With the catch getting smaller, fishermen want the ban on fishing in monsoon, while ecologists feel otherwise
At 9 am, Suresh is sitting on his boat with a rich haul of crabs and fishes. As he sorts through his catch, I ask him if it has been satisfactory. After all, it is the day when the 60-day ban (only on fishing with trawlers, other types of boats including fibre glass, are exempted) had come to an end.
“Yes, it is good, I did not have to venture too many nautical miles in the sea. But then, most of us who went into sea today have reaped a good harvest, so the catch would fetch us all less money,” says the 26-year old.
Suresh is among the many fishermen who live in fishing villages along the Gulf of Mannar, home to hundreds of marine species and coral reefs along its 21 islands.
Like Suresh, Muniamma is busy untangling freshly caught crabs from the nets, in the Vellapatti fishing village, a few kilometres from Thoothukudi.
Although everyone appears to have had a good day at the sea, they are all worried about the price at which the crabs would be bought.
“When there are too many of us, the prices go down,” say many of them.
In yet another fishing hamlet, David and a dozen other fishermen explain the dilemma further. David is the most vocal of them all, having attended the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2010.
“Twenty years ago we used to go out in a country boat just seven miles into the sea and return with a huge, rich haul. Today, everyone is using a mechanised boat and heavy bottom trawlers have a huge advantage. We all need to venture at least 20-35 miles into the sea for a significant catch,” he says, echoing the sentiments of his fellow fishermen.
“Also, many of the varieties we used to net decades ago are becoming scarce,” add the fishermen. “In a few years, there will be hardly anything worth fishing,” they feel.
Rajan, another fisherman says that both quantity and variety of fishes have been declining rapidly. Apart from climate change and truant monsoons, many of them say use of modern nets such as purse string nets end up harvesting bycatch that is of no use.
These include juvenile species, caught in the synthetic nets which are discarded. Many of the juveniles fail to make it back to sea and survive, resulting in the depletion of the population of a given species.
“Turtles were once considered a delicacy, but nowadays fishermen do not bring them home anymore, but let them back to the sea. This is due to the growing awareness that the turtle is key to the food chain in the sea,” says Gayathri Usman, Programme Head, Kadal Osai, a community radio for the fisherfolk, in Pamban.
Post the 2004 tsunami, fishermen say they have gained considerable awareness on climate change, rising sea temperature and the impact of bleaching of coral reefs (nesting ground for fishes), depleting resources, industrial pollutants let out into the sea, as well as soil erosion, on ground.
“In the past, the fish we caught would remain fresh until we reached the shore. These days, they putrefy by 2 pm. Unlike the past, in the last few years we have had to get to the sea armed with plenty of ice, in order to preserve them. Prawns will fetch you a good price only if they are fresh and unbruised,” explains David.
Others say that often power cuts the day before they venture into the sea results in insufficient ice. “We need a better support system. The government should look into our problems. We need better storage facility. It should also fix a procurement price as is done for farmers,” add the fishermen.
Many of them allege that although the middlemen beat down the procurement price - citing either over-availability or bruising of the catch - they manage to sell at a high price in the market, specially the import market.
“They have the infrastructure to clean and store the catch in equitable temperature. We lack such support. Instead, there is only the ban, which is actually not required. What is necessary is streamlining the entire process of the industry,” says Perinbam, a 35-year old, who first ventured into the sea as a child, accompanying his father on a fishing trip.
Fishing practices have grown manifold, with bottom trawlers and torchlight fishing. When a powerful beam is sent into the water, fishes are reportedly attracted and move towards the source, thereby getting trapped and making it easy for fishermen to bag them all.
GV Oli, who has been fishing for the last 25 years says fishermen are caught between the devil and the deep sea. “Everyone has moved on to mechanised boats and trawlers. Years ago I bought a trawler for Rs 3 lakh after taking a loan. However, the catch was not good and in four years’ time, I was in debt to the tune of Rs 8 lakh. I sold the trawler for a mere one lakh rupees.”
Today, a second-hand trawler could cost as much as Rs 25 lakh, he adds.
Typically, a team of ten to fifteen fishermen would ride out to the deep sea, on a two to three week expedition. Diesel and labour charges would come to over three lakh rupees, says Oli.
“But if the trawler were to return with a catch of 600 kg, then the return can be as good as Rs 50 lakh. However, that rarely happens,” he adds.
Fishermen say they have work only for around 200 days in a year. Jesmika, Naboni, Dino, Silsiya, Kavita and a few other women have been listening in on the conversation.
“We eat well for six months and for the next six months there is hardly any work available for the families,” says Jesmika. “We want our children to get into other professions - maybe driving. This way they will suffer at least 50% less than us,” she says and the other women nod in agreement.
“We are trying to teach them both - a love of the sea and an awareness of life skills inland and away from the sea,” says Silsiya. “Our parents too might have felt like we are feeling now, but now the sea is getting very crowded. There are too many, fighting to make a living out of a shrunken marine population,” she adds.
The men interject saying the ban, only on trawlers, in summer months is not the best way forward, to improve fishermen’s livelihood and enhance marine population.
“It is not true that all fishes breed in summer, many breed in the monsoon season as well. It is better to impose the ban during the monsoon, since fishermen are anyway subject to government diktat on venturing out to sea based on depressions and cyclone system warnings,” adds another fisherman.
Perinbam says the fishers themselves are aware of what the action plan ought to be.
1) Stop light traps
2) Ban purse string nets
3) Permit trawlers only for six months in a year at sea, and allow other boats for the remaining period in a year
4) Channel freshwater (monsoon) into the sea. Only if you have fresh water incursion can marine species stay healthy
5) Ban all types of nets that harm juveniles
6) Invest in good cold storage facilities all along the coastal belt
7) Fix procurement price of fish, like you do for agricultural produce
V Selvam, former Executive Director and Lead, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, says the government’s role in arresting depletion of resources is critical.
“In countries like Norway, when authorities observe a shrinking in the size of a fish, they bring a ban on fishing of that particular species until the balance is restored. Maintaining the balance is key to a thriving fishing industry,” he says. “Every ban has to be thought through.”
When asked if there was scientific data to back the fishermen’s apprehension on depleting fish stock, Dr Selvam points out that the Gulf of Mannar (GoM) is constituted by three major groups: fin fish (common fish), shellfish (prawn, crabs etc) and molluscs (mostly squids).
“Fish landing records indicate that the average annual landing of dish (all three groups indicated above) is around 8100 tons. However, it fluctuates widely. It was 4000 tons in 2008 and around 10,000 tons in 2011. This clearly indicated that fisheries resources are severely impacted due to overfishing, otherwise fish landing (data) will not fluctuate so widely,” he explains.
When asked if indeed fishermen’s projection that a few years from now their catch would be negligible, impacting future generations of fishermen, Dr Selvam feels according to various researches, qualitatively there are three areas of concern in GoM.
“The quantity of important fishes such as Silverbellies is reducing very fast. In the 1960s, they constituted 90% of fish catch in GoM. It declined to 70% in the 1980s and the catch in 2009 was around 30%, indicating a fast decline in their numbers,” he says.
Weighing in on fishermen’s observation on the dip in size of the catches, Dr Selvam says, “Take the example of shore seine fishing, (a method of fishing where the bottom of the vertical nets are held in place at the bottom by weights and the top edge by buoys). The majority of the fish caught are less than 10 cm in size - and will not fetch a good price. This is true of crab fishing as well. During the 1980s, the average breadth size of a crab was 208 mm. Now it is down to 193 mm.
One reason for their reduction in size is thought to be because of intensified use of trawlers.”
According to him threatened, endangered and vulnerable fish are caught, particularly in trawl fishing. One of the endangered fishes is Cheilinus undulates (thokkal in Tamil).
Also, six species of vulnerable fishes (mostly rays) and eight threatened fish species are routinely caught. Any further exploitation of these will cause local extinction of these fishes.”
Fishermen are constantly learning on the job, and opting for course correction when needed.
Tharuvaikulam fishing hamlet is one that has set a stellar example. They use only gill net for fishing. This allows the juveniles to escape through the net, only the big ones will be stuck on their gills if they try to escape.
This was the same hamlet that harvested coral for decades, selling them to limestone manufacturers. “We voluntarily toned down that activity after we were sensitised to the importance of coral reefs to the marine ecosystem,” says Peter, a fisherman.
“After the Tsunami, that activity has stopped altogether,” he adds. However, the fishing ban makes no sense and it should be revoked, he adds.
“Or shift it to the rainy season. The fish breed in that season too, and we are anyway unable to go to sea for many days,” he says and a dozen heads around him nod in agreement.
Dr Velvizhi, a scientist with MSSRF says that while the ban is imposed in a staggered manner across the country’s coastline, majority of fish species breed only in summer.
“The good catch in later months is largely due to the ban. In fact, there should be a total fishing ban, cutting across all types of boats,” she adds.