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“My father told me to not go into full-time fishing”, says Shweta Hule. Hule is in her late fifties and conducts mangrove safaris in Vengurla, Sindhudurg. A fisherwoman earlier, she says her father predicted a downfall in the fishing business for the locals nearly a decade ago. “People don’t prefer getting married to a fisherman due to the uncertainty in the business these days. There are 35-40-year-old men in our village who are still unmarried.”, she told Youth Ki Awaaz.
Hule belongs to the Gabit community – a traditional fishing community in south Maharashtra that has been witnessing a decline in their incomes due to overfishing carried out by the industrial fishing sector through unsustainable practices.
Additionally, extended monsoons and extreme weather patterns caused largely due to climate change have impacted the viability of their operations, making it difficult for them to make a living.
Globally, marine and coastal ecosystems are considered to be extremely vulnerable to overexploitation and climate-change processes like ocean warming and sea-level rise.
The Gabits, known for practising sustainable fishing in coastal Maharashtra, for generations, find themselves particularly vulnerable. While the community follows traditional techniques like prohibiting the catch of juvenile fish by using nets of particular mesh size and avoiding fishing during the month of August ( culturally considered breeding season for fish by the community), they say that the industrial fishing sector practices unsustainable fishing techniques that are causing havoc in the sea.
For example, mechanized bull trawlers used by industries drag their nets across the sea bed to capture hundreds of fish in one go, which results in the capture of a huge amount of by-catch, mostly juveniles. Locals say that they also carry out unrestricted fishing during the breeding season depleting the seas further.
However, presently, these factors, combined with the pandemic, have negatively impacted the community’s livelihood and pushed many into taking up other jobs or joining industrial fishing ventures.
Climate change has further exacerbated the issue with India’s coastal water temperatures have already risen by over half a degree in the past 3 decades. Warmer oceans are related to a rise in extreme weather events, and data from several organizations like National Disaster Management Authority, India Meteorological Department, Press Information Bureau, and World Meteorological Organisation shows that there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of cyclonic events from two cyclones in 1970-1979 to 12 during 2010-19 along the Maharashtra coast.
The recent Tauktae cyclone is a case in point. For the Gabits, the cyclones have major ramifications that go beyond damages caused to life and property. “The cyclones make the sea rough and make it difficult for us to carry out fishing, whereas the industrial fishing sector with their trawlers remain unaffected. Adding to this, the fish tend to move away from the shore into the deep sea during the cyclones, making it a perfect time for the trawlers for a huge catch,” says Nandini Pange, member of the Swamini, a group formed by UNDP to initiate mangrove safaris in the area.
Suhas Toraskar, a fisherman and a local turtle conservationist, has an ecological perspective to add to the issue. Looking at the Arabian sea from an isolated beach where he protects turtle nests he said, “Trawlers with their huge Purse nets also practice LED fishing – negatively impacting us and also the marine biodiversity. The trawlers pull everything from the sea bed causing loss of habitat and species, and fragmentation of ecosystem structure.”
Being a turtle conservationist, Suhas is also concerned about the effect of climate change and overfishing on the turtle population. “The jellyfish have wreaked havoc in the sea and have troubled us a lot. There is a sudden rise in their population. The decline in the turtle population has given rise to these jellyfish blooms’. These jellyfish usually feed on juveniles which will negatively impact the fish population which in turn will affect us”.
In 2019, Maharashtra witnessed the lowest annual catch in 45 years, with a steep decline in all the fish species being caught. According to the Marine Fish Landings Report, the total estimated fish landings (fish catch that arrives at the ports) in the state stood at 201,000 (2.01 lakh) tonnes in 2019 against 295,000 (2.95 lakh) tonnes in 2018, marking a 32% decrease. Reflecting on the decreased catch, Suhas added, “Nowadays, our nets are filled with more jellyfish than normal fish.”
The warming, as well as cyclones, have given rise to a host of additional issues like the frequent occurrence of phytoplanktons, in a phenomenon known as “The Blue Tide”, on the beaches of Maharashtra.
The glowing bioluminescent phytoplanktons are a tourist attraction but are also a sign of warming waters as well as climate change. Ultimately though, the warming waters aren’t good news for the survival of phytoplankton, since they survive better in cooler climes. Constituting the bottom of the marine food chain, scientists say as the waters get warmer, these single-celled organisms will migrate to cooler parts, causing marine life to move with it – greatly impacting fisheries and other economies in the coastal areas.
But more worrisome, loss of phytoplankton would mean more carbon dioxide trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, since these organisms also provide half of the oceans’ oxygen.
Along with the waters, the sand is warming up too. Many isolated beaches on the west coast are regular nesting sites for the Olive Ridley Turtles. The temperature of the beaches during the development of the embryos determines the sex of the hatchlings. Biologists say that increasing sand temperatures on nesting beaches shift the sex ratio to almost entirely female, making it difficult for turtles to have a problem reproducing in the future.
Concerned about the rising sea levels at Malvan, Durga Thigale, a marine biologist at Mangrove Foundation says that the beaches are shrinking at an alarming rate too. “Modern fishing techniques have affected the traditional communities a lot. Even the traditional fishing communities have started selling juveniles against their tradition as that’s what they get in their catch.”
Standing at a daily fish auction at Malvan beach, she added, “The amount of fish caught is also reducing drastically. The Malvan bay is actually a marine sanctuary, it requires conservation efforts but the governance here is poor.”
In the absence of adequate governance, overfishing, as well as changes caused due to pollution and climate change has meant that an increasing number of Gabit fishers find their traditional occupations unsustainable to make a living.
But all this has not only impacted their livelihood but also the social fabric of the community. The men in the community are facing a totally new challenge of finding life partners due to the uncertainty of the fishing business. Consequently, the youth in the community are now drifting to different occupations, leading to an erasure of sorts of the community’s traditional fishing practices.
The exploitation of the oceans is emptying resources at a very rapid pace and it’s important to have strict policies and most importantly to include indigenous communities and rely on their vast cultural knowledge in conservation activities. This can help in not just improving their livelihood opportunities, but also making fishing more sustainable.