In Asian markets, there is always a huge diversity of marine life packed in ice, frozen in suspended animation, or floundering/wriggling/writhing, being kept alive in 2 inches of water. Some of these specimens are small, but others are freaking sea monsters! It looks like the cast list for one of National Geographic's "deep sea" segments all got caught in the same net. You’ll find the same smorgasbord of marine animals in cities inland as you will in coastal ones, and whenever I bear witness to it, I always find myself wondering the same thing: how did these fish get here? You'd never see fish like that in American supermarkets, so I’ve always been curious. In Mumbai, I finally got the chance to see some of the supply chain, and it did not disappoint.
The Sassoon Docks are Mumbai’s legendary entry point for all of its seafood. When sailors haul their catches in from the Arabian sea, they dock here. This is not a place often seen by foreign eyes, but the location of these docks didn’t take much digging on the Internet, so on my last day in Mumbai I woke up early to catch a cab. In the developing world, when you’re dealing with seafood, or any kind of meat for that matter, everything happens early. As the day goes on, and the temperature rises, the meat spoils, so there is always a ticking clock to consider. I arrived at the gates to the docks around 8am. I had had to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn to make it all the way across Mumbai that early, but I had high hopes for what was in store.
I walked through the gateway, which read “SASSOON DOCK, ESTD 1871”. The docks were not far off, but between me and them were grungy rows of warehouses and trucks. I peeked into one of the warehouses, and saw women sitting or crouching in rows, sifting through shellfish and shrimp. Some of them noticed me walking by and stopped to stare at me with unblinking eyes. This was clearly not a place for outsiders, but I decided that I should go in and take pictures of what they were doing.
I went into the next warehouse down the row. The smell of rotting seafood made the air thick, much the same as it had been in the meat markets of Calcutta. The floors were wet and dirty, but they were covered in piles and piles of shrimp. There was a man who was sorting these piles into crates with a shovel. Off to the side, women sat in rows, sorting through the food just as they had been in the last warehouse. I walked in and, as unabashedly as I could, took some pictures. People had mixed reactions, but most of the women sorting through the food were amused. They laughed, and made jokes to each other. Some of them stood up and pointed towards their friends, directing me to take pictures of them. Things were going well, but just then a man who, I assume, was their supervisor came in and told me to get lost. I tried to talk to him, but nobody spoke English, so I just trudged off.
I walked through the rows of warehouses, past the piles of garbage, until, finally, I came to the docks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many ships crowded into such a small space. The crews of these ships seemed to be in the process of waking up. Many of them were stumbling out onto the decks of their ships in their underwear, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Some sailors were taking their morning “shower,” which took the form of buckets of water dumped over their bodies. They apparently had access to clean water on each boat, or at least I hope it was clean water. The seawater they were floating in was absolutely vile. It was black like oil, with trash floating in it.
As I walked, I began to piece together some of their daily procedures. The procedure that I found most interesting was their refrigeration protocol. This part of the world is really hot... ridiculously hot, in fact. Keeping the day’s catch from spoiling is certainly a concern for these fishermen, so before they leave the docks, they need to stock up on ice. Big, refrigerated trucks, painted with bright colors in typical Indian fashion, will pull up to the docks each morning. The doors swing open and the cold mist spills out into the humid Mumbai sunlight. Groups of men push their loads of massive ice cubes out of the trucks one by one, and put them through giant grinders. The resulting ground ice is loaded into wooden containers, and brought to the water front. To get the ice on board a ship from the container they use a long tarp. The tarp runs from the container of ice, over the water, and down into a hole on the deck of the boat. Teams of people work to fold the sides of the tarp up to create a make-shift tunnel, and then the ice is hammered, and hacked away until all of it has slid down into the hull of the boat. This is presumably where the days catch will be stored. Here’s some pictures from that process:
In one stretch of the docks men were painstakingly trying to untangle their nets by laying them out on the ground. Each net was easily 100 meters long, and there were daunting mounds of them still waiting to be untangled. With no alternative route, I apologetically walked across these nets. The men didn’t seem to mind, although one group of them, upon spotting my camera, insisted that I take pictures of their bashful friend. The man protested but eventually gave in. I snapped a few pictures of this sour-puss and then showed the pictures I had taken to his friends. They leaned in to see the pictures I had taken and roared with laughter. This was apparently a hilarious picture:
On the other side of this obstacle course was the open ocean. The intense humidity prohibited visibility past about 200 meters out, but through the hot, white haze I could see the outlines of giant cargo ships and oil tankers. A man peed off the edge of the docks into the ocean, and there were small trash fires burning here and there. I like these 2 pictures:
Out here, there was a line of boats tied to the dock that looked to be very close to being ready to leave. Some boats were in the process of loading up on ice. Other seemed to be a bit farther behind, still emptying their refrigerated chambers of the previous day’s catch, bucket by bucket. Baskets of food and supplies were being thrown back and forth between the boats and the docks. Crows picked at the dried fish carcasses that littered the tops of these vessels. It was a bustling area, but I walked through anyway, absorbing the stares and pointed fingers that came my way.
I slowly walked to the end of the docks, and then took a minute to just stand there and take it all in. Some of the dockworkers came over to me, curious, and tried to communicate with me. I don’t speak Hindi, and they didn't speak English, but we managed to establish my country of origin before they laughed and gave up. One guy, who was out on one of the boats, shouted to me to take his picture while he held up an unidentified sea creature that they had captured. In fact, quite a few different people did this to me, but by far my favorite instance of this was a pudgy, middle-school aged boy who yelled at me to look at him, and proceeded to strike a hilarious series of poses during his morning shower
On my way out I stumbled upon perhaps the most enthralling stretch of the Sassoon Docks yet. This is the area where all of the sea life that is brought into these docks is sorted. My guess is that this is where it comes before it ends up in warehouses like the ones I saw earlier. The bulk of what was being sorted were shrimp and shellfish, but, just as I had hoped, there were some other, more exotic varieties of marine life laying about as well. At one point I passed a basket full of electric eels! I did my best to catch a photo as it passed by (that photo is below). All manner of birds sat on the tin roof that covered this area, picking off food where they could. It was a lot to take in, and it did not smell the best.
I spent a few hours milling around these docks, but the higher the sun got in the sky the sweatier we all became, and the worse the fish smelled. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. I waded back out of these docks, and started towards the rows of warehouses I had walked through earlier. Small fruit stands had been set up to feed the dock workers, many of whom were sitting around, taking some time to enjoy dry land. I wandered by, still just taking it all in, when I came across a man who was sharpening knives. He was doing so by virtue of a sharpening wheel that he had attached the pedals of an old bicycle. As he pedaled, sparks flew, and I took one of my favorite pictures of the day:
That's the Sassoon Docks folks. It's an interesting but often overlooked fixture of Mumbai. Business is slowing down for fishermen here though. The pollution in the Arabian Sea is getting out of control, making it inhospitable for the marine life that used to thrive. This came as no surprise to me based on the black water I saw lapping at the docks here. On top of that, giant, corporate-owned trawlers (big boats) have subjected this area of ocean to extreme over-fishing, leaving much of the Arabian Sea void of life. It's tough for these men to make a living, which is why their numbers are dwindling. This is also a dynamic time for India though, and most young people would rather get an education and find white collar jobs if they can. For these reasons, it's a distinct possibility that ports like the Sassoon Docks will close up in the foreseeable future. For now though, as long as there is still some life in the ocean, these men will continue to catch what they can.