. 

A fisherman stands on a dock in Mumbai, India.
Many fishermen like Kashinath Budiya Koli, 62, have seen their boats destroyed in the more frequent cyclones hitting the area. Some people whose families have been fishing in the area for generations are now choosing to look for work elsewhere. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“Fifty-two per cent is remarkable,” Deshpande said. “It’s a big deal because it’s happening over a longer period of time,” indicating a key trend. 

According to her research, the more frequent cyclones now last 80 per cent longer and intense storm systems in the Arabian Sea have tripled. All of this leads to heavier rainfall, flooding and adverse effects for those whose livelihoods depend on the western Indian coast. 

“We’re going to get more intense cyclones in the future as well if we continue to see the change in (ocean and air) temperatures like this,” Deshpande said, noting that the changes already seen are hard to reverse. 

Fishermen pull up to a dock  with their daily catch on a December morning in Mumbai, India.
Cyclones in the Arabian Sea, once much more quiet and calm, are twice as frequent now than they were 20 years ago, and pack triple the intensity, which is disrupting the livelihoods of those who rely on the ocean. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

‘Living in fear’ 

It’s a new normal that’s painful to get used to for Rajeshwari Koli and her husband, Dinesh Koli.

Their larger boat was anchored at sea when the powerful and deadly Cyclone Tauktae whipped through Mumbai in May 2021, causing massive damage.

The storm killed 169 people along the western Indian coast, and another five people in neighbouring Pakistan. Along with the death toll, the cyclone inflicted heavy losses to coastal fishermen, including damage to their boats.

Rajeshwari Koli couldn’t hold back her tears more than two years later, as she recalled the destruction and chaos in the cyclone’s aftermath. 

The women of Mumbai's Koli community are in charge of sorting and cleaning the day's fish catch, and are often the ones who sell the fish at local markets.
The women of Mumbai’s Koli community are in charge of sorting and cleaning the day’s fish catch and are often the ones who sell the fish at local markets. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“There was nothing left of our two boats, we lost everything,” she told CBC News, describing the heavy toll at a time when her family was already struggling through the lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic. “(The damage) was so bad, I couldn’t bear to see it.” 

She and her husband had to take out a loan to buy another boat, and the trauma still haunts Koli, leaving her “with a heavy heart.”

“Every time there’s a cyclone, I get very scared. I pray hard, especially when the boats are at sea and not close by.”

Mumbai’s Madh island fishing villages sustained damage to 120 boats in that cyclone alone, with at least 26 a total loss, said Santosh Koli, a member of several local fishermen’s associations.  

Rajeshwari Koli, left, and her husband Dinesh lost both of their boats when Cyclone Tauktae hit Mumbai in May 2021.
Rajeshwari Koli, left, and her husband, Dinesh Koli, lost both of their boats when Cyclone Tauktae hit Mumbai in May 2021. She still has nightmares about it. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“The boats were sinking and everyone was helpless. You couldn’t see further than five metres in front of you. The rain was so intense and the air was moving so fast.” 

Santosh Koli said compensation from the Indian government for those whose boats were destroyed was slow to arrive, with some fishermen receiving only a small fraction of the losses they sustained.  

One of the few fishermen to receive compensation, Jitendra Koli, still had to pay a substantial amount out of pocket. 

Boats damaged by previous cyclones sit near a dock in Mumbai, on India's west coast.
Boats damaged by previous cyclones sit near the dock, in northern Mumbai’s Madh island area, serving as a reminder of the effects of warming ocean temperatures on this small community. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“It’s nice that the Modi government helped us, but things are still challenging,” he said, especially since the money took nearly two years to be doled out and his new boat is under repair. 

“Living in fear about what comes next is tough.” 

He added that strong and well-maintained boats are now essential with the changing weather conditions since the fishermen need to venture “pretty far, 10 to 15 kilometres” and away from their traditional fishing grounds to search for the haul they need to make a living. 

Several Koli communities that dot the Mumbai coastline are also pressuring the government to build breakwaters to shelter their docked boats from increasingly intense storms. 

A fisherman in India's western coastal city of Mumbai stands on a dock waiting for boats to pull in with the day's catch.
Jitendra Koli, whose boat was destroyed in the last major cyclone that hit Mumbai, says living with the fear of what extreme weather conditions will come from the warming Arabian Sea is difficult for his fishing community. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

But, according to 42-year old Santosh Koli, the changing seas are having a deeper impact on his community from which it will be harder to recover. 

“So many are losing fishing days that they are giving up and going to towers and other buildings to apply for work as security guards to save their livelihoods,” he said.

There are also several Mumbai fishing villages that are being squeezed by large-scale construction projects interfering with their fishing, particularly the sprawling city’s billion-dollar coastal road that aims to reduce Mumbai’s crippling traffic.

Sanjay Baikar, 47, said his fishing village, near a wharf tucked along the coast of Mumbai’s Worli neighbourhood, has lost much of its traditional land to the construction project.

The good days with healthy fish catchs are less frequent, according to members of Mumbai's Koli community.
The good days with healthy fish catchs are less frequent, according to members of Mumbai’s Koli community. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Now, officials also want the small boats parked near the wharf removed. 

“The authorities have been able to find a place for cars (with the coastal road construction), they care deeply about parking, they have a place to build gardens, but they have no place for our fishing community and our boats,” Baikar told CBC News. 

“Our future as fishermen, as well as the future of our families and kids, is already in danger.

“And there is nothing we can do.”

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