When you are in proximity of the ocean, witnessing its magnificence everyday, there is no challenge big enough to come in the way of your goal of making a career in marine sciences.

Swapnil Tandel, our next pathbreaker, Marine & Fisheries Biologist at Numer8, helps address the problem of disintegrated, complex and non-reliable supply chain of seafood globally through development of an end-to-end seafood ecosystem addressing livelihoods, sustainability and traceability based on a “bait to plate” supply chain model.

Swapnil talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being captivated by adventure stories of fishermen and taking up a career as an independent researcher involved in conservation of Sea Turtles, Maine Mammals and Whale Sharks by closely studying them and documenting the coexistence between fishermen and endangered marine life.

For students, get inspired by those around you and use that inspiration to achieve the goals that you set out to achieve !

Swapnil, tell us about Your background?

I belong to fishermen community, residing in a village bordered by the Arabian Sea. Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by marine life. My childhood was spent listening to the adventure stories of fishermen, not the stories of kings and queens. Though my family was not entirely dependent on fishing for their livelihood, I still had a tendency to go fishing and capture the captivating movements of observing fish. The depiction of the interior of the sea in programs shown on the ‘Discovery’ channel captivated my mind and boosted my interest in the field.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I was clear about my career choice since my childhood, and I followed that path by pursuing the education required for the profession. I completed my graduate study in Zoology & Marine Science, followed by post-graduation in Zoology and Oceanography from K J Somaiya college Mumbai under the affiliation of Mumbai university.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Being from the fishing community, I was always connected with the sea and the life under it. I was interested in hearing tales of how fishermen encountered giant species like whales and sharks in the sea. Therefore, I was adamant about the decision to take up a career in the same area. Luckily, my decision was supported by my family.

I got the opportunity to work as scientific assistant in the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) under the guidance of Dr. Vinay Deshmukh, Dr. K. V. Akhilesh, Dr.Purushottama, G. B, Dr. Anulekshmi ,Dr. Ramkumar, Dr. Ajay Nakhwa. My work with such expert scientists and exposure to marine fisheries research changed my life in a profound way.

For three years I worked as a ‘Scientific Assistant ‘ at the institute. In the meantime, I had a clear idea of ​​the Fishery ecosystem and oceanic universe.

I was relieved as I did not have any kind of superior obligation in my work. I started working in multiple marine science departments of the organization. Seeing the progress and output of my work, I was appointed as a senior researcher on the project ‘National Innovations on Climate Resilient Agriculture Marine Fisheries’. I spent a year studying the effects of climate change on marine life and fishing. 

Tell us about your career path

After completing my studies, I initially began working as a supervisor at a company that traded in seafood. However, as there was no marine research work in that place, I was not interested in that kind of work. So, I decided to quit that job and subsequently joined as a scientific assistant in a national institute conducting research on fishery science.

I was employed at ICAR- CMFRI Mumbai for 4 years (2013-2017), my first foray into the world of marine research

I was involved in identifying marine species under Pelagic, Molluscan, Demersal, and Crustacean Fisheries Division (Morphometric and Meristic) based on taxonomic characteristics and Biological studies (Gut analysis, Fecundity, Ova diameter, Truss analysis etc.)

I also gained on board, real time vessel experience when i carried out experimental fishing, conducted water quality analysis and collected, identified Planktons and Benthos, Chlorophyll, microbiology samples from open sea.

We monitored resource landings and the fishing effort along the Mumbai, Raigad, Thane and Ratnagiri district coasts through a stratified multistage random sampling design under the Fishery Resources Assessment department as well as collected fish economic variable data for analysis on the landing centers and fish markets.

Species identification of various marine life forms, digitalization of past catch and effort data and biological data of Finfish and Shellfish were done at the center.

We were able to apply GIS for resource mapping, distribution and abundance of Finfish and Shellfish off Indian coast in order to suggest operational strategies for fisheries management.

I also underwent an open sea cage culture training in Karwar research center of Central Marine Fisheries Research institute and Oyster culture training in Ratnagiri organized by Network for Fish Quality Management and Sustainable Fishing (NETFISH) M.P.E.D.A and with Mangalore research center of CMFRI.

We also collected Lobster seeds (Panulirus polyphagus) and stocked them in controlled conditions for the ‘Open sea cage culture project’.

It was amazing to witness the Saw fish Survey in Coastal and Estuarine region of Maharashtra under the sub project Assessment of Elasmobranch Resources in the Indian Seas.

We also assessed Elasmobranch Resources in the Indian Seas

Finally, I worked as Senior Research Fellow under “National Innovations on Climate Resilient Agriculture Project – Marine Fisheries” (Impact of climate change on capture fisheries, Correlation analysis of Marine species with Environmental variables, Carbon footprint of marine fisheries of Maharashtra).

However, I was more inclined towards independent research. Therefore, I accepted the risk of quitting a fixed salary job in CMFRI. In the year 2018, I was awarded a small grant for nature conservation from The Rufford Foundation.

Getting a grant is not easy for an independent researcher, but if you have extensive field experience in the subject for which you applied a grant, that will help you in getting a grant smoothly. Since most early career researchers face this problem, I would suggest applying for a grant after you have at least some experience in the relevant field with good mentors and guides to help you.

At Rufford, I worked with fishermen to explain the importance of conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles which are inadvertently caught in small fishing nets and to take measures for their conservation by documentation of such incidents.

After the completion of the project, the network which I built up is active and I have been closely studying and documenting the coexistence between fishermen and endangered marine life in Maharashtra waters, in the role of an independent researcher.

In the year 2019, I was awarded with the Rapid Action Project through Wildlife trust of India to engage with fisherfolk and other stakeholders for the conservation of the whale shark.

Wild life trust of India had worked extensively on the Whale Shark from Gujarat waters. Their Rapid Action Project supports independent researchers to work on such endangered species which require immediate attention. I applied for the grant and got it easily as my experience came in handy. I have data on Whale Shark migration and hotspot location from the Maharashtra coast. During the project, we documented 3 rescues of Whale Sharks from Maharashtra waters, documented by our fishing community network. We also encountered 2 cases of finning.

From 2018 to 2020 I worked in a role of an Independent researcher and marine conservationist leading to the two projects above. 

I have a habit of sharing species rescue details, marine fishery related news and environmental insights on the Maharashtra coast on social media sites to spread awareness.

My work was noted by Devleena Bhattacharjee – Founder & CEO – Numer8 Analytics 

In the month of October 2020, I received an opportunity to work with Numer8. I agreed as they were working towards goals that were in line with my career goals and interest.

How did you get your first break? 

Living in the coastal region and belonging to the fishing community, there were plenty of job opportunities for me in the seafood export business. Though I initially started working at one such company I was interested in a research-oriented role. Hence, I decided to quit and tried searching for research-based opportunities. Luckily, I got one such opportunity in ICAR-CMFRI Mumbai though the institute was pretty far from my home. It used to take me 3.5 – 4 hours to reach my office which is located in Andheri-Versova, from my home in Uran-Raigad. But the experience I gained in research work was so valuable that it was worth my time spent travelling.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

After completing my degree, the first challenge was, “What Next?”. Should I settle for a day-to-day routine job or should I follow my passion and dream. The answer was simple: I followed my passion and then there was no looking back. I was lucky enough to get mentors and guidance in my early research career. I gained a lot of knowledge from outdoor field visits. My field days used to start at 4 am, monitoring landing centers and fish markets, and reaching back home at 9 pm. Instead of just relying on books in the library, this kind of field experience really shaped me and helped me understand the entire fishery ecosystem from a new perspective.

The second challenge I faced was a comparatively low pay when I started out as an early career researcher. Most people break out and change their career at this phase, but I was sure that with my abilities and knowledge, I can make my name in this sector. So I pursued my passion. With the time and rich experiences I developed myself as a well-known person and as a subject matter expert.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I work as a Marine Biologist and Community manager in a multinational company named Numer8 Analytical which is working in the field of applying data science for building an end-to-end seafood ecosystem addressing livelihoods, sustainability and traceability.

What problems do you solve?

We at Numer8, solve the problem of disintegrated, complex and non-reliable supply chain of seafood globally due to which the fisher-folks suffer financially, and buyers suffer on quality and delivery of the produce. And our oceans suffer the most environmentally.

Numer8’s supply chain, working on the “bait to plate” model, helps fishermen to achieve profitability and assures seafood buyers in terms of quality, supply chain guarantee and complete traceability of their seafood.

Our oceans benefit from our monitoring, control and tracking of unregulated and unsustainable fishing.

What skills are needed for this  job? How did you acquire the skills?

A good understanding of the coastal regions and fishing practices with excellent knowledge of the fishery ecosystem and ocean environment and supply chain is the skill required for the job. My previous research experience and a good understanding and relations with the fishing community have come handy in reaching out and connecting with people.

My typical day starts with a team meeting at 9.30 am where we all discuss our work outputs and the assigned tasks.

My role and responsibilities in the Numer8 are as follows:

  • Carrying out literature study related to the various marine ecosystems (temperate, tropical) and baseline studies for site specific environmental impact assessments. I also provide input to the engineering team on eco-friendly solutions for new prototypes.
  • Assisting with the design and execution phase of environmental monitoring (and mitigation) programs in the field. Provide expertise (materials, integration of systems with marine life, eco-optimizations, aquaculture, etc.) to multidisciplinary teams of researchers, engineers.
  • Promoting Numer8 apps with fishermen and the seafood community across India. Help in fishermen training across India, helping in writing materials, branding exercises, research documentation and anything that promotes awareness of sustainability, traceability and role of Numer8 in it.
  • Hands-on implementation of simple eco-monitoring equipment and field tests. I also conduct field studies and interviews with fishermen for product feedback and help in business requirement analysis. Conduct marine fish and fish habitat assessments including collection and analysis of marine biological, chemical, and physical data
  • Preparation of marine science baseline reports and effects assessments. Data entry and analysis, and travel as required for various field programs

What is it you love about this job? 

I love my job as it helps me accomplish my career goals and communicate the importance of marine life and of sustainable fishing practices. It makes me proud that our work helps create a positive impact on the livelihood of low-income margin communities. We are helping our oceans benefit from our monitoring, control and tracking of unregulated and unsustainable fishing.

How does your work benefit society? 

As a marine biologist, I helped young students as well as PhD candidates from my subject background and solved their queries regarding the fisheries and taxonomy subject. 

I also run a community network that documents endangered marine life rescues which get entangled in fishery operations and have shared it in social media for awareness and research purposes.

Since working at Numer8, I can see that our company products are helping the fishing community across Maharashtra to catch fish better with the help of our potential fishing ground advisory, algal bloom advisory, weather forecast. We have also managed to reduce their operational costs by saving on fuel cost and time for trips. These products are going to be launched in all Indian coastal states soon to help fishermen irrespective their regions and language.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In my role as a marine researcher, while leading a project, I had started a community-based multi-stakeholder network which includes fishermen, community leaders, regional reporters, conservationists, all working in the region to document and share interactions of stranded marine wildlife that are protected species under the law. As a result, we were able to record the first regional sighting of the presence of a killer whale pod in nearshore waters from two districts of Maharashtra. A pod is a social group of whales

While working at Numer8, every time we get feedback from fishermen about how our applications are helping and making their life better, that is a memorable work in itself.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would advise students to be keen learners and develop the ability to cope with pressure during rough phases. Also be ready for hard work. Most of all, never underestimate your abilities, your passion and your subjects of interest.

Your future Plans?

Being from a fisherman community, marine life has always fascinated me. I have chosen my passion for the ocean as my career and continue to contribute to marine research. I want to pursue my career in marine fisheries research and to educate and create awareness among students, fellow fishermen and other stakeholders about the importance of Marine life and of the sustainable fishing practices.