The sea has been calm, flat as a sheet of glass. That’s as it should be at this time of the year. The storm that never came last week roughed up the seas and robbed the locals of more than a week’s fishing. As I walk down the road towards the beach, I can hear the ocean – like a cloth tearing followed by an explosive slap as the wave hits the beach. Too loud a noise for a wave that is little more than a low frothing curler. I remember Palayam explaining to me that “The sea is more noisy when it is calm. When the sea is in a roil, you can’t hear the waves slap the shore.”
Calm seas with a light shore current are just right for the shore seine – a hand-hauled communal net deployed from the beach. The shore-seine has evolved over time, and differently across the world. What used to be the Peria Valai – a hefty cotton- and coconut-fibre net – that needed more than 50 able-bodied men to haul it is now the modaa valai, a lighter, easily deployable plastic beach seine that requires only 30 people’s effort. Urur Kuppam has four modaa valai nets.
These days, our morning walks are magical with skies taken straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie. The pre-dawn horizon is dark and topped by a resplendent rosy pink sky as ceiling. The shades change magically as the orange orb of a sun rises. But not everything has been rosy. Over the last week, two sets of fishers have used the shore seine four times each. Shore-seines are a lot of effort and expense. Even if the nets return empty, 30 people will have to be paid at least a hundred each. And then there is the diesel expense for the wasted trip made by the boat.
For three days, the modaa valai has been returned with only bad news. Empty nets are disappointing, but at least they are easier to haul in, dismantle and spread out to dry. A few days ago, the nets came back heavy with senjori – a non-edible jelly fish with a nasty sting. “Thank god it was not muttai sori,” Palayam exclaimed. “Senjori makes you itch like crazy, but it’s not life-threatening. Odambukku kulirchi (It’s actually cooling to the body!).” Fishers treat senjori stings by lathering the sting spots with castor oil. The Muttai sori (a different variety of jellyfish), on the other hand, is a menace. “Its venom heats up the body to a point where your immune system weakens and you can even be laid up with manja kamaalai (jaundice),” he said.
Faced with day after day of empty nets and nets full of angry jelly fish, lesser people would have given up. But fisher ethos is grounded not in the valour of trying and trying again until you succeed, but in knowing that “If not today, then tomorrow, the sea will give.”
The sooner a strong thendi current from the south takes over, the better it is, Palayam says. With the thendi comes the olni current that pushes the cool, clear waters from the deep sea to shore, bringing with it all kinds of fish.
Today, the currents had aligned it seems. Three of the four modaa valai in the village were cast this morning. Before it is cast, the net has to be assembled … every time. The hauling rope (kayiru or kavuru) is tied to the maattil, a broad-meshed section holding together the head rope running along the top of the net (floating) and the foot or ground rope along the bottom with weights. The wings comprise two sections – the first, pentha paavu, has a webbing with large mesh size to guide the large fish to the trap and let the small ones escape; the second, adantha paavu, has a smaller mesh and is connected to the cod end of the net, a fine-meshed drawstring purse called madi.
Once assembled, the net is loaded onto a boat leaving one end of the kayiru in the hands of haulers. Experienced fishers can spot a shoal from ashore. “We look for the maappu, which may look like a shadow or a moving patch or red along the sea surface. It is said that the southerlies redden the eyes of the anchovy lending a reddish tint to the sea surface as the shoal moves.” The boat heads east setting the net through the shoals, passing the shoals, turning around to encircle it and returning to the beach some half a kilometre from where they launched to hand the hauling rope attached to the other end of the net to the fishers waiting on the beach.
Of the three nets cast today, two raked it in. One net hauled in Rs 90,000 worth of fish, mostly large-sized nethili (anchovies), naama paarai (trevally) and kanankeluthi (mackerel). These fish graze together and are found in each other’s shoals. The fisher name for such mixed fish shoals is paruvu. Today, 60 families will rejoice. One-third of the catch to the owner of the net, and two-thirds distributed among the 30 fishers who hauled the net. The second net brought in Rs. 45,000 worth of fish.
The third net didn’t bring in much. By the time it was cast, the sun was already high and the thendi current had picked up speed. “The fish dive down if the current is this strong. If the breeze and current are this brisk, the lightweight plastic fibre modaa valai drifts far too rapidly to be effective. The coconut-fibre peria valai is heavier and unaffected by strong currents or winds,” Palayam explained. “But that’s gone now. Everything’s been replaced by plastic,” Palayam remarked nostalgically.