Fish are safe to eat but the sector is at risk in the CoVID era

Dr. Chandan Debnath, Scientist SS

July 20, 2020, 11:59:47   

ICAR Research Complex for NEH Region, Tripura Centre
Fish is among the healthiest foods on the planet. It is loaded with protein, lipid, vitamins and minerals. Daily consumption of 150g fish fulfils an adult's 50-60% daily protein and many essential micro-nutrients' requirement. Fish also supplies omega-3 fatty acids (Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), which help in minimization of heart and brain-related woes by 15%. Therefore, ICMR recommends 11 kg fish consumption/capita/annum. The role of Fish is also well slated by FAO in the way of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 and grappling the burden of 'Hidden hunger'. As per SOPIA (2020) there is 1.5% increment in global per capita fish consumption over the year. But CoVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a situation where misleading perceptions about the association of the virus with fish caused significant dropdown in their consumption. CoVID-19 is wet markets in origin but its association with fish is not yet confirmed until contaminated people handle it. Therefore, a lucid clarification regarding how the disease is contracted and that is not related to fish it needed much so that people should not deprive themselves from the wholesomeness of fish diet in their immunity enhancement.
In the CoVID era, fish are safe to eat until contaminated people handle it but the sector is at risk. In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic and implementation of lockdown and containment measures, huge setbacks rose in the Fishery sector. The sustainability of fishery as livelihood option was interrupted due to CoVID pandemic. People associated with wholesale, retail and handling sectors lost their jobs due to the rupture of supply chains involved in fish production, processing, transportation, and marketing.

The livelihood of fishers associated with capture fishery sector is worst hit due to lockdown and control measures. Many regional fisheries associated with rivers, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, estuaries etc were brought down to halt due to drastic plummet in consumer demand and price, shut down of fish landing and auctioning Centres, logistical problems related to transportation, limited market access, border restrictions, lack of fishing fleets, difficulty in following sanitary measures like physical distancing, wearing facial masks during fishing, limited access to ice, gear, bait, storage boxes, fuel etc, lack of inputs on credit, labour shortage, uneven availability of equipment, and limited access to medical facility.

In the culture Fisheries, the farmers could not sell their fish on time due to limited access to market, transport, workforce, closures of food services in hotels, restaurants, canteens, tourism, markets, drop in the activity of fish sellers, and closure of international markers. They had to maintain huge biomass of live fish in their ponds by regular feeding and other management for an indeterminate period and that increased their cost of cultivation. The onset of summer season in the session has further increased the likelihood of deterioration of fish quality. With the lifting of lockdown, the local markets were suddenly flooded with local fish and fish from outsides that caused further dropdown in their price.

March-April was actually the period of pond preparation in the calendar of fishery activities. But lockdown and containment measures unleashed a situation where there was difficulty in the finding of lime, fertilizers, piscicides, labour, custom hiring services etc. There was serious problem and price anomaly in the access to fish seeds, feed, etc. Hatchery operators and broodstock sellers could not trade their fish due to different ranges of restrictions on cargo movements, and that caused sharp decline in the fish breeding activity and availability of fish seeds in affordable prices. The small farmers on the other hand benefited from reduced competition with fish imports. Panic food buying has reportedly benefited the sale of dry fish, canned fish, smoked fish etc but soon there will be a chronic crisis in their availability in the markets due to interruption in the raw material supply and other logistical problems. 
Now to protect Fisheries, the actors from the sector needs to be viewed as 'essential workers' as they supply food to the nation. The aquaculture should be treated tantamount with agriculture for the purpose of priority sector lending, crop insurance, power tariffs and other levies. There should be increased access of farmers to credit and micro-finance programmes at reduced interest rates, flexible loan repayment and options. The fish landing centres or fishing villages should be linked to the local community kitchen so that the fishes can be easily cooked and be supplied there for a fixed price. There should be government's purchase of fish for institutional use (hospitals, school feeding programmes, prisons, orphanages, shelter homes, etc.) as well as for distribution purpose. 

To provide reparation to the fishermen, the fishing season requires extension with subsidies on the use of equipment services. The local market demand need to be re-assorted and based on that fishing activity shall be restricted out by setting up quota system. A minimum floor price has to be ensured for each species of fish. More relief packages should be grant to cover production and income losses, to maintain and ensure domestic fish supply chains. In coordination with the government, the producers, buyers and sellers should make a joint effort so that the trade flows and the supply chain shall remain uninterrupted. If requires, let the supply chains be oriented to the home market. Where there is dropdown in the demand or market access, slow down the production. If necessary, the most vulnerable farmers shall be supported with cash and in-kind transfers.

The value addition sector requires boosting in this COVID-19 session. Fish that remains unsold need to be processed via salting, curing, drying or freezing and stored with the use of insulated boxes/ cold houses for use in off-seasons. The scope of fish meal production also need harnessed. Emphasis should be laid upon live fish marketing and doorstep fish delivery. The opportunity of selling fish directly to the end consumers via OTT platform needs to be harnessed. The market infrastructure, and hygiene need to be redefined strictly adhering to the norms. The water and fish samples of markets need to be tested regularly and based on that there should be emphasis on certification/licensing of fish market. There shall be proper disposal of fish wastages. The health and hygiene of fish vendors should be regularly tested. To fill local demand, more emphasis should be on native fish fauna, instead of exotic fishes. Fish import from outside states shall be regulated more stringently so that the translocation of transboundary pathogens and health hazards can be avoided. Last but not the least, there should be more public awareness and campaign in PPP mode so that the motto of 'fish for health and fish for wealth' is fulfilled. 


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