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| Last Updated:: 29/08/2023

Traditional wisdom related to fishery








Goa, a relatively small maritime state with an area of 3,702 along the Malabar Coast of the Indian Peninsula has a coastal run of approximately 105 km. Mythologically, the state owes its genesis to the receding of the sea caused by the arrow shot by the sage, Parashurama.



The region is drained by nine rivers, most of which flow from the western Ghats to the Arabian Sea, barring the river Sal of south Goa that flows from the north-east of the state to its south-west.



A very interesting feature of Goan Rivers is that they are not only rain-fed, but are under tidal influence as well. Perhaps it is for this reason that the salinity of these rivers is high enough to support estuarine fisheries. In fact the fisheries sector of this region mainly depends on the marine and estuarine waters; whereas commercial fresh water fishery is almost non-existent.




Fish in ancient Goa




There are some cultural artifacts that showcase our links with fish since remote antiquity. In a sacred grove at Nagve, an icon of a female deity in a standing posture is depicted in a boat whose hull clearly shows engravings of a fish silhouette. In all probability, this panel is a reflection of the maritime relationship of the orient with the occident.



Interestingly, during the Portuguese era and subsequently in liberated Goa, until the end of the 70s, select fish were also used as saguados (gifts) to appease the landlords, upper castes and government officials to seek favours. The newly-weds are often invited over by family and friends for a meal with lavish inclusion of fish. In fact, it is customary among the Goans to invite the son-in-law and his kith and kin on the fifth day after solemnizing the wedding for lunch. The ceremony, known as panch partavan, is a matter of prestige for the bride’s family and all the care is taken to serve the invitees the choicest of the food. On the occasion, the best available fish is picked up from near and far by the hosts.




Contemporary scenario




The intensive mechanization of the Goan fishing sector by the introduction of trawlers in the mid 80s, spelt doom for the traditional fisher folk, who were completely displaced and deprived of their livelihood options.



In fact, today most of the state’s coastline is a scene of conflict between traditional fishing communities and star hotels, the latter having illegally occupied long stretches of seashore for enhancing their tourism infrastructure. This has resulted in restricted access to the sea and loss of traditional fish landing centres, thus interfering with fishing operations. Globalization has promoted export of fresh and canned fish stocks outside the country, diminishing local availability. Such demands have triggered overexploitation and consequent fish famines. Today, fish that was once believed to be an important source of animal protein for the masses, is in fact more expensive than poultry products and beyond the reach of commoners.




Traditional wisdom related to fishery



Restricted fishing for stock renewal





The ethnic fishing crafts and gears of Goa suggest that fishing was then practiced on a very sustainable scale, leaving great scope for renewal and recuperation of this marine wealth. People had knowledge of the dangers of overexploitation and hence took great care in setting limits of net mesh size. They also practiced a voluntary moratorium on fishing activities as well as consumption of fish.



Goan Hindus refrain from fish consumption during the holy month of shravan. Fish meals are resumed in most Hindu households only after the immersion of Ganesh idols, marking the completion of Ganapati festival. In fact there is this subtle humour regarding the Saraswat community of Goa where they take the idol for immersion from the front door and simultaneously get in the assorted fish baskets from the back door to compensate for their vegetarian endurance. Devout women set aside certain days of the week when neither fish is cooked nor served in the household.



The Roman Catholics of Goa observe dietary abstinence and keep fish and meat out of their meals during the lent season. Also in Goa, like in other maritime states of India, there is a ban on inland fishing during the first two and a half months of the monsoons. This is the time when most of the fishing vessels are docked and serviced, nets are repaired and the work force is given a break. More importantly, the whole marine resource base is rested to facilitate its recuperation from exploitative pressure, allowing renewal and replenishment of the fin fish stocks. Though a few vessels do operate at high sea in the offshore provinces, the inshore waters are inviolate and safe breeding grounds for scores of commercially important gravid fish.



Such a concern also reflects in the local cuisine, there being no gravid fish consumed during the rains. Also, many festivals and religious rituals are observed during this time, with taboos on the consumption of animal proteins. Thus, culture and science complement each other to conserve the fish stocks in Goa’s coastal waters.



For the compulsive fish eater in Goa, the monsoon season is a difficult time, yet the diverse shell fish resources effectively act as substitutes. Clams like Paphia malabarica, Katelysia opima, Katelysia marmorata, Sunetta scripta, Meretrix casta, Mussel (Perna viridis), Oysters (Crassostrea graphoides) and Mud-crabs (Scylla serrata) are available in good quantities all along the coastline.



The littoral zone off the St. Jacinto Island in the Dabolim village of Mormugao taluka is a very productive clam bed, supporting the livelihood of marginalized coastal communities for ages. The clams are handpicked, chiefly by women who earn some revenue by selling their harvest from door to door or in the open fish markets. Until two decades ago, a few locals in a spirit of community proprietary judiciously harvested this produce for sustenance and local trade. Presently the greed of the market forces and open access has led to the overexploitation of these clams. The clams are harvested even before they reach a marketable size, seriously hampering their renewal dynamics.



The grassroot stakeholders of these resources know little or no science and yet their ethnic knowledge disallows overexploitation. It is the synergy of a nature-revering ethos, ecologically benign practices of fish harvest and the ability to reign in the urge to exploit resources beyond sustainable limits, that manifest into conservation.



Just like the clams, crabs are harvested according to the lunar calendar. So ingrained is this connection in the Goan psyche, that there are hardly any takers for crabs on or near the full moon day going by the age old experience that crabs are less meaty and tasteless in this phase of the lunar cycle. Probably this is true to a certain extent, because the moult cycle of the crabs is synchronized with the lunar cycle.



As has been stated earlier, the fisherfolk, irrespective of the religious faith they follow, resume their fishing activities after a spell of rains on the full moon day of narali pornima, a ritual to appease the rough sea and seek a good catch. Offerings of coconut (and in some cases its golden miniature) are given to the sea on this occasion.



Taboos exist regarding overexploitation of fish stocks. The fisherfolk of Betul area for instance believe that fishing in excess of one’s requirements invites the wrath of the guardian spirit, locally known as Devchar. This submission also helps in defining territorial waters and avoiding clashes over limits of fishing grounds between folks from adjacent fishing villages. Consumption of gravid fish or roe is discouraged during the rainy season on health grounds. Actually, such a dietary curb is more supportive of the spawning of fish in the inland waters during the monsoons, ensuring that the following fishing season shall be prosperous.




In Goa, fish is not only food but also a part of the culture. It may be prudent to reflect on this sector from bygone days and understand the traditional wisdom of our fishing communities who did not violate the limits of sustainable exploitation. The conservation ethics ingrained in the ethnic diet, crafts, gears and rituals need to be understood in the scientific context and chronicled for posterity.