|"Before, our fish would keep fresh for 4-5 hours. Now, they go dry after only an hour"
||[Jul. 29th, 2009|04:34 pm]
Rainspotting in Bangalore
Sitting cross-legged on the harbour, one hand steadying the prow of his boat, Sahijid’s pink shirt is unbuttoned at the neck, a woven reed hat with a painted blue brim keeping the sun from his eyes. His skin is dark and taut, shiny from years of working at sea. |
49 years old, Sahijid has been fishing from this port since he was nine. His cousins work here too. Every morning, he rises at 3am, completes his toilet and takes his daily tea at a nearby tea stand. At 5am, he and the other fishermen join together and start out to sea in their traditional wooden boats. If the day’s catch is good, they won’t return until 3 or 4pm. If the catch is poor, as it often is these days, they’re back in the harbour by 9am with little to do but prepare their boats and hope tomorrow will bring more a bigger yield.
The problems started twenty years ago, when mechanised fishing was introduced. These bigger boats use closely woven nets that catch fish indiscriminate of size: consequently, the natural regeneration of the waters’ stock is inhibited and there are less fish, which must also be shared between the higher population of fishermen.
“Today, we made Rs. 7000 [about £87.50] between four people,” Sahijid recounts. “There are costs to cover, though: Rs. 1000 on repairing the engine, Rs. 1500 on fuel. Eventually, we’re taking home Rs. 500 [about £6.25] each. But for the three days before this, we couldn’t go out because the seas were too rough. For the two days before that, we went out but made no catch. And we still have to pay Rs. 700 for fuel, whether we make a catch or not.”
The Government has placed a ban on mechanised fishing in June and July, to allow the fish to breed and regenerate stock. Although the traditional fishermen go out to sea all twelve months of the year, it’s only in these two months that they can hope to bring home a good catch. For the other ten months, their catch is only a tenth of what it is in the monsoon season.
“From August through to May, we only earn enough to just cover our living costs: we can’t save any money or invest in new equipment,” he says.
“So we take loans out from the state to prepare our boats and nets for June and July, and count on there being a good catch then. The loans are taken against our land documents, so if the catch is poor, the state can take our homes. But we are prepared to work night and day if we need to, to try and stop this happening.”
One of the main things the fishermen must save for is dowries for their daughters. Dowries are now illegal in India, but the practice is still common in rural areas and the men say the Government do little to stop it. According to them, even the ministers here accept dowries for their daughters in marriage. If a girl has no dowry, no one will marry her.
Sahijid has one daughter, who was married with a dowry of 240g of gold, and Rs. 25,000. While it’s difficult to see how Rs. 25,000 can be saved up on an income of Rs. 500 per week, while still supporting a family, this dowry is still meagre. Sahijid also has a son, thirteen years younger, and so the family can expect to receive some money when he marries.
While his wife doesn’t work, some of the wives here have now had to take jobs in addition to the housework to try and support the families. Some of these women are crouched across the harbour, saris hitched, nimbly sorting through the day’s catch with their bare hands.
Fishing in June and July is not without its problems: it is monsoon season, and the seas are high and rough. But Sahijid says weather patterns have also changed, and become unpredictable for the fishermen:
“If we can see clouds on the horizon, and the bottom of the clouds lift, we know the winds are coming, and we run fast to the boats. I know how to identify if they’ll be small or big winds. But look” - he gestures overhead, where a grey blanket of clouds cover the sky – “now we can’t tell when the winds will come.
“The rains have changed too – the monsoon would begin at a specific time. This year it was late, and we had no rain in April or May. It didn’t used to be like this.”
The fishermen's catch is also being affected by the rising temperatures:
“Before, when out at sea, fish would keep fresh in the boat for 4-5 hours”, he explains. “Now, sometimes they go dry after only an hour. When this happens, I must throw those fish back and can earn nothing that day.”
In theory, the June/July ban on mechanised fishing could at least give these old and new methods a chance to co-exist. But the ban is not total, as the government still allows international vessels to fish these waters year-round. Equipped with radar systems to locate activity, these ships trawl the bottom of the sea, picking up the small fish and eggs on the sea bed and damaging their chances of regeneration. Suddenly small next to the imposing trawlers, the mechanised fishing crews shout at the boats as they come in, but can do little to stop them. Left rocking in their wake, the mechanical-method fishermen are also having to take out loans to see them through the summer months: loans which they must then repay over the full course of the year.
“Globalisation has made big problems for us here,” says one of the other fishermen.
“Why must the international boats come here? There are plenty of fish in other waters. Why must they come and take our catch?”
Pollution from industry is also adversely affecting the community. Two hundred and forty-seven factories lined along the banks of the Periyar river pour their waste into its mouth: a shocking 170,000,000 litres of effluent per day. The fishermen know that this is partly responsible for the decline of some species of fish, but they don’t seem to make the connection that this is also the water that is piped to them for drinking.
I ask what Sahijid sees for the future. “Every day when we go out, if the seas are rough, we know there is a chance we will not come back. But what if there are no fish in the sea? I do not know what will happen. We can’t think about that.
“We know no remedy. We are suffering and we can see no way out.”