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Fishing in Uncertain Waters: In Conversation With Fishers in TN and Puducherry

Fishermen set out to sea off Serenity Beach. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

  • Fishing has become more arduous in the Anthropocene epoch, with tourism, marine pollution, state apathy and climate change colluding to deepen fishers’ uncertainties.
  • The fishers recalled the 2004 tsunami as a one-time shock but think of the pandemic as a rolling disaster. And they persist with their long working hours and harsh living conditions.
  • Despite several technologies that could make their lives easier, the trade and vocation of fishing here still depends very much on manual labour and traditional knowledge.
  • A team of researchers from O.P. Jindal Global University recently spoke to fishers across the coast of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry on their lives after the pandemic.

Even before dawn, at around 3 am, fisherfolk on the coast of Puducherry and Tamil Nadu venture into the sea. A cumbersome workday follows, often more than 12 hours long. In this time, they disentangle nets, prep boats, catch fish, auction the catch and visit fish markets. Men and women both toil, and often exchange roles.

Despite several technological advancements that could make their lives easier, the trade and vocation of fishing here still depends very much on manual labour and traditional knowledge.

When my father used to fish, he navigated in the sea and found the directions using the direction with which the wind blows. We used to know at what time the wind will blow during the day. We have eight different types of winds based on the direction it blows – for example, vaadai kaathu blows from north to south and kacha kaathu blows from south to north.

— Mukesh, a fisherman from Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi

Our team at the Centre for New Economics Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University conducted an ethnographic research project. We interviewed fishers across the shores of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry – specifically, Thandiraayan Kuppam, Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi, Vaithikuppam and Kurichikuppam.

(Editor’s note: Also check out The Wire Science‘s ‘Science of the Seas’ page, which hopes to chronicle a different way of engaging with the natural universe, communicated in the language of the fishers.)

Fishermen wait to leave to fish in the morning at Serenity Beach, Thandiraayan Kuppam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

We interviewed members from the community to inquire about their trade, fishing techniques, collating income-consumption patterns, their lived experiences from the pandemic, and understand how pollution-climate change is affecting their vocation and trade. The study also aimed towards highlighting the emerging business patterns and trends within the trade and educated young (jobless) workers are turning to fishing as their “last preferred choice of work” sans alternative employment opportunities.

The Anthropocene

Fishing is not an isolated practice and has been significantly affected since the advent of the Anthropocene epoch. A once-tranquil coast is increasingly overcrowded with people and materials. Fishing sites are often swarming with fishers and, more recently, tourists, after the government began advertising quaint beaches and picturesque towns as good places in which to kick back.

The amount of waste has thus increased as well – and exponentially so.

Fishermen clear plastic caught in their nets at Kuruchikuppam village, Puducherry. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

We often catch plastic in the tonnes. When we measured the weight of the plastic that got caught in the net two days back, it was close to one tonne. We caught more but we had to throw it back into the sea as the boat would not take that much weight. That day, we caught no fish. Just plastic. That is why I haven’t gone fishing for the past two days.

— Muralidharan, a fisherman of 40 years from Vaithikuppam, Puducherry

Ten to 15 years back, we caught only 10 plastic bags if we drew the net over a distance of 2 km. Now I get 10 plastic bags if I draw the net over a distance of just 10 metres.

— Mukesh, a fisherman from Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi

It’s common to find fishing sites with heaps of plastic litter on the surface, taken there by a sewage pipeline that opens into the sea. Plastic waste often includes disposable water bottles, tarpaulin and abandoned or lost fishing gear. Plastic in the seas have also affected the lifecycle and well-being of the fish. Every fisher admitted to catching plastic along with the fish. In fact, eight of 10 individuals said they caught more plastic.

Plastic affects the quality of the catch but also makes the already-strenuous fishing process more so. Disentangling plastic from fishing nets takes up most of the fishers’ time – a resource they already have very little of.

Police officials record visuals of dead dolphins ashore at Kuruchikuppam village, Puducherry. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

The two-month ban

Another issue that affects the local fishing community here is the exploitation of the fish population. Some 55% of the fisherfolk reported that in their lifetimes, the size of their catch had progressively dropped. They also said the populations of some species, like the kaarai (Indian silver belly fish) and the sudumbu (white fish), had dwindled more than others.

In an attempt to reduce overfishing and keep the fish from becoming locally extinct, the Puducherry government imposes a near-complete two-month fishing ban from April to May. This when the fish reproduce and their newborns explore the waters. In this time, only fishers with sanctioned fibre boats can venture into the sea, for a fixed amount of time, and what they catch they are required to sell on the beach itself.

In this time, the fish markets make do with an assortment of fish imported from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

A family sells its catch at Serenity Beach, Thandiraayan Kuppam, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

During the ban, the Puducherry government gives the fishers Rs 5,500 per household, drawn from the fisheries department. The fishers said this is far from sufficient, even as they burn through their already-meagre savings as well.

During the ban, we only get Rs 5,500 for the entire duration of two months. I have eight members in my family. Even if my husband and my sons go fishing, they will not get fish during this period. You tell me: how will I manage my expenses?

— Mariyamma, a fish seller from Vamba Keerapalayam, Puducherry.

Among the youth

My husband has been trapped in cyclones twice. I have stayed up many nights crying, thinking about his safety. I do not want my children to be subjected to this fear again.

— Meena, a fish seller from Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi

The implicit risk and uncertainty mean the younger members of fishers’ families seldom taking up fishing as a profession. Fishers’ monthly incomes vary considerably, so much so that they have difficult reporting an accurate monthly figure. But their monthly expenditure – which is often their income because their monthly savings are often very low – varies from Rs 17,800 to around Rs 93,000, depending on the yield and the household circumstances.

On average, a fisher family that spans at least four households spends Rs 61,947 per month. Some spend more due to health issues. Some households also reported borrowing from lenders.

(Note: The figure represents the monthly average expense of fisherfolk based on 18 sample responses. It is a combination of personal and household-based spending, which includes food, water, electricity, rent, transportation, reinvestment in the business, health, education, clothing, entertainment and miscellaneous expenditure.)

Tsunami quarters at Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

As uncertainties expanded, fishers encouraged their children to not follow in their footsteps and seek out better livelihoods. As a result, they have invested significantly in getting their children a good education.

We interviewed 17 young individuals aged 13-25 years and found that three-fourths of them were either studying or pursuing a full-time private job. One was fishing while working part-time. Despite being formally educated, the others fished for want of other opportunities in the area.

Youths here are mostly into fishing as skilled-based jobs are limited and the salaries are less compared to fishing day-to-day. In outside countries, they respect the fishermen community and their experience in fishing, but here we are treated as labours and we have to do additional jobs.

— Bharath, a young fisherman

A young man shows Whatsapp group job postings on a smartphone, Kottakuppam, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

The pandemic

Uncertanties abound in fishing and the pandemic exacerbated them. The several government-enforced lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 restricted movement and limited market access. This forced fisherfolk to find other ways to make a living. Some pawned their jewellery, others liquidated other assets. They altered their consumption patterns and minimised expenses on food and cultural matters. They also borrowed (informally) from their relatives and local moneylenders.

Government schemes – often limited to rice provision – provided some relief, but it implemented no policies to protect the fishers’ livelihoods.

No one was allowed to go out. We were barred from going to the sea. Therefore we didn’t have any source of income. But as the restrictions eased, they brought out rules saying that only one village can go fishing per week for only two hours. So we started earning again, but very less.

We had to cut many expenses such as food to sustain. When the markets also closed, we were not able to sell the fish. As the pandemic eased, the police themselves marked locations for us based on social distancing rules along the East Coast Road, and we were allowed to sell fish for two hours.

— Chandra Bose, a fisherman from Thandiraayan Kuppam

The fishers still face the pandemic’s repercussions and the market is struggling to recover from the unexpected dip. Only around half of the fisherfolk we interviewed said they believed the fish trade is back to some kind of normal. But the demand for fish is yet to return to its pre-pandemic level. This is could also be because of dietary changes in the local population.

Overall, the number of boats venturing out to sea hasn’t is less than what it was before 2020. The markets are also often deserted.

The tsunami sea deity statue at Vaithikuppam village, Puducherry. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

The fishers recalled the 2004 tsunami as being a one-time shock but think of the pandemic as a rolling disaster. They have little help from the state and no other way to support their families, so they persist with their long working hours and harsh living conditions.

Community members here highlighted a dire need for equitable and accessible education and healthcare and a job security programme for those looking for alternative employment. They believe that the state could thus help reduced their additional expenses considerably in the long term. Our conversations with the fishers also indicated a general lack of awareness of existing government schemes and policies, so the government should promote them better.

Many fishers also urged the Puducherry government to increase the Rs 5,500 per household stipend during the two-month fishing ban because the current amount is not in line with inflation and the climbing prices of essential goods. They said their circumstances dictate their diets and other expenses. This was a disheartening note to hear from people at the forefront of our food production chain – that they are struggling to feed themselves and their own families.

Deepanshu Mohan, Sakshi Chindaliya, Jignesh Mistry, Ashika Thomas and Siddharth G. constitute the Visual Storyboard team at the Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana.

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