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Fish Prices Fall After Tsunami, Threatening Coastal Families´ Livelihood

Updated: January 11, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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The tsunami that wiped out fishing villages in southern India is now threatening fishing families who survived but cannot sell the fish they now catch.

Many people are refusing to eat fish and other seafood from tsunami-hit areas, for fear that the fish has been contaminated due to the number of human corpses dragged out to sea. India confirms more than 10,000 fatalities in the Dec. 26 disaster, with a few thousand others still listed as missing.

Kerala state, where seafood has been a large part of people´s diet, is one area where people are turning their backs on seafood. Some restaurants have stricken fish items from their menu. The lack of demand for fish also has driven prices down, driving fisher folk in the southern part of the state, most of them Catholics, to poverty.

Rani Kuriakose, from a middle-class family in Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, told UCA News, "After seeing the tsunami visuals of thousands of dead bodies piled in the pits, who is going to eat fish?" She added, "I could not sleep for a week." The 42-year-old housewife "used to buy fish worth 300 rupees (about US$7) a week," but now her family has "shifted to meat instead."

The coastal area near Thiruvananthapuram, 2,240 kilometers south of New Delhi, was not hit by the tsunami. However, some 1,000 people are still feared dead from nearby coastal areas at the southern tip of India, in neighboring Tamil Nadu state.

Also, some areas along the Kollam coast, 80 kilometers northwest of Thiruvananthapuram, were hit. Most of the 170 deaths recorded in Kerala occurred there.

Since the tsunami, Thiruvananthapuram markets have witnessed a steep rise in meat prices. For instance, the price of chicken meat rose from 36 rupees to 48 rupees a kilogram.

The city´s fish supply came mostly from the Catholic fishing settlement of Valiyathura, where 3,000 families dwell along a three-kilometer coastal belt.

Wholesaler Mohammed Haneefa said before the tsunami, city markets sold about 20 tons of fish a day. Now sales amount to less than a ton. "This has never happened before. A fear psychosis is gripping the people," he said.

This means hunger and poverty for thousands of families that depend solely on fishing. One such family is that of John Leans from Valiyathura.

"Nobody is buying our catch. So even if we get a good catch, we get a lower price. Exporters and the local markets are not taking," he said.

Fish vendor Marie Yesudas, on the other hand, said their people are "not getting good catch" after the tsunami, and "there is no demand for whatever little they get." The 60-year-old woman is worried that "if it continues for a month, we will all starve to death."

Her companion, Margaret Joseph, was packing up fish they could not sell that day. "We can´t force people to eat fish. If the rich are not buying, we have to throw it away," she said.

Father James Kulas, episcopal vicar of Trivandrum Latin-rite archdiocese, told UCA News the Church is concerned about the situation. But he admitted, "We do not know how to help them."

The fishermen are struggling hard, and "if this continues for a week, many families will fall prey to loan sharks," he warned, saying the state government should campaign to allay public fears regarding fish consumption. Trivandrum is the former name of the Kerala capital.

According to Babu Varghese, a researcher with the federal Marine Research Department, based in Thiruvananthapuram, "There is no scientific basis for this belief that fish or any marine life could be poisoned or contaminated because of the tsunamis." In his view, "the avoidance of fish is a psychological pretension."

"Scare and fear rule the coastal belt today," confirmed Medical Mission Sister Philomin Marie, secretary of the Church-led National Fish Workers Forum. She noted that fishermen in the area are already in debt and now face starvation. The nun said her organization is encouraging the people to go fishing nevertheless, since even a meager income would help.


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