Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 13, October 16-31, 2018

Deep-sea fishing along Madras coast

Anantanarayanan Raman

The article on deep-sea fishing along theMadras coast that appeared in MM, September 1st and 16th, jogged my memory on fishing and related sectors developing as an industry in the Madras Presidency in the early decades of the 20th Century. Some details, which could interest the readers of MM, are given below.

The Madras Fisheries Department (MFD) was considered a ‘model’ department for its contemporaries in other Presidencies of India because of the highly advanced methods, the Madras marine fishermen used in drying fish and preparing fish oil and fish manure. Consequently close to 250 small fish-oil factories existed along the Madras coast, run and managed by the fishermen themselves. Commercial production of high-quality tinned and cured fish was regularly demonstrated at MFD.

The Indian Industrial Commission Report (1916-1918) submitted by the Holland Commission (T.H. Holland, A. Chatterton, Fazhulbhoy Currimbhoy Ebrahim, Edward Hopkinson, C.E. Low, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Rajendra Nath Mukherjee, Horace Curzon Plunkett, F.H. Stewart, and Dorabji Jamestji Tata) indicates the following: ‘Indian fisheries (especially deep-sea fisheries) have been neglected, except in the case of Madras, and their possibilities should be developed by properly equipped Fisheries Departments; And again “The (Madras) Fisheries Department deserves even fuller support from Government, especially in the further development of deep-sea fishing’, wherein the segment”… except in the case of Madras’ requires our close attention”.

In 1917, the staff at the Madras Fisheries Department (MFD) consisted of two Europeans, marine and piscicultural experts, and three Indians: (1) an oil and soap chemist, (2) an assistant to the piscicultural expert, and (3) an Assistant Director (AD). The AD was a highly educated affluent with European scientific training, who came from a socially marginalised family. MFD was headed by an Honorary Director. I could track down the names of the officers listed above. The Honorary Director was Frederick Nicholson, the piscicultural expert was H.C. Wilson (who died sometime in 1916 or 1917), the marine biology expert was James Hornell, the assistant to H.C. Wilson was B. Sundararaj, the Assistant Director was V. Govindan, and the soap & oil chemist was A.K. Menon.

The Indian Industrial Commission Report (1916-1918) commends the Madras Fisheries Department: ‘Scientific ichthyologists should be added to The Zoological Survey.’ Very likely this was the stimulus for the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) in Calcutta to set up the Marine Biological Station (MBS) in San Thomé, Madras, sometime later (1950s?). At this juncture, it is useful to recall the yeoman service done to the science of Southern-Indian fisheries by Ambat Gopalan Kutty Menon (popularly known as AGK) and Krishnan C. Jayaram (KCJ), who served the ZSI – MBS for more than two decades.

The MFD included two highly specialist offices (referred as branches) in 1916-1917: Pearl and Chank Branch Office and Tanur Experimental Station (TES). The Pearl and Chank branch was headed by Hornell. Chank harvesting occurred all along the eastern coast from Madras to Cape Comorin (Kanniyakumari), while the pearl harvesting was confined to Tuticorin. TES went through an intense metamorphosis over time. In 19161917 it was an experimental cannery for producing marketable fish. However, by 1940, it transformed into a rigorous research department. During this time, TES collaborated with the Nutrition Research Laboratories (NRL) at Coonoor and investigated the nutritional benefits of fish products. One of their – combined – major findings was the plentiful availability of vitamin A in Indian shark – and sawfish liver oils. This research finding was a breakthrough since at this time, Europe was reeling under the pressure of World War II, which stopped the supply of cod-liver oil from Norway. The finding made at TES in collaboration with NRL Coonoor is remarkable.

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