The Sea In Their Blood: How Climate Change Is Crippling Mumbai's Fishing Community

Mumbai’s original residents, the fishing community, is struggling to stay afloat amid frequent storms, warmer temperatures, rising sea level, reduced catch and illegal technology

Photo: Dinesh Parab
Troubled Waters: Vijay Shantaram Pawar used to make a decent living off the sea, but now fish is scarce Photo: Dinesh Parab

Sitting inside a blue-coloured safe house at the Cleveland jetty in Mumbai’s sea-facing Worli region, Vijay Shantaram Pawar’s face lights up with a smile as he digs out an old photograph of him holding a prized catch, a ghol masa or croaker fish, popularly known as sea gold.

“It’s a big fish and very expensive. I was able to catch it right here,” he says, pointing in the distance towards the recently inaugurated coastal road, over which cars speed by.

The memory of a 2018 photograph, which shows a clear coastline, seems a part of another age.

At the time, Pawar sold the fish for Rs 20,000, earning a decent living fishing off the Worli coast. Marginal fishermen like him ventured into the waters near the jetty. The intertidal zone, a breeding ground, was reclaimed for the 29 km coastal road from Worli to Marine Lines, towards the metropolis’ southern tip.

The coastal road, with an underwater tunnel, is showcased as Mumbai’s aspirational infrastructure project. But in reality, the ambitious urban connectivity project has robbed the livelihood of hundreds of fisherfolk like Pawar and left Mumbai’s indigenous koli community, which has lived on and survived off the city’s coastline for over 700 years, in a lurch.

“Our forefathers fished in these waters and built our families. Today, we don’t even have the freedom to fish anywhere we want,” says Nitesh Patil, chairman of Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Society, about the loss of fishing in the intertidal zone. Worli Koliwada (koli habitat) is among the biggest and oldest fishing habitats of the 40 such koliwadas in the city. Today, 300-odd families are engaged in commercial fishing here, a majority of whom practice traditional hand-held fishing and 170 own large and medium boats.

The coastal road, constructed at an enormous cost of Rs 12,000 crore, has not just created a huge obstacle for the fishing community, but has also wrecked the precious marine ecosystem, already under the duress from high environmental pollution, rapid urbanisation and climate change.

Photo: Courtesy: Vijay Shantaram Pawar

The southern stretch from Worli to Priyadarshini Park in Malabar Hill was a productive zone for traditional fishing, says environmental conservationist and architect Shweta Wagh. Several species of fish, like black crabs, grouper, red snapper and white prawns, could be found in these shallow waters and large fish from the deep sea came to lay eggs.

Small fishermen would earn their livelihood from fishing in the intertidal and nearshore areas. Women would collect oysters and clams from the rocky shores and men would stand and fish with handheld fishing lines and nets in shallow waters.

When the area was reclaimed by dumping several hundred truckloads of debris, the intertidal zone was buried, putting an end to traditional fishing practices.

Wagh was among several campaigners who, along with the kolis, petitioned the courts to stall the coastal road. “The environmental impact on the city’s southern shore is irreversible. The land reclaimed cannot be undone,” Wagh says.

The local municipal body has allocated Rs 136 crore compensation for the project-affected fishermen. And the state government recommended the traditional fishing folks to transition to deep sea fishing. But a lack of funds for large boats and cost-intensive trips to the deep sea have discouraged many.

Last year, Pawar invested Rs one lakh and bought a small boat with one engine to venture into the near seas, but has come to repent his decision. A return trip up to 500 metres of water costs him over Rs 500 for five litres of diesel. “I am unable to even recover the cost of diesel. There’s hardly any fish to find,” Pawar rues.

“Mase kami aani masemar jasta jhale aahet (there’s less fish and more fishermen),” adds his friend Dharmaraj Worlikar. “It takes 20 nets to procure the same quantity of fish that we would get by casting two nets,” says Pritam Suryakant Shivdikar, a 43-year-old fisherman from Worli.

Fisherfolks held the government responsible for failing to crackdown against the illegal fishing by commercial trawlers, for the destruction of the fishing profession in Mumbai. The indigenous koli people who worship the sea as a source of prosperity and livelihood, avoid excessive fishing.

“The sea is our treasure. We only take enough fish to provide for our family’s consumption and to earn our yearly income for survival. We were happy with the earnings of Rs 2,000 or Rs 3,000 per month,” says Rajashree Bhanji, head of the Marol Fisherwomen Society, adding that, kolis can’t survive on that kind of money anymore. She blamed ‘evil’ technology like LED fishing and commercial boats venturing from outside Mumbai, for throttling their livelihood. “Large boats, trawl the seabed and collect everything that comes in their way, including small fishes, eggs and vegetation. They take all the share of our treasure.”

Bhanji, 63, who has managed the fishing business alone in Versova Koliwada for the last ten years since her husband passed away, was forced to sell one of her three boats last year and has sold much of her gold—a prized possession of koli women—to settle rising debts. She earns part of her income from the business of selling dry fish. 

Unlike commercial fishing operations, the koli community follows traditional fishing seasons. Fishing is halted during the monsoon months of June and July to allow fish to breed. The peak season, called sariga, runs from August to November. After a slow winter, they get the maximum catch in March, April and May.


The koli community’s traditional fishing cycle, guided by their deep knowledge of the sea, tides, and winds, is now disrupted by changing weather patterns and man-made destruction. They now face unexpected and frequent cyclones year-round, unlike the four storm situations typically experienced during the monsoon season. The powerful Tauktae cyclone in May 2021 severely disrupted fishing habitats and damaged boats and equipment. Warmer weather and increased humidity have visibly affected koliwadas on Mumbai’s coastline. Encroachment, illegal construction, and a lack of development planning have turned these areas into congested, malodorous localities, contrasting with the past when cooling winds flowed freely, making ceiling fans unnecessary. “We used to have table fans, but now every house has an air conditioner. The heat levels are very high,” says Camilo Kenny, a Christian native residing in Worli Koliwada. 


The warming Indian Ocean and rising sea levels threaten the fishing community across India. In 2008, the Cleveland jetty was reconstructed with a ramp one and a half metres higher to prevent seawater breaches during high tides. “Increasing the height of the ramp was pointless because the jetty gets flooded at high tide. We have already crossed the one and a half metre mark,” Patil said.

The 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lists Mumbai among four Indian cities highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, predicting parts will be underwater by 2100. This threatens the Koli community’s existence, raising concerns about their future in fishing amidst climate change’s impacts.


“No way. Till we are alive and (so is) the sea, we will continue to fish,” Shivdikar says. “We learn about the sea and the ways of fishing from early childhood. Even in the worst situation, we can survive by catching fish and eating kalwan and bhat (fish curry and rice).” 

As the earliest inhabitants of Mumbai, kolis are an indispensable part of the city’s identity, history and cultural fabric. They have lived by the shores of the Arabian Sea continuously for over 700 years, long before the ‘Seven Islands of Bombay’ were merged to form Mumbai, literally Urbs Prima in Indis, the first city of India.


The kolis, one of the city’s original natives, who call themselves children of the sea, have a doomsday prophecy for Mumbai: one day the sea will manifest rudraavatara, a violent and furious form, and swallow the city. “The sea does not keep anything for itself, it throws back whatever you put inside. The sea will react one day to all that has been done to it by reclamation of land and dumping of debris,” says Patil with a sense of foreboding conviction. “The sea will not remain calm unless it destroys these projects of coastal roads and the sea link.”


(This appeared in the print as 'The Sea In Their Blood')