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Ghost Nets: Common Sense v. Sense of the Commons

Ghost Nets: Common Sense v. Sense of the Commons

Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

In response to my previous post, Indumathi Manivannan Nambi, an eminent environmental scientist from IIT-Madras, had flagged a very important issue – that of plastic trash and its impact on fish. “I also read that fishermen dispose their [plastic] nets in the ocean. Can we try to bring awareness about the impact of this?” she asked.

I confronted Palayam anna with Dr. Nambi’s question. Palayam’s response to her query suggested that awareness may not be the problem. “Kadalukku onnuna engalukku theriyaama irukkuma-naa? Naanga kadalodaiye thaane irukkom; Engalukku thaane mudho theriya varum.” (We are always with the sea. We’re the first to know what’s happening to it. Can you get that, brother?)

Exactly a year ago, maybe a day or two less than a year ago, the fisheries department dropped about 200 artificial reef units – interconnected rings of concrete – into the sea off Urur Kuppam. “At 11.5 fathoms,” recalls Palayam anna. Reefs, even artificial ones, are excellent habitat and refuge for sea life. They provide a base for vegetation and for coral to colonise, and a place for young fish to hide.

A few months later, I enquired about the reef. Palayam anna was resentful. The reef has been ruined, he said. Careless fishers had let their nets drift onto the reef. The nets had snagged on the reef. Fish that got trapped in the nets rotted away, turning the reef from a refuge for fish into a fetid, repulsive graveyard. Our fishers were to blame, he said. Some of them are driven by greed, and others are plain stupid, anna explained.

To understand Palayam’s anguish, one needs an idea of how a fisher makes sense of the seas. The ocean’s bottom is the basis of a fisher’s mind-map of the seas. He navigates and identifies fishing grounds based on the depth and the nature of the sea floor. Sandy areas are called tharai and are least productive; muddy patches are seru or cheru, and rocks or reefs are paar/paaru or kal/kallu. The latter two are productive and sought-after fishing grounds. Every seru and paaru has a name – thazhancheru, mecheru, naducheru, thalappu kallu, kinathu kallu. “Unga bank accountukku number illaiya? Athey maathiri thaan. (Don’t you have a unique number for your bank account. This is just like that),” Palayam says.

Palayam anna, and just about any fisher in this region’s fishing villages will be able to rattle off the names and locations of the seru and paaru spread in the local seas. It is committed to memory. More about this in another post. This one, I remind myself, is about abandoned or discarded fishing nets littering the seas.

Setting nets near reefs is tricky. You want to be close enough to net the fish that hang out near the reef. But you need to be far enough to avoid snagging your net on the reef. That would be bad for the net and the reef. The currents add another complicating dimension. “kadal olni kudukkuthunu theriyidhu illai? pinna 20-25 point melappoi valaiya kattanum. (When the olni current (east to west current) is evident, you should go 20-25 (GPS) points further out (further east) and set your net.),” he says. Greedy or inexperienced fishers underestimate the olni. Then everybody pays for this idiot’s mistake, as the current drags the net westwards and snags it on the reef.

As luck would have it, a day after Dr. Nambi brought up her question, we spotted a knotted bundle of net washed up by the tide. Palayam pointed it out to me.

According to The Guardian article referred to in Dr. Nambi’s query, 640,000 tonnes of plastic nets, lines, crab pots etc were added to the world’s seas every year.

This is a small fraction (8%) of the total quantum of plastics entering the oceans. But it is not insignificant. Discarded nets float around snagging or harming all kinds of sea animals – turtles, dolphins, manta rays, even whales.

But nets cost money. People don’t just discard good nets at sea. “Then what explains the nets littering the sea?” I asked. A bulk of the fishing gear, especially the industrial gillnets and purse-seine nets some several tens of kilometres long, littering the world’s seas are from industrial and trawl fisheries. Even without the abandoned or discarded nets that float around like long walls of death, these fisheries are destructive by their very nature and scale. They take more than they need and extract far more than the seas can replace. Plastics are not the problem here. The exploitative capitalist, industrial fisheries model is.

Artisanal fishers like Palayam and the others from Urur Kuppam too contribute to the problem of ocean plastics. But in a far smaller way. Sometimes the nets that they set are severed by the propellers of other boats, trawlers or ships. Inexperienced fishers may steer their boats into their own nets and snag them on their propeller blades. “When this happens, it is a major nuisance,” Palayam says. We have to stop fishing. The propeller shaft is brought onboard, and the frustrating, time-devouring task of unravelling the wound-up net and punnu (nylon rope stringing the net) begins. Often, frustrated by this exercise, fishers may just chuck the extricated knotted bundle overboard. “In that moment of stress, it doesn’t occur to them to retain the trashed net onboard and dispose of it on land,” he says. That can be changed with education and incentives, Palayam thinks.

But he is unforgiving with fishers, like the ones that snagged the nets on Urur’s artificial reef, who give in to their greed, and knowingly risk their nets and the reef by setting their nets close to the paaru. “Kadal nalla irukanumna, oorla othumai venum. ooru kattu potta mathikanum. (If the seas are to remain healthy, the village has to be united; the fishers have to subject themselves to the norms imposed by the village),” he explains. He points to the southern districts where artificial reefs dropped decades ago are flourishing habitats. “There, the fishers respect the fishing norms, and the rights of others to fish. They don’t endanger the commons, and protect the reefs like we protect banks,” he said, once again referring to the sea as a “bank” – or a place with a lot of money.

There is one reef called Thalapukallu at 15.5 fathoms that Palayam refers to as Reserve Bank. “Eppo ponalum panam edukalam. ATM mathiri. (You can make money any time over there. Like an ATM.)”

The bundle of nets in the video below is a twisted collection of different kinds of nets. Usually, the nets that get cut by propellers tend to be floating nets cast for pelagic fish (fish that swim in the surface or sub-surface) like the prized kola or flying fish. Palayam explains that what you see in the video is an inextricably intertwined bundle of different bottom-set nets (tharai valai) from different fishing expeditions that have somehow found each other. The two of us lugged the bundle and moved it well beyond the high tide’s reach.

Cleaning the seas is a difficult task. But if we want more bang for the buck, we could focus on doing two things, he says.

Far into the sea, when we sail in search of the kola, we cross this visible line in the sea running roughly parallel to the horizon. Edaappu (the interface) is what we call the regions separated by the line. The line itself we call Neettil. To one side of the Neettil, towards land, is kalvaadu (turbid water) and on the seaward side is thelivu thanni (clear water) that is home to the flying fish. The Neettil is marked as a line of trash of all kinds – cans, bottles, lighters, buoys, nets. Everything that gets thrown off these big ships will end up bobbing along the Neettil. In earlier days before plastic became popular, white people used metal cans of all kinds in their ships. They would throw this overboard. Sometimes, if we are returning with an empty net, we would clean-up a stretch along the Neettil and bring the metal scrap home to sell to the scrap merchant and earn a few hundreds. But now, the trash is all plastic. No point bringing it back.” If a cleaning ship were to focus on sucking up the trash just from the Neettil, that could be significant.

The second suggestion is to focus on the reefs near shore. If divers can get to it, and remove it, that would be a big help. But this would be a wasted effort unless fishers commit to protect the reefs by setting their nets well away from the jagged edges of the reef. To help fishers do that, big, visible, well-lit buoys must be anchored near the reef.

The commons – like the oceans – can be preserved only if its users commit to following some basic norms. Among fishers, these norms are enforced as taboos and dos and don’ts. But with increasing urbanisation, atomisation of the fisher society, and the pursuit of private profit community bonds and the strength of these fishing norms have eroded.

Awareness, Palayam says, won’t make a big difference. “It’s not worth the effort,” he says. “The community needs to be brought together, and the individual must realise that his fate is linked to his brother’s.” To paraphrase Palayam, it is not so much that the fishers lack common sense. Rather what is increasingly in short supply is a sense of the commons.

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