December 09, 2013

Squid and Cuttlefish Fishermen Of Tarkarli, Malvan

“It’s alright to walk in with your footwear on. Come in this way,” the dark, thin elderly man in light orange t-shirt and a muddied white floppy hat insisted when I made to remove my floaters before stepping into the thatched hut where his fellow-fisherman was gathering squid in a deep-bottom weighing scale before carrying it by the heavy chain suspension to the beam balance that stood in a corner.  

A buyer was in attendance, watching over the weighing scale filled with Indian squid. A sale was in progress. Soon they started negotiating on the price for the squid. Cuttlefish lay alongside.

It was hot outside, half past twelve, and the four of us, having meandered from Goa to Malvan by road, had presented ourselves at the entrance to the makeshift thatched hut on Tarkarli beach where fishermen bring their catch, store it in plastic crates, weigh them for buyers, pack the catch in ice, and rest on plastic chairs that look out to the sea on India’s west coast, waiting for their boat to come in or rest awhile after a tiring day out at sea staking out baited lines and pulling in their catch.

Tarkarli is a svylan village in Malvan, a taluka in Sindhudurg district. The beach takes after the name of the village.

Only a few years ago, Tarkarli beach was the showpiece of Maharashtra Tourism’s campaign to lure tourists from Goa to the promise of their own coast, particularly Tarkarli and Ganpatiphule, then pristine beaches.

The campaign probably succeeded beyond their expectations for, riding along the narrow road that winds through hamlets beach-side, the traveller could be forgiven for not realising the presence of a shoreline beyond the cheek-by-jowl hotels so closely packed that there’s barely a break worth speaking of that affords the traveller a view of the beach. 

Hotel advertisement boards jostled for space.   

However they seemed largely empty when we passed them the first week of November. Boom or bust? I cannot be sure.   

Back in the makeshift thatched hut, cuttlefish were everywhere, laid out individually,  arms bunched together and arranged in a circle, immersed in plastic crates, and heaped in weighing scales. A cousin to the squid and the octopus, the cuttlefish species we saw in the hut had striking tiger-stripe patterns. An elderly, balding fisherman in white vest displayed a cuttlefish so we could get a close look at it. 

Only those familiar with the difference between the cuttlefish, squid and octopus can identify them apart at first glance. 

To the rest of us, the presence of four pairs of arms with hooks and two long tentacles with prominent suckers is enough to qualify them as octopus, no doubt helped by the many films that uncharitably depict them as monsters of the deep with a penchant for human flesh. The reality however is more mundane though. My own introduction as a school boy to the octopus was in Octopussy, the James Bond movie.      

Among the cuttlefish were a few squids (Loligo duvauceli). I didn’t see any octopus. Separated from the cuttlefish, the squids were likewise laid out on the tarp liberally smudged with dark inky liquid that I gathered was the result of the combined exertion of the unfortunate Cephalopods against the fishing crew in desperate attempts to escape capture once hooked to lines.

The squids however were fewer in number compared to cuttlefish which I later learnt to be the Pharaoh Cuttlefish (Sepia pharaonis), the largest of the three cuttlefish species found in the waters off the west coast. Its distinctive tiger-stripes pattern contrasted with the pale white of the squids. The other cuttlefish species are - Sepia aculeata and Sepia inermis.

On Maharashtra’s coast, the octopus is available all year round, while the squids are known to favour pre-monsoon season (January-May). The cuttlefish catch peaks in the post-monsoon season (September-December), October being the favoured month, probably the reason why the tarp was full of Pharaoh Cuttlefish, and only a small number of squids. It was the first week of November, barely four days out of October.

I was struck by the absence of fish in the hut, the regular kind one expects to see off the west coast - Pomfret, Mackeral, Anchoves, and Mullet among other demersal fishes. Not a single one. It meant the fishermen couldn’t possibly have trawled for the Pharaoh cuttlefish and Indian squid. This had to be the result of selective fishing of Cephalopods. Later one of them would show us the hooks they used to trap them.

Cephalopods (Cuttlefish, Squid, Octopus) fetch good money, and now form a significant percentage of revenues earned from fisheries exports. Maharashtra, with its 700+ Kms. coastline, is a key landing centre for Cephalopods, reaching a peak of 31,353 tonnes (2003) before declining to 14,014 tonnes (2009), and perhaps further; the decline of Cephalopods is attributed to depletion of stocks on account of mechanised trawling that accounts for over 85% of Cephalopods landed. Even so the Cephalopods formed less than 10% of the entire fish catch. The numbers are staggering.

And Tarkarli barely figures as a major landing site if the number of small fibre-boats on the beach on the day we landed there is anything to go by. It was quiet when we reached the beach early last month.    


There were four men in the makeshift thatched hut when we arrived.

“It’s alright. You don’t have to remove your footwear,” the fisherman in the floppy hat repeated. “Look, we’re wearing footwear too,” he said. The four of us, including A, R and D had crowded the entrance, looking in.

Out of habit my hand had reached the sandal strap, more to avoid dragging sand onto the tarp laid out on the sand underneath the thatching and heaped with food for faraway tables. I needn’t have bothered with the footwear given how liberally the inky liquid graced the covering.

The four of us had walked through a short stretch of sand headed for the Tarkarli beach past the hut when we noticed activity within. We had pulled into an open space opposite a restaurant that sat, like countless other small and large hotels, on the beach.

If there was a Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) then the folks in Tarkarli hadn’t heard of it.

We had found out way to Tarkarli from Malvan asking for directions along the way, mostly from young local boys who stood roadside shouting “Water Sports” and waving leaflets at passing vehicles enroute to the beach. The road ran narrow between lush greenery and coconut palms. 

It was a pleasant ride through winding roads, past hamlets and an occasional temple.

Tarkarli beach and the stretch adjoining it is a favoured destination for water sports, with Tarkali favoured for snorkelling. 

“Rs. 160/- a kilo,” the man in the floppy hat replied when asked of the price the cuttlefish went for. Malvan is famous for seafood and I reckoned his catch was marketed locally. Locally the squid is known as makul. I do not know if the cuttlefish is known by a different name locally or if the octopus, the squid and the cuttlefish go by the same name – makul.

Explaining their structure and demonstrating the reaction of suckers to human contact he let the cuttlefish tentacle latch on to his big toe by its suckers. 

It didn't let go of the toe as he moved his feet.

Then he laid an Indian squid (Loligo duvauceli) by a cuttlefish. Except for the mantle; the cuttlefish has a larger mantle, they were similar in length, a little over a feet long.

“The ones we catch usually weigh between 1.5-2.5 kgs,” the fisherman said of the cuttlefish.

Neither the Indian squid nor the cuttlefish live longer than a year. Many of these fishermen operate small 4-metre boats with outboard motors, some without them, to fish for squids and cuttlefish. A lone fisherman or two operate these small boats in the waters off Tarkarli.

Most of the boats on the beach were small fibreglass operations.

The larger ones, typically 6-7 metres long are operated by a crew of 3-4 fishermen. These were few and far between from among the boats parked on the beach.

One of them, probably longer than seven metres, was sheltered in the shade of one of the two bays constructed with bamboo and thatched coconut fronds. A clock marked time. It was five minutes past one.

Typically squids are caught by scoop nets after attracting them with light sources flashed from the boat. Still others are caught using what’s known as jigging something we soon found out from the fisherman in the hut.


“How do you catch them (squids and cuttlefish)?” I asked the fisherman.

Soon, two hooks materialised in the hands of another fisherman. Holding them out so we could see them, he said, “We use two types of hooks to catch them.”

Moulded in the form of a shrimp, the jigs had two rows of pointed hooks curved back up. Each row was made of about twelve pointed hooks from what I could see. A blue coloured nylon wire trailed from the head and rolled around a square piece of thermocol that substituted for a temporary spindle.

“We get these from Mumbai,” he said, turning over the colourfully done up jig the shape of a shrimp. No baits are used in this method. The bake-moulded jig is the bait.

The bright colours and shrimp-shape attract squids and cuttlefish. Held down by weight that helps the jigs maintain dorso-ventral position, and strung out by nylon wire, the wait begins at depths of 15-20 metres.

Unlike trawling that scoops up all manner of catch, jigging ensures selective catch. The twin-rows of sharp, pointed hooks work best with Cephalopods like squids and cuttlefish.

No wonder we saw none of the demersal varieties of fish in the hut.


Stepping outside the hut and pointing to large, uneven rocks rising from the sea in the distance, the fisherman said, “We fish for these around there.” Then moving his hand to the right, he continued, “There’s the fort,” pointing to Sindhudurg fort, a 17th century sea fort that’s a big draw with tourists and is reached by boats ferrying sightseers.

Earlier in the day approaching noon, we had made for the ferry point from where ferries leave for Sindhudurg fort. Ajay said it’d take close to three hours to reach, look around the fort and return to shore, a proposition none favoured in the noon sun. So we made for Tarkarli instead, pushing the visit to the fort for after we return from seeing Tarkarli beach and Devbag Sangam.

It’s another story that we ran short of time and left Sindhudurg fort for another trip sometime in the future.

The rocks the fisherman pointed out is also the site for snorkeling we were told. A covered boat stood outside the rear entrance. More thatched huts were ranged alongside, each used by fishing outfits similar to the one we were with.

On learning we had driven down from Goa, talk turned to cashew extract called “Deek” that Goan fisherman use to coat their boats/canoes/dugouts for protection against pests.

Pointing to four large beaten vessels placed arranged by a fishing boat in the shade of a shelter, the fisherman said, “See those vessels there? They’re made of copper. They’re very old.”

He said they store extracts (from a tree he named but whose name I cannot remember now) in those copper vessels to treat fishing nets. “Without this treatment, the nets will not last long.”

We walk up to the copper vessels to see them upclose, then around the boat shelter, and out to the front. The shelter has two bays. One is occupied by a large fishing boat. The other is empty.

A, R, and D sit on a log in the shade while I walk ahead and look out to sea. The shore is empty of tourists save a few fishing crews busy with their boats. The sea is peaceful. Blue meets blue. Subdued waves wash over the beach. I could sit there for hours watching over the rhythm the sea punctuates the quiet shoreline with.


Past the bay, I spot a small boat with yellow and blue stripes. Two men are bringing the Sai Prasad in.

I realise what’s coming in and head out to meet it just as they pull it ashore. The sky is a brilliant blue with nary a cloud and all seems well with the world.

They’ve brought in a catch of cuttlefish and squids. The former outnumber the latter.

One of the men walks back up the beach and returns with plastic crates to load the catch of the day. Then he climbs into the boat and using a sawed off oilcan begins to scoop up dark, inky liquid before emptying it on the sand.

He empties can after can of the liquid gathered in the boat. It couldn't have been diesel. For one the liquid flows freely and the fibre-glass fishing boat is not fitted with an outboard motor.

Then it dawns on me. The cuttlefish and squids had put up a fight the instant they realised they’d been tricked by the jigs.

Resisting being dragged by nets or scooped by scoop nets, they’d have spewed ink in a desperate attempt to confuse predators except that in humans they were up against a far more cunning predator than any they’d known.

“Stay away,” the man in the boat with the plastic can scoop told me as he emptied more inky black liquid. “The ink does not wash off clothes,” he said just as a fine spray splashed up on my cargoes after hitting the sand where a trough had now formed.

The other man pointed to his t-shirt, smudged all over by the ink spewed by their catch, and said, “We can’t use these again once they are smudged by the ink.”

No amount of their expelling ink from their sacs had helped the desperate creatures escape. They just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sometimes distance insulates one from the nature of drama played out before life is served up on the plate in seafood restaurants.

It takes a visit to the hunting grounds and the remnants from their last desperate act before the curtain was drawn on it, to realise just how fragile life is, and how short lived is the story it leaves behind to mark its passing, even if all it takes is one wave to wash away the story of a struggle marking the frenzied attempt at freedom.

The watch read quarter past one. It was getting hotter by the minute the longer we were out on the beach, and there were places to go still. Old friendships seek reason to come together; this time it was Tarkarli and the meandering road through Malvan.

We returned the way we had come, walking past the thatched hut before continuing onward to Devbagh Sangam five kms. away, where the river Karli meets with the Arabian sea.

It is where the earth ends, or so it seems.


Daisy said...

Anil, I really enjoyed reading this account. I've never seen anyone fishing for these types of creatures. Your world is very different from mine, and I always find it fascinating to read about what you are doing there. Your beach and the area there is quite beautiful. I'm surprised there aren't a lot more people there to enjoy the sea and sand.

Riot Kitty said...

I really admire your ability to become friendly with so many people, and share their stories with us.

Anil P said...

Daisy: Thank you. Nice to know you liked the post.

Yes, it's very different, given that India and the US are very different cultures.

The beach is beautiful. Only the adjoining area is now crowded with constructions.

Riot Kitty: Thank you :-) Am glad you enjoy reading these stories.

TALON said...

Anil, what fantastic photos and what a wonderful experience. It's amazing how much thought and effort goes into the harvesting of the fish and the squids. As always I learn something new and interesting when I visit your blog. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

I imagine the first person to catch and eat a squid would have been very brave. Lovely photos!

Pranav Chandra said...

What an interesting read. So many fascinating ponints. Lovely pictures. Thank you!