A conflict on the waves

Print edition : March 28, 2003

The bio-resources of the Gulf of Mannar can be saved only if the conflict between the traditional and mechanised sections of the fishing industry is resolved and the economy of the local community improved.

OLD, decaying two-storied houses with their plaster worn off revealing the coral blocks with which they are built are a common enough sight on the Gulf of Mannar coast. So too are roads paved with bleached coral blocks.

Trawlers moored near Mandapam.-

These are suggestive of the unthinking exploitation in the past of coral, the region's most precious resource. Today, of course, corals and other resources of the Gulf of Mannar are legally protected. Yet, despite an increasing awareness at the popular level of the biodiversity of the gulf and the need to conserve it, a variety of factors, both natural and human-made, continue to threaten the region's environment and ecology. The ecosystem is by no means as fragile as it is often made out to be, considering that it has survived decades of human intervention and misuse. But signs of irreplaceable destruction are now evident more than ever, and at the current pace of habitat degeneration there may soon be little left of this unique biological world for future generations.

Conservation efforts in the Gulf of Mannar today include attempts to go beyond a purely legalistic approach. Taking the lead in this is the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), which has started several new initiatives both to conserve the physical and biological resources of the Gulf, and to provide additional sources of income to fishing communities (Frontline, March 14, 2003). If proven successful as models, such initiatives will need state support, to be operationalised on a meaningfully large scale.

According to the growing body of academic and scientific literature on the Gulf of Mannar, the major threat to the gulf's ecosystem is the pollution from offshore industries that have been set up in and around Thoothukudi. The failure to recognise what field researchers and conservationists - and fishing families themselves - acknowledge is the biggest threat to the gulf is perhaps indicative of the unseen and unquantifiable nature of that damage. Fishing by bottom trawlers, a major presence in the coastal waters today, has wrought havoc by the systematic destruction of the ecological wealth of the Gulf. It has also affected traditional fishing practices on which the majority of fishing community depends.

Corals, illegally mined off the Thoothukudi coast, piled up for sale.-

"There are three major threats to the Gulf of Mannar's ecosystem," says V. Selvam, a scientist heading the MSSRF's Gulf of Mannar Project. "The first, which affects the entire Gulf of Mannar, is the destruction of the physical and biological resources of the ecosystem by bottom trawling." Coral mining in the southern part of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve is the second major threat, he says. The third is pollution by industries, also largely on the southern side of the reserve. "Very recently, Sarangadhara Chemical Industries near Tiruchendur is reported to have released a large amount of effluents into the sea," Selvam said. "This affected the waters for 10 km along the coast and 6 km offshore. It is said to have affected the lobster catch in a major way." Indeed, the issue of bottom trawling is at the centre of a simmering conflict between the traditional and mechanised sectors of the fishing industry.

There are around 23,000 fishing households that together constitute a population of about 1.15 lakhs in around the 90 fishing villages and hamlets in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve. There are about 75 fish-landing centres, including two major fisheries harbours - one at Thoothukudi and the other at Chinnamuttom.

Even though the terms `traditional' and `mechanised' are used by fishermen themselves to describe the two very different sectors of the industry, the terms do not accurately describe the differences between the two. The so-called `traditional' boats, though much smaller than trawlers, are also mechanised though with less powerful engines. The difference between the two is in their method of fishing. While trawlers are equipped with devices that can smash impediments in their path like corals or rocks and have very fine nets that trawl the sea floor, the traditional boats use traditional methods of baiting, which are far less destructive to the non-target fish and aquatic species. According to the 1993 Marine Fishing Regulation Act, trawlers can only fish beyond a distance of three nautical miles from the shore. The allegations from the traditional fishing sector is that trawlers routinely violate this rule as the best fish catch is found within that range.

"Corals and sea grasses are within the three nautical mile range," says A. Baluchami, president of the Ramanathapuram district unit of the Meenpidi Thozhilalar Sangam (Fisherworkers Trade Union) in Mandapam. "When trawlers scrape the seabed, the breeding grounds of a variety of animals - sea cucumber, chank (conch), crab, squid, coloured fish, turtle - are all gone. Twelve to 15 years ago, shoals of dugongs used to come out of the water and breathe. Today they too have disappeared. Our struggles have been of no avail." He said that the variety and size of the fish catch have declined over the years.

At Vedalai in Mandapam, by-catch - non-commercial yet high-value marine life that comes in with the fish catch - brought by trawlers.-

"Twenty years ago, I used to catch four baskets of fish or prawn using 10 nets. Now I need 150 nets to get the same amount," he said.

The conflict in the southern sector of the reserve, around Thoothukudi, between traditional and mechanised fisherfolk is far more intense than in the north, near Mandapam and Rameswaram. The stakes are much higher in the south as the Thoothukudi port handles a large and lucrative export trade in fish. In Mandapam the conflict has been to a large degree contained by an informal arrangement worked out between the two parties. Trawlers are given three days to fish in the waters outside the three-nautical-mile limit, while traditional boats are given four days. This is to avoid contact between the two groups of vessels, as one of the standing complaints of the owners of traditional boats is that trawlers damage their nets and baits, which are dragged and broken by the large, all-encompassing bottom trawling nets.

U. Arulanandan who heads the Singaravelu Meenavar Peravai, a forum which he claims represents the interests of both mechanised and traditional fishermen, agrees that some fish varieties such as pomfret are declining owing to over-fishing.

In the Mandapam region, apart from the damage caused by bottom trawlers, traditional fisherfolk are deeply concerned over the restrictions placed on their traditional rights after the declaration regarding the biosphere reserve came.

Technically, any activity, including fishing, in the park area is illegal as it is a national park and biosphere reserve. This short-sighted regulation is not merely unfair, but it is also unenforceable, as the waters of the park have been the traditional fishing grounds for smaller fishing craft. "People keep talking about this park," grumbled Veluchamy, an elderly resident of Mundalmunai village. "It is like how the British came and captured our land. Let them protect the park, but how can they deny us our rights?" Several fishermen from the village denied that they were responsible for the damage to coral reefs. They alleged that Forest Department officials frequently harassed them.

Baluchami said that his organisation in fact opposed the creation of a national park, as it was in direct conflict with the interests of fisherfolk. "We agree that corals are important to sustain fishing in the area, but our fishing practices do no harm to the reefs," he said. "Stop trawling, and the problems will end. How can the government deny our rights to collect seaweed, which gives employment to 2,000 women, just because the area is declared a national park?" In the southern region of the reserve, near Thoothukudi, where the fishing community is far more powerful, this is not even an issue, as fishing and coral mining are conducted in the reserve waters with impunity.

This correspondent visited a site near the village of Mottaigopuram near Thoothukudi, where a full-fledged coral mining operation was in progress. Boatmen were bringing in corals from offshore islands, unloading them on the beach in huge mounds from where they were loaded into trucks for shipment to cement factories for purposes of making calcium carbide. Each boat owner gets Rs.1,000 for a landing. The boatmen said that around 100 boats go out every morning and each brings in 100 large cane baskets of corals. They use levers and dynamite to break the corals, which they claim are from dead reefs. Strictly speaking, it is impermissible to pick up even a single piece of coral from the reserve area, leave alone plunder coral reefs, whether dead or living. The workmen said that the corals mined were taken to the factories of a leading cement manufacturer.

On the waterfront of Therespuram village, 15 km from Thoothukudi, there is a flurry of activity as fishermen prepare the baits for the next day's catch.

Drying seaweeds gathered near Mandapam.-

The traditional fishermen use a non-destructive but highly effective method of fishing. "We get a larger catch of the kind of fish we want though ours involves more labour," F. Marshall, a young fisherman told Frontline. This method of fishing is far more ecologically friendly as it does not create the problem of "by-catch" - the large, non-target haul of marine life that comes up in trawler nets.

The intensity of the conflict between traditional and mechanised fishermen comes sharply to the fore in the arguments of two spokespersons of the traditional fishing community. K. Thomas and F. Robert are office-bearers of the powerful Vadapaham Nattupadagu Meenavar Panchayat. The conflict here revolves around the timings imposed for fishing for traditional and mechanised boats as per the Fishing Regulation Act. The traditional fishing boats are allowed to go to sea by 6 p.m. but must return before 5 a.m. The bottom trawlers must set off at 5 a.m. and return by 6 p.m., before the traditional boats set off. This is a constant source of friction, as the nights are the best time for fishing. "We use hook and line and nets," said Thomas. "In the day time the fish won't come up to take the bite. That is why we fish at night. Mechanised trawlers can fish at any time as their nets are laid at the bottom of the sea." According to him, the trawlers defy the rules and very often ram into their boats in the dark, breaking not only their nets, but often killing the boatmen. "If a trawler operates in one area, we don't get fish there for another year as the entire seabed is trawled. We call their nets `killing nets'," he said. The traditional fishermen use different nets for different fish varieties, which ensures that varieties do not get depleted.

However, at the Thoothukudi fish-landing site, trawler owners accuse traditional fishermen of going into areas beyond three nautical miles. N. Shahjahan, a daily wage-earning trawler labourer, said: "They lay nets for a five-kilometre distance, and in our fishing area." He claims that there are 35,000 people employed in various activities in the mechanised sector, and any restriction on mechanised trawling will render them unemployed. He feels that traditional fishermen get their way as they are an important vote bank and politicians do not want to alienate them.

Chanks and seashells, at Mandapam.-

The Tuticorin fish-landing centre is the largest in the Gulf of Mannar. Perhaps the most telling illustration of the damage that bottom trawlers inflict on life in the ocean bed lies in the magnitude of the by-catch that is brought in every day. A trawler brings in 25 to 30 boxes weighing 50 kg each of by-catch each day. This is bought, processed and exported as poultry feed.

It is well recognised that the future of the Gulf of Mannar as a biosphere reserve rests with the people who inhabit it. It is only they who can counter the threats to the region, but not before a measure of well-being enters their own lives. Traditional fishing is a precarious and low-paying occupation, which does not guarantee employment throughout the year. There is no Mannar resident that Frontline talked to who did not recognise the importance of the reserve to the economy of the region.

However, the Mannar coast has some of the poorest villages in Tamil Nadu. Take Mundalmunai, just off the national highway to Rameswaram, for example. It has no electricity. Its 75 families live in huts with no pattas to the land their homes stand on. It does not have a primary school, a health centre, or a ration shop. The traditional fisherfolk who make up its population get work once in 20 days or so. The women of the village sometimes make shell necklaces. For an intricate three-stringed necklace, a woman is paid Rs.3. "We have to borrow just to exist," said S. Suryakala. "Our small children have to go by bus to school and must study by candlelight. The food we get in the ration shop is inedible. Only we women eat the rice, our men won't touch it."

There are many villages like Mundalmunai on the coast. According to one study, the literacy rate of fisherfolk in the Mannar region is 31 per cent, far less than the State average. Women's literacy is even lower. As many as 54 per cent of the fisherfolk live in huts. Even a cursory investigation reveals very high levels of indebtedness amongst traditional fishing families.

"Unless the economy of the fishing community is improved any effort to manage the bio-resources of the biosphere reserve will not yield results," Selvam told Frontline. This apart, trawlers must be made to use mid-water and not bottom trawling nets. "You cannot ban trawling as around 50,000 people here depend on it for their livelihood." The ban on coral mining must be enforced and any further expansion of industry along the coast should not be allowed. But finally, it is productive employment for coastal communities that is non-damaging for the coastal ecosystem, which will mark the first meaningful step towards the conservation of the Gulf of Mannar.

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