Seaweed collection began only a few decades ago in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay and is almost exclusively undertaken by women. It demands quick but careful work. A deft and experienced worker like Nambeeswari (in picture) can make nearly Rs.250 a day, nearly twice as much as a slower worker. A collector’s equipment includes the diver’s mask and cloth bands that are tied to the fingers of both hands to prevent injury. A plastic bag is tied to the back to store the seaweed. In 2006, at a meeting of the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve Trust, the association of seaweed collectors banned the use of metal scrappers to collect seaweed.
    Women who are new to the task learn by observing experienced collectors. The seaweed grows on hard surfaces such as rock, stones and dead coral. The species collected belong to several genera but prominently Sargassum, Gelidiella and Gracilaria. What makes the activity special in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay is the vocal struggle of the women whose labour in other realms remains largely invisible.
    Seaweeds are of several species and are scientifically categorised on the basis of pigmentation and other external features. They are also roughly categorised as brown, green, red and blue-green algae, each of which is known for the production of specific phytochemicals used in various industries. Seaweed is dried before sale, and rates are set by traders on behalf of their establishments located in cities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. With the entry of companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsico into the business, demand for seaweed has increased. Given the restrictions on collection, seaweed production depends on the successful regeneration of accessible stocks. In 2006, as part of the conservation measures the women adopted, they demanded reasonable prices from traders. Collection involved multiple social and ecological costs, besides heavy risks, they said.
    Lakshmi Murthy of Chinnapalam village in Rameswaram at work. In 2014, she was elected head of the Gulf of Mannar Seaweed Collectors’ Association, the women’s collective of the Ramnad Fishworkers’ Trade Union. The following year, in recognition of her efforts to organise women in the struggle for right to livelihood and for their inclusion in conservation planning, she was awarded the Seacology Prize for Leadership, which she received in Berkeley, California, United States.
    Successful women leaders from poor communities face formidable challenges. They must not only earn their living but also earn the respect of the people they represent, besides negotiating the politics in a predominantly patriarchal society. For women like Lakshmi, life above water is no less rocky and unpredictable than the seabed they encounter daily.
    Little is known about how the practice of seaweed collection was introduced into this region. It is undertaken around the year in the Palk Bay in areas around Pamban Island. Seaweed used to be collected from the Mandapam and Kilakarai group of islands also until the area came within the Gulf of Mannar National Park when it was established in 1986 under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
    The women divers wear rubber chappals (sandals) to protect their feet and dive in areas which have coral and a rocky substrate on which seaweed grows. In deeper waters, they sometimes wear a single fin plate to allow for greater control underwater. Usually they do not dive to depths greater than five metres in the Palk Bay, although in some parts of the world seaweed is found at depths of up to even 150 metres. In 2014, the women’s association of seaweed collectors declared that they would observe a closed season lasting 45 days to allow regeneration of seaweed. Such decisions are often hard to uphold given the demand for the product on the one hand and the worsening economic situation of coastal communities on the other.
    Scientific projects to explore ways to augment both production and the use of seaweed resources are ongoing in India. Seaweed is used as cattle fodder; in human food products; in the extraction of agar, carrageenan and phytochemicals; and as thickening and gelling agents for the food, pharmaceutical and paint industries. However, these uses and new products consumed at distant locations are deeply tied to fragile ecosystems and fragile livelihoods. The future of seaweed collection will depend on an integrated approach of spatio-temporal conservation supported by local communities. It will also rely on all actors (including collectors, park managers, traders and consumers) willing to make this activity ecologically and socially equitable.
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