Thanks to globalisation and lack of infrastructure, there has been a sharp reversal of fortunes for Kerala that for long had a vibrant presence in India's seafood export.
With a coastline of 580 km, Kerala has 121 registered fish processing units, of which hardly 50 are currently functioning. Thousands of people who worked in the industry are stranded, desperately looking elsewhere for a livelihood, Grassroots Features reports.
Whether an organised plant or a thatched roof set-up, seafood processing in Kerala has been the preserve of women. Just a few men worked as supervisors. Predictably, the collapse of the industry has affected women more.
Balamani K. of Aroor panchayat in Alappuzha district, where once many processing units flourished, lamented: "My employer says he suffers losses continuously, and there is no point in running the plant.
"So we workers have sought other employment."
Balamani now works as a domestic help in a couple of houses in the town, something she is slightly embarrassed about.
Many others who worked in the seafood sector are now working in supermarkets or as door-to-door sales persons. A random survey conducted by an NGO in Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram districts showed one out of every three saleswomen is originally from the fishing or processing sector.
C.L. Constantine, a seafood trader in Kochi, said the dip in the market started with the opening up of the economy as a result of globalisation.
"The global market is for tuna and shrimp," he explained. "Kerala is now not in a position to deliver superior quality seafood to these buyers from the Far East in the desired quantities."
Post-globalisation, European companies have commenced joint ventures with companies in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines.
Semi-processed tuna and shrimp are brought in, re-processed and exported as branded seafood to the European Union, the US and Japan, which were previously Kerala's major customers.
Cheap labour available in these third world countries makes it economical for European companies. The same tuna or shrimp, when caught, frozen, processed and exported from Kerala now costs more and hence has fewer takers.
Moreover, due to financial constraints, there is no value-addition for seafood here. The joint pact has made it possible for Southeast Asian countries.
Also, India does not have laws allowing outsourcing of seafood processing, which would have provided employment opportunities. The plague in Surat, the US blacklisting of cooked shrimp and disease in aquaculture farms have added to the industry's woes.
Sabitha Ramesan, who worked in a fish-processing unit at Vizhinjam, is now selling fish in the domestic market. The skin on Sabitha's hands is flaking due to long years of cleaning fish.
"I am in my early 40s, and still have family responsibilities," she explained. "I need to feed and educate my children. I was getting a reasonable pay, but we were on contract. When there is no fish, there is no work."
Some processing workers have found work selling export-rejected fish to domestic customers. But peelers, being contract workers, have been unorganised and hence had little bargaining power with the government or employers.
After EU norms came into effect in the 1990s, processing units in the organised sector were forced to become employee-friendly.
Peelers received gloves, worked in hygienic conditions, got steel tables to work on rather than squatting on the ground, and had a better monetary package, including provident fund benefits.
But most workers were employed on contract because availability of fish depended on trawling, and trawling is banned in the state from June to August. So less fish meant fewer renewed contracts.
Another factor that affected the seafood industry is poor infrastructure.
Though countries like Thailand have less than 15 years experience in the export industry, their facilities are a decade ahead of Kerala, thanks to assistance by European partners.
A single trawler in Thailand can catch 1,200 to 1,500 metric tonnes of fish daily, whereas Kerala's trawler capacity is three metric tonnes.
Thus processing plants get only 20 percent of their raw material requirement. Less supply leads to expensive raw material, resulting in higher international processed seafood rates.
Kerala's catch is procured by trawling vessels, motorboats and canoes. Though much less now, approximately 4,000 vessels, 16,000 motorboats and 3,000 canoes operated in the late 1990s.
The catch is brought ashore and frozen only later. This often leads to decay and erosion of quality.
In the Far East, the fish is frozen onboard as soon as it is caught. Fish being a perishable commodity, any delay in processing makes it unsuitable for export.
Moreover, Kerala has only coastal fishing and no deep-sea fishing.
Depression in the seafood industry has financially ruined most of these families.
Sabitha's husband C. Ramesan was working in a fishing boat at Neendakara in Kollam district for 13 years. Last year his employer decided to reduce the workforce.
"The catch had consistently diminished, and my boss decided to rest some of the boats," he recounted.
"Now, two colleagues and I have set up a small thatched shed in the district market to sell export-rejected fish. We barely make ends meet. I am not yet able to regularly send money home."
There is a misconception that greater opportunities in the domestic market have helped those laid off from the seafood industry find alternative employment.
As Sabitha put it: "We have never sold fish in the past, and we end up being the losers. There is competition from senior workers. Moreover, the domestic market cannot accommodate all the workers laid off from processing units."
A way out of this problem is through legislation, whereby India becomes a host country for seafood processing. If this happened, the seafood industry would require even more hands than it ever employed.
Also, facilities have to be improved so that Kerala can export value-added seafood, instead of just processed fish. But trading in a globalised world waits for none. If you don't move fast, the industry dies.