As dawn breaks, Vitalis slowly glides into undulating waves below an azure sky. With a sparse crew of six, she bobs towards the fishing ground some 10 nautical miles off the shore. The boat returns after five hours, its hold nearly empty. A pall of gloom settles as the fishers offload the catch and divide the meagre earnings among themselves. “This is our fourth futile trip in a row. This is supposed to be the peak season for us (traditional fishers) and we are staring at a famine,” says Thomas, a fisher from Tangassery, Kollam.
With the territorial waters running out of marine stocks, the boats often venture into deep sea investing a lot of fuel, time and effort. But the shoals stay elusive and the once-abundant fields are reporting lower and lower yields.
“I have been venturing into the sea for over five decades and I don’t think we can survive this ordeal. Many species, including croaker and sardine, are fast vanishing from the sea. The traditional sector is heavily dependent on oil sardine and mackerel. For several days now, boats are bringing back only pink perch and anchovy,” says 68-year-old Ambrose, a fisher from Pallithottam, Kollam. Oil sardine and mackerel are pelagic fish (fish that live in the upper water column of the sea) and were once available round the year, according to fishermen. Pink perch, on the other hand, are demersal fish, or fish which are found just above the ocean floor.
Every year, Kerala imposes a trawling ban during the monsoon season to ensure the prosperity of the marine stock. Only traditional crafts are allowed to operate during the period of the ban, which lasts for 52 days from June 9 to July 31. All trawling operations till the midnight of July 31 are prohibited. But more than a month into the ban, the traditional fishers are yet to see any monsoon bounty. Though the sea is free of trawlers and there is no competition from the mechanised sector, their holds are never full.
“Many boats have stopped venturing into the sea as the catch is hardly enough to meet operational costs. We require around ₹50,000 for a brief sortie and very often the catch fetches us less than ₹10,000. Two shares of our total earnings go to the boat owner and the rest is hardly adequate to feed our families. We are all neck deep in debt,” says Wilson from Neendakara.
Perhaps this was one reason that forced Esthev and Anto, two fishers from Saktikulangara, to take a risky trip despite the squally weather. As their boat, Kanikkamata, was idling for 12 days, they ventured into the sea on the morning of July 11 hoping for a brief respite from penury. Hardly one nautical mile into the rough sea, Kanikkamata capsized. While the other two crew members were rescued, Esthev’s body washed ashore the same day and the search for Anto is still on.
Traditional fishers at sea
A few years ago, ‘ karamadi’ or ‘ kamba vala’ (shore seine fishing) wasn’t a rare sight along the Kerala coast. With the net cast in a semi-circular shape near the shoreline and hauled together by two groups of fishers, the fishing practice targeted pelagic shoals close to the coast. “Even though the net was cast only 2-3 km from the coast, the catch was good. Today, the practice has become extinct in most parts due to the absence of fish in the shallow waters of the coastal sea. We had hundreds of kamba valas in Kerala earlier, but now you will find only 10 or 15,” says Esho from Poonthura, Thiruvananthapuram.
Seventy-two-year-old Vasu is familiar with the sea and its intricate system of currents. An old-school fisher, he knows that the surface swimmers move in shoals and turn the brine into shades of red and black. “A whitish tint means pomfrets. The presence of seabirds and air bubbles also helps you in identifying meenpadams (fishing fields). A sudden change in currents or in the direction of the wind indicates natural hazards,” says the fisher from Alappad. But of late sun, seasons and constellations have failed him in braving the surf. “We can no longer plan trips based on the lunar calendar as cyclones and storms emerge out of nowhere. Though we see a lot of juveniles, the catch is dipping every day. The sea is becoming unreadable. It’s a very scary prospect.”
There is an increasing sense of desperation in the community, says Jackson Pollayil, a fisher from Thiruvananthapuram and the president of the Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali Federation. Minimum Legal Size (MLS) refers to the size at which a particular species can be caught legally. Fishers used to leave oil sardines of 10 cm in the past, capturing bigger ones. It is a prolific breeder producing around 80,000 eggs in a spawning season. “But total oil sardine landings during the last couple of years present an alarming picture. Today, fishers net oil sardines once they acquire the MLS (even though the sardines are yet to reach the reproductive stage). Due to the scarcity of fish and fall in fishing days, they are left with no other option. Since June, we have lost around 13 fishing days and the fishers are struggling,” he says. “The MLS should be made 15 cm and strong surveillance measures should be maintained to save our livelihood.”
Adding to their woes, the price often depends on the inflow from neighbouring States. In June 2022, the Food Safety Department had seized over 10,000 kg of stale fish from the Aryankavu checkpost in Kollam as part of ‘Operation Matsya’, a special drive to detect adulteration in fish. “Since Kollam contributes the largest share of total fish landings from Kerala, these consignments are sold as fresh catch. The State has around 40,000 traditional crafts and lakhs of families are dependent on the sector. Agents and wholesalers prefer the fish from other States as the commission is high. Small-scale fishers are striving hard to stay afloat as we have no facility to store the fish and ensure a fair price,” says Jackson.
Woes of the mechanised sector
Meanwhile, the mechanised sector is looking forward to the end of the trawl ban and is pinning its hopes on a possible post-monsoon bonanza. “More dry months can spell doom for the sector as we have been grasping at straws. We are still reeling under the post-pandemic slump. Demersal resources are also dwindling,” says Peter Mathias, president of the All Kerala Fishing Boat Operators Association.
Martin (name changed) had to go on a borrowing spree after his boats failed to generate anything near the expected revenue during the last two years. One of his boats was scrapped five months ago for a paltry ₹8 lakh so that he could pay back some loans. “Fuel prices have hit an all-time high and each trip leads to huge losses. The boat was seaworthy and I could have operated it for another 10 years. But there was no other option with soaring fuel rates, maintenance costs and a decrease in fishing days due to frequent weather warnings. The trawl ban and COVID-19 had kept our boats off waters for over four months in 2020. Right now the only thing I own is my second boat and since fishing is no longer a lucrative business, only scrap dealers are interested in it. I am keeping the second boat as scrapping it will alert my creditors. If the situation continues, we will have to end our lives like farmers,” he says.
According to the association, more than 500 boats have been scrapped across Kerala in the last couple of years. An average trawler requires anything between 150 litres and 700 litres of diesel for its operations. Meeting the fuel expense is a challenge and each outing to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) can mean mortgages, personal loans and pending bills. “The fisheries sector in the State offers livelihood to nearly 15 lakh families and our catch is worth ₹40,000 crore every year. But the government is doing nothing to protect the sector and Kerala is slowly losing its relevance as a maritime State and export hub,” says Joseph Xavier Kalappurakkal, general secretary of the association. He feels all the old fishing grounds have gone dry. “Fishing depended on luck earlier too, but now it has become a matter of pure gamble. Very few trawlers return with a good catch as currents have changed their course and shoals are not visible in many parts,” he says.
A vicious cycle
According to a study report presented by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute on July 5, the Kerala coast saw a massive fall in oil sardine catch in 2021. The total landings came down to 3,297 tonnes, registering a drop of 75% compared to 2020. “This was the lowest catch of the fish after 1994 in the State. Again, this was 98 per cent lower than the annual average of sardine availability during 1995-2020 which is 1.66 lakh tonnes,” says the report.
N. Aswathy, Principal Scientist who conducted a study on the impact of this on livelihoods, says the sector suffered a colossal loss due to the dip. “The annual value of sardine in the landing centres dropped to ₹30 crore from ₹608 crore in 2014, causing a loss of ₹578 crore to the sector. The small-scale fishermen who venture into the sea on outboard ring seins bore the brunt of the dwindling catch as they primarily depended upon this fish for livelihood. Even as many other fish resources showed an increase in the landings, the annual income of this group of fishers was reduced to ₹90,262 in 2021 from ₹3.35 lakh,” she points out. Though the State recorded an increase in total marine catch in 2021 compared to the previous year, experts believe this is still low. In 2020, fishers had lost many fishing days due to pandemic-related restrictions and cyclone warnings. A comparison with the fish landings in 2020 does not make sense as that year was an exceptionally lean period.
Climate change might have already activated a vicious circle putting coastal ecosystems under stress. Its impact is reflected in the catch and composition in many parts. “When ocean warming increases, the fish shoals move northwards or they dive deeper. To track this properly we need excellent data from all these regions,” says Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune. While there has been a shift in the distributions of fish stocks, extreme climate events are also changing the fishing calendar. “The increasing presence of cyclones and low-pressure areas in the Arabian Sea is another threat. Along with the number, their duration is also on the rise. While the number of cyclones has increased by 52% in the Arabian Sea, the time they spend over the sea has increased by 80% (between 2001 and 2019). The ocean absorbs 93% of heat due to global warming and the oceanic conditions often influence cyclonic circulations and monsoon winds. Weather over the Arabian sea has definitely changed and there are more fluctuations and variations compared to earlier times,” he adds.
Experts point out that the change in temperatures can trigger the migration of some species and the sardine currently available in the market is from the east coast where the stock is abundant. A. Biju Kumar, Professor and Head, Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, says the depleting resources will hit both the livelihood and nutritional needs of the fishing community. “Pelagic fish like sardines and mackerels, which form a major part of our fishery wealth, are climate sensitive. The change in surface temperature is one reason for their absence in coastal waters and we can also see that oxygen minimum zones are increasing in the Indian Ocean. If a particular species decreases or disappears from the marine ecosystem, the entire food chain will collapse. We need a longer period of time to know the cascading impact,” he says.
Resorting to unethical practices
As the crisis in the sector deepens, many boats are making exclusive fishing trips to fetch ‘trash’. Large quantities of edible juveniles are brought back and despatched to the fish meal plants outside Kerala. Since agents offer a good price and take care of all the logistics, some fishers consider it an opportunity to make some quick money. “The market for bycatch has increased and we have seen crates of young sardines in carrier boats. We know it’s totally unethical and we are driving the species to extinction. But in the middle of all the hardships, we are unable to resist their offer. We don’t have any fixed income and our savings are always zero. What else can we do in case of emergencies,” asks Louis from Aroor, Alappuzha.
As per reports, the total fish landings in Kerala also include a considerable percentage of juvenile catch which is used by the fish meal fish oil (FMFO) industry. If this continues unabated, it will be hard to replenish the fishery stocks and the practice can also bring in some undesirable changes in the marine environment. “Currently we have no system to monitor juvenile discards at sea, their quantity or species. Switching from the diamond mesh codend to the square mesh codend can reduce the bycatch of juveniles and other unwanted varieties with no commercial value. It’s high time we shifted to such sustainable fishing practices so that there is less biodiversity loss,” says Vinod Malayilethu, Associate Director, Marine Conservation Programme, WWF-India.
The depletion of pelagic fish has also hit the procurement and supply of Matsyafed (Kerala State Co-operative Federation for Fisheries Development Ltd) for its marts. “Over 50% shortage has been reported from some places as the current marine landings are very low. Since some sought-after varieties are fast disappearing from the carts, we are focusing on inland aquaculture,” says Dinesan Cheruvat, managing director. Though the fish consumption of Kerala is largely marine, the State is dependent on supply from other States. “Kerala’s total fish landings, including inland catch, comes to around 6 to 8 lakh tonnes. But in Andhra Pradesh, it’s around 40 lakh tonnes and farmed fish constitutes a major portion of it. We don’t have the domestic production to meet the requirement and further decline of resources will affect our consumption pattern and food habits. Along with promoting aquaculture, conservation measures should be intensified to protect the marine pelagics.”
Overexploitation and destructive practices seem to be other factors aggravating the situation. “Though our recommended fleet size is 24,000, the State has over 40,000 vessels fishing in the Kerala coast. Add to it the boats from other States and the number easily goes beyond 50,000. The biggest challenge faced by fishers in some coastal districts like Kasaragod is the illegal vessels from neighbouring States,” Cheruvat adds.
Fisherwomen in deep waters
The situation has also thrown thousands of fisherwomen into distress. Earlier engaged in fish vending and allied activities, they are struggling to make two ends meet. Elizabeth, a 73-year-old vendor from Kollam, says she was rendered jobless in 2021: “Now most women from the coastal belt work as maids, but nobody wants an elderly woman. Most of us are not educated and we are struggling to survive.”
Kerala has nearly 50,000 women working in the fisheries sector and most of them are looking for alternative options. “By early 2022, both my sister-in-law and I had no work. All these years our day started at the harbour and we used to walk around 10 km a day to scrape a living. We both are single parents and the only breadwinners of our families,” says Sheeba, a vendor from Varkala. After trying her hand at a string of jobs including rubber tapping, she now works as a cleaning staff. “The government officials keep talking about free ration, subsidies and housing schemes. But nobody is there to protect our livelihood and we are a generation with no future,” she says.