Tourism has affected fishing in a coastal town in West Bengal

As a child, Bablu Shah of Ratanpur village, near the coastal resort town of New Digha in West Bengal, would spend his time walking around the farm fields with his friends and return home with a sumptuous meal of fish cooked from the catch fresh from his father, a fisherman – he would wear.

Three decades later, his children live a completely different experience. Agricultural fields have been replaced by concrete hotels and tourism has replaced fishing as the main source of livelihood in the area.

“My family followed fishing as a livelihood for generations,” he said. “During my father’s time, there used to be 25 fishing boats in our village, now there are hardly four to five.”

Workers sort fish at an auction site in West Bengal. Credit: Tazeen Qureshi.

The story of Bablu Shah, now 41, resonates with most fishermen living in the area. With the increase in tourism activities in recent decades, along with factors such as frequent natural disasters, the community looks beyond its traditional sources of income to sustain itself.

Double-edged sword

Over the past decade, Digha has become a tourist hotspot for a weekend getaway. In New Digha, for example, tourism has replaced fishing as the main source of livelihood. A 2015 study in the city highlights that local residents are reaping economic benefits from tourism-related activities such as the hospitality industry, transportation, local restaurants, and souvenir shops. Some have emigrated.

“The fishing community had a dual source of income,” said Shah, who runs a food shack on the New Digha beach. “After fishing, a small-scale fisherman usually looks for other options like working in a local shop for extra income. Now, the dependence is mostly on tourism-related activities. Although the income is stable, things had changed dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic when there was a complete lockdown.”

The encouraging influx of tourists has also prompted the state to announce a number of development projects along the coast.

One of the pet projects of the state government is the Digha-Mandarmoni marine unit, which is expected to connect the four major sea beaches of the area – Digha, Tajpur, Shankarpur and Mandarmoni and give a major boost to the tourism sector in the region. . However, reports alleged that land for the project was forcibly acquired from fishermen, threatening their livelihood.

In addition, development activities along the coast have also added environmental concerns. A 2020 study analyzing erosion and accretion trends confirmed that “urbanization due to tourism places immense pressure on this coastal zone more than other coastal processes”.

Fishing trawlers ply from Digha Mohana in West Bengal. Credit: Tazeen Qureshi.

Climate change affects the catch

At old Digha, about 30 km from the tourist spot of the newly developed city, there is a fish auction site, one of the oldest in eastern India. Alok Mondal, who participates in the auction of a private entity, explains the whole process.

“The auction site becomes lively from 3.30 in the morning,” he said. “Fishing trawlers arrive in port and the catch is sorted. The price is set according to the size and weight of the catch. Bidding begins and can continue until 11 am, or late afternoon until the trawlers keep coming in. Because the market starts early, drags that arrive early fetch higher prices.”

Despite a bustling market, Digha’s fishing industry is facing the impact of climate change. The coast was hit by two major cyclonic storms Amphan in 2020 and Yaas in 2021. Climate change is making these storms much more frequent and devastating.

“Frequent natural disasters have led to a reduction in the number of fishing days and thus fewer catches,” said Debasis Shyamal, National Council Member of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fish Workers. “Apart from the regular fishing ban, we cannot go into the sea for up to 50 days due to erratic weather patterns. Artisanal and traditional fishermen are among the worst affected.”

A typical day at a fish auction site in Digha, West Bengal. Credit: Tazeen Qureshi.

Erratic weather conditions, especially the unseasonal rainfall pattern, have also affected the dried fish industry, which does not get the number of consecutive days of sunshine to dry the fish.

Involve local communities

Several studies in the past have highlighted the positive role of local communities in protecting the ecology. Experts in the field have also suggested a similar collaboration in the region.

Fishermen, on the other hand, have again and again claimed government incentives to improve their socio-economic status.

Last month, the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, a registered small-scale fish body, wrote a letter to the administration demanding temporary hut structures along the beach for fishermen to rest.

The letter also highlighted how the fishing boats were suffering damage in catching it and removing it from the sea, due to the rocks placed along the shore, and demanded that a patch be tilted to facilitate the movement of the boats

“India has an extensive coastline that makes the fishing industry an important source of livelihood for millions of people,” said Shyamal, who is also part of the Forum. “When we are in an existential crisis, it is the government’s duty to examine our problems and address them. We cannot ignore each other.”

Tazeen Qureshy is a freelance journalist based in Odisha, reporting on rural, climate and environment, gender, education, health and sports. He holds a Masters in Convergent Journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. her twitter handle is @TazeenQureshy.

This article was first published in Environment of India.

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