Friday, November 30, 2012
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Fishers are reworking their schedules and taking to community sharing to face adverse impacts of climate change

In Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, the mechanised boats increasingly operate in groups. In order to save fuel and time, one of the boats is delegated to scout the prospective fishing grounds so the rest could follow only when there is potential for catching prawns. Occasionally, they fan out in different directions and keep in contact with one another to share the news if good catches are sighted.

At Venkatanagaram village of the state, a process of ‘twinning’ is undertaken in which two boats agree to work as a unit not to fish together, but to use two different varieties of nets in different fishing grounds. When they come back, the returns from the catches are pooled and shared equally among all crew members, irrespective of the contribution made by the individual boats.

Similar strategies are being adopted in Maharashtra, Kerala and West Bengal to deal with unpredictable ecosystem which is increasingly yielding lesser catch and necessitating risky deep sea explorations. Rise in sea-surface water temperature and salinity besides change in rainfall and seasonal patterns, tidal action, turbidity et al are adversely impacting the livelihood of fishers, especially those operating at small scale.

Rise in sea-surface water temperature and salinity besides change in rainfall and seasonal patterns, tidal action, turbidity et al are adversely impacting the livelihood of fishers, especially those operating at small scale.

A report, 'Climate Change and Fisheries: Perspectives from Small-scale Fishing Communities in India on Measures to Protect Life and Livelihood' by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, dwells at these factors and also examines solutions in the four coastal states of Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Researcher Venkatesh Salagrama strikes a cautionary note at the beginning itself. He points out that there is need to “avoid ascribing climate change to some impersonal, global force or to consign it to a rarefied technical no-entry area, thus avoiding the responsibility of local and more immediate factors to the process.” On his part, he lists out a few local factors that are damaging the eco system.

In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, it is reported that temperatures have increased both at the surface and even more at the bottom, but this is attributed to intensive drilling, industrial discharges, chemical effluents and urban wastes. Mud flows from upstream, which carried soil and nutrients to the lower reaches of the rivers, have declined in all States, mainly on account of reduced water flows, but also due to sand mining further upstream. Increase in tidal influx from the sea is said to be caused due to less freshwater flows from upstream, and contributes to increased salinity along the upper reaches.

Shifting waters, empty nets

Mud-skippers, Dolphin and Jellyfish, the species of fish which indicate health of an estuarine ecosystem, are declining from the two coastal States of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. In Sundarbans. large groupers have been reported, which is essentially a marine species and hence indicate increasing salinity in the area. On the other hand, the landing of Sardines, an ‘indicator species’ related to sea-surface temperature, has increased in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh over last 10-15 years. Simultaneously, in Kerala, which is the traditional home for sardines and mackerels, the two species have moved away from local waters and shifted to deeper waters. Puffer fish, on the other hand, has become abundant damaging the fishing nets.

There is unanimity of opinion that fish are abandoning their traditional nearshore habitats and moving into deeper waters. According to the fishers, 50 per cent or more of their catches of commercial fish consist of juveniles or immature fish (that is, fish that have not yet had an opportunity to breed), and their proportion could go well beyond 70 per cent during the post-monsoon period.

There is unanimity of opinion that fish are abandoning their traditional nearshore habitats and moving into deeper waters. According to the fishers, 50 per cent or more of their catches of commercial fish consist of juveniles or immature fish, and their proportion could go well beyond 70 per cent during the post-monsoon period.

Most villages—including major fishing centres like Vasai in Maharashtra and Uppada in Andhra Pradesh—no longer have a beach in which to berth the boats, land and trade the catches, dry the fish, and mend the nets. Erosion has been the main reason for the loss of beaches. While diverse human actions are contributing to the increased erosion, natural processes like the change in wave patterns, and increased ferocity of cyclones and winds are perceived to be significant too.

Unseasonal events are reportedly on the rise, which include heavy rains during the peak summer, and high temperatures (above 35 degrees Centigrade) during September-October. Such changes are reported to have an impact on the behaviour, breeding and migratory patterns of fish, especially in the Sundarbans and in the Coringa mangroves of Andhra Pradesh.

The fishers are as dependent on the monsoons as the farming communities, and the consequences of a poor or delayed monsoon are just as hard for them. Increasingly, the monsoons have become quite irregular; even when they arrive on time, they seem less consistent in their behaviour.  In Andhra Pradesh, there is a reduction in intensity and duration of the southeast and east-southeast day winds during summer, affecting the arrival of small pelagic shoals.

Sudden and intense downpours are a rising phenomenon that has had catastrophic effects on fish-drying operations in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, effectively wiping out the business investments of a sizeable number of women. In both these States, the heavy, short-term, rainfall swamps the coastal villages and leads to waterlogging for extended periods of time, especially where natural water outlets have been extensively built over. For the fishers, especially those in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the unique—but devastating—tsunami of 2004 is a major indicator of climate change. The fishers observed that there have been changes relating to the location, frequency, direction and intensity of cyclones.

Sudden and intense downpours are a rising phenomenon that has had catastrophic effects on fish-drying operations in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, effectively wiping out the business investments of a sizeable number of women.

Contrary to the general perception of the cyclone as a destructive force, the fishers contend that it also has a more benign aspect in that it helped churn the sea, ensuring upwelling of nutrients from the deep, and helping the rapid transport of plankton masses from one area to another. The last major cyclone to have hit the central zone of Andhra Pradesh was the one in November 1996, a full 15 years ago. That it struck an unusual spot (the relatively safer Godavari delta) not only affected the response time, but is also taken as an indication of change in the usual cyclonic patterns. While there has been a general weakening in the seasonal cyclones, the few cyclones that have hit the coast during the last 15 years have been far more catastrophic than the previous ones.

Rising risks and community conflicts

Alongside the shift to deeper-water fishing by the mechanised trawlers in Maharashtra and West Bengal and the gillnetters in Andhra Pradesh, many boats also undertake journeys parallel to the coast. This naturally means the boats moving into fishing grounds used by other fishers within the State and in the neighbouring States. The traditional relations of reciprocity are being repudiated, and there are instances of confrontation both at sea and on the shore.

The Maharashtra dol-netters straying into Gujarat waters is said to lead to skirmishes with the local fishers from Jaffrabad, while migrating fishers from Kerala, Karnataka and Goa entering Maharashtra face resistance from the local fishers. In West Bengal, for the marine fishers of Kakdwip, the competition for fishing grounds is not only coming from other parts of West Bengal and other States (Orissa and Andhra Pradesh) but also from other countries mainly Bangladesh, but also Thailand, Taiwan and—increasingly—Sri Lanka.

In all the States, basic navigation and other activities have become more difficult with increased fishing distances. While the overall number of fishing days by small-scale boats has decreased, the number has increased in case of the larger fishing vessels like trawlers and dol-netters. Such changes do mean harder working conditions and additional pressure on the physical and emotional well being of the crew. For the fishing crews in West Bengal, travelling longer distances from the coast and facing the risk of straying into Bangladesh waters raises several concerns relating to safety as well as overall well being.

While overall number of fishing days by small-scale boats has decreased, the number has increased in case of the larger fishing vessels like trawlers and dol-netters. Such changes do mean harder working conditions and additional pressure on the physical and emotional well being of the crew. 

Traditional trade takes a hit

The changes in the weather and the sea conditions, with consequent changes in fish behavioural patterns, have led to traditional knowledge and institutions becoming less effective to some extent in fishing activities, and the chances for its revival are considered to be slim. Changes in wind and current patterns, as well as the distances needed to be travelled, have made traditional practices like using sails and oars for propulsion difficult.

The decline of fish catches in the nearshore waters necessitates shifting fishing operations to the offshore and deep sea, and this requires a range of adaptations, which, in turn, necessitate big investments in capital and operating costs.

In Andhra Pradesh, the boatowners who are unable to make the investments either sell their boats (when they can) or just operate them for as long as they are in working condition. In the Sundarbans (Jharkhali and Gosaba), the number of traditional boats has decreased by half in the last decade. Where such small-scale activities continue to exist, it is mostly as subsistence operations.

In the Sundarbans (Jharkhali and Gosaba), the number of traditional boats has decreased by half in the last decade. Where such small-scale activities continue to exist, it is mostly as subsistence operations.

The changing conditions in fishers’ access to fishing grounds require them to switch from their traditional beach-based operations to central locations such as fishing harbours. The centralisation of fish landings requires the boats—and traders, especially women—to travel longer distances to get to the harbours, incurring extra costs and loss of rest time. For women of fishing communities, this also means declining access to fish, particularly higher-value fish, given the higher competition at such centralised locations from economically powerful traders and exporters.

The changing conditions in fishers’ access to fishing grounds require them to switch to central locations such as fishing harbours. It requires the boats and traders, especially women, to travel longer distances, incurring extra costs and loss of rest time.

The adaptive fightback 

Small-scale fishing communities are devising their own methods to deal with immediate and unseen factors affecting their livelihood. In Andhra Pradesh, a group of fishers shares the cost of buying a net, and the returns are distributed at the rate of two shares per member—one share for his investment and the other for his labour. Even when a member does not take part in fishing, he still gets a share, while the fisher who takes his place at hauling in the net receives the other share. This arrangement has the advantage of enabling the fishers to spread the returns over a large number of families, albeit very thinly.

In Andhra Pradesh, a group of fishers shares the cost of buying a net, and the returns are distributed at the rate of two shares per member. The Maharashtra trawlers have started group-based operations, with 15-20 boats operating together for mutual safety and exchange of information. Use of GPS is also reducing time, effort and fishing costs.

The Maharashtra trawlers have started group-based operations, with 15-20 boats operating together for mutual safety and exchange of information.The use of GPS is considered to be a major factor in both Maharashtra and West Bengal in reducing time, effort and fishing costs, as the boats are able to get to the target fishing stations a lot easier than before. The economic and climate-change implications of the GPS (which reduces wastage of fuel to get to the fishing grounds) are considered to be significant.

Similarly, the use of wireless communication—vessel-to-vessel and vessel-to-shore—has been reported to improve fishing efficiencies, emergency responses and shore arrangements for preservation, transport and trading. Mobile phones are ineffective in deeper waters, but they are used extensively in small-scale operations and in every aspect of shore-based activities.

The increase in fishing distances naturally requires that each fishing trip be of longer duration. In Maharashtra and West Bengal, the fishing duration has increased from three to four days to two weeks. The Kerala boats undertake much longer voyages. Even small-scale fishing systems like the gillnetters in Maharashtra and the fishing boats operating in the Sundarbans in West Bengal try to spend extended periods at the fishing grounds by organising mother-boats to carry their catches to the shore at frequent intervals. This allows the boats to save on fuel, time and effort to travel to the shore every day, to stay out longer at sea and to help each other out in case of emergencies, while all the time managing to keep in touch with their families on the shore.

The reverse to the general trend of increasing fishing duration comes from Andhra Pradesh where the mechanised boats undertake fewer fishing trips in order to reduce risk. The owners avoid sending their boats out fishing unless they are sure of covering their costs.

Trying to stay afloat

In Maharashtra, it is reported that women fish traders in Mumbai also include some non-fish items in their merchandise brought from neighbouring villages, so as to increase their earnings. Several women from fishing communities in Mumbai and from neighbouring villages are now diversifying into other jobs like domestic help and industrial and construction workers. In Andhra Pradesh, the women in some villages started diversifying their activities in the 1990s and are seen to be involved in a range of fisheries and non-fisheries activities. The most significant change for them has been the micro-finance initiatives in the rural areas in the last decade.

Increasing emphasis is being placed on educating children as a strategy not necessarily to encourage the next generation to move out of fishing as much as to give them a choice that the adults themselves never had. The educated youth take on an increasingly active role in mediating the relations between their communities and the larger society. In villages like Naigaon, a number of youth have shifted away from fishing altogether, and taken on a range of employment in Mumbai city, besides looking after the affairs of their fisheries co-operative societies and also pursuing the government to establish their rights to the coastal land on which they live.

A number of youth have shifted away from fishing altogether, and taken on a range of employment in city, besides looking after the affairs of their fisheries co-operative societies and also pursuing the government to establish their rights to coastal land

The fishers’ responses to the changes are by way of learning to live with them and  their impacts. A significant problem from the perspective of coastal communities is the fact that in the State-level action plans on climate change currently being prepared, as well as in the research being undertaken, there is no effort to consult with coastal communities to seek their views on the perceived impact of climate change, and the sort of responses that are needed.

The reality at the local level is far more complex, requiring a response that also takes into account socioeconomic and other fisheries and non-fisheries factors that are locally relevant in the context of climate change. In absence of this ground level understanding, such policies and action plans will not hold much water.

Read the full report

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