The smoky tanginess of sardine cooked with garcinia cambogia that blends with the starchiness of boiled tapioca is an emotion for the average Malayali, something most Keralites would happily relish at any time of the day — or night.
The combination is also one of the main dishes in toddy shops, some of them now even frequented by families.
The Indian oil sardine (Sardinella longiceps), the favourite fish, however, had become expensive with a steady decline in their catch off the Kerala coast over the past four years.
Sardines, mathi or chala in Malayalam, is one of Kerala’s most commercially available fish. The other one is mackerel.
Now, the good news.
Most fishing harbours in the state are witnessing an unexpected increase in the availability of sardines since July. The higher landings have brought the price of oil sardines below ₹100 per kg in most markets. Operators of mechanised boats feel the trend would continue for six more months.
But how did the once-abundant schools of oil sardines in the Arabian Sea off the Kerala coast suddenly become a rarity? And why are they back this season?
Scientists blame climate change
It was not sudden, researchers said, adding that the sardines had migrated to better climes.
According to the Kochi-based Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), climate change-induced unprecedented rise in seawater temperatures and changes in water-current patterns were the primary reasons for the sardine migration to other areas of the sea.
The institute also found that the scarcity aggravated after the El Nino-Southern Oscillation. It is an irregular periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, affecting the climate of much of the tropics and subtropics.
Jackson Pullayil of the National Fish Workers’ Forum said the abundance of sardines was a blessing in disguise for small-scale traditional fish workers, who lacked the resources for deep-sea fishing.
“Both oil sardines and Indian mackerel are found close to the shore, and the small operators can catch them easily. The retail price of the sardine has dipped below ₹100 per kg across the state. Last year, it was around ₹300 per kg,” Jackson said.
The sudden spurt in sardine haul has caught the attention of ichthyologists, or marine biologists.
They studied the phenomenon and concluded that the nearshore waters have regained lower temperatures. They pointed at the copious rains received during the past few months as one of the reasons that brought sardines and mackerels back to Kerala waters. Another reason, they felt, was the long fishing holidays imposed during the peak Covid-19 period.
Traditional boat operators were netting tonnes of oil sardines daily. Fish workers’ leader Charles George demanded a comprehensive study to understand the sudden availability of sardines.
“We need to know how long this trend would continue. If it is temporary, we have to worry about a bitter future. Climate change and its manifestations are unpredictable. So we are not feeling much happy about the present abundance,” he said.
Call to regulate fishing
CMFRI scientist TM Najmudheen told South First that data collated by the institute showed that the catch in 2021 was around 3,297 tonnes — the lowest since 1994 in the state. He was optimistic that the catch till December this year would be more than double of the previous year.
According to the CMFRI, the annual average sardine availability in the state from 1995 to 2020 was 1.66 lakh tonnes.
Along with sardines, catches of other popular fish varieties such as the silver belly and the black pomfret, too, had declined sharply in recent years. The situation has not changed now. The availability of penaeid prawns, squid, and threadfin breams, however, increased significantly during the past two years.
Najmudheen advocated strict measures against juvenile fishing — catching fish that are yet to attain adulthood, spawn and multiply. It could ensure the availability of oil sardines along the Kerala coast. He also opined that authentic studies were needed to ascertain the cause of the present surge.
Juvenile fishing of the Indian oil sardine has been causing economic loss and depletion of resources, he said, adding that there should be a total ban on fishing sardines during the spawning season.
The CMFRI has demanded to the state government to include small-scale operators in the fishing ban enforced during the spawning season.
George said the continuing good catch has brought cheers to fishermen. They had been bogged down by the spiralling fuel prices and dwindling catch.
“Oil sardines are Kerala’s favourite fish. If their catch is regulated at least during the spawning season, the migration can be curtailed to a certain extent,” Nizamuddin opined.
According to scientist Abdu Samad, Indian oil sardines were an enigmatic fish till recently. “There had been a few occasions during the past hundred years when their numbers dwindled alarmingly off the Indian coasts,” he said.
In the 1940s, the sardines disappeared almost entirely from the southern coasts of India, and the British even banned catching sardines.
The scarcity of sardines during the past four years had pushed up the price. Sardines were affordable till 15 years ago, and a regular dish on dining tables. The high prices forced many households and restaurants to take sardines off their menu.
During the lean years, fish vendors even imported sardines from Oman to make up for the scarcity and meet the demand. “But the Oman variety had few takers in Kerala as people felt a huge difference in taste,” George said. “The Oman variety is wider in appearance as well,” he added.
Oil sardines used to constitute one-third of the total catch in Kerala. Besides their rich taste, sardines are known for their health benefits. They are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins D, A and B12.
They are low in mercury levels and widely regarded as suitable for healthy skin and hair.