Losing livelihood: Kerala fishermen return empty-handed as man-made factors chase fish away

Kerala's fisheries sector is grappling with a severe decline in fish catch. This troubling trend endangers the livelihoods of traditional fisherfolk and the industry's future.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published Jul 06, 2024 | 12:00 PM Updated Jul 06, 2024 | 12:00 PM

Losing livelihood: Kerala fishermen return empty-handed as man-made factors chase fish away

Kerala’s vibrant fisheries sector, a cornerstone of the state’s economy and a provider of vital protein for thousands, is facing a major challenge: A sharp decline in catch.

This alarming trend threatens the livelihoods of traditional fisherfolk and the future of the industry.

While fisheries have traditionally been a source of growth and employment, generating an estimated 566 lakh man-days of work annually, the reality for many is far less rosy. Climate change and unsustainable fishing practices are taking a heavy toll.

Also Read: Kerala-favourite Indian oil sardine is leaving coast

Concerns galore

The monsoon months, starting from June, are the time for bountiful catches. But unfortunately, this year, it’s just not the same. The fish we expected simply aren’t there,” Valerian, a fisherman from Anchuthengu in Thiruvananthapuram, told South First.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Fishermen across Kerala report a significant drop in the availability of popular varieties like sardine and mackerel. These shortfalls not only impact their income but also disrupt the food supply chain, potentially affecting the nutritional intake of coastal communities.

“The usual bounty of the sea, including popular varieties like mathi (sardines) and ayala (mackerel), has become increasingly elusive. Though we get prawns, the prices for it are abysmally low,” Valerian added.

According to the fisherfolk, multiple factors are behind the dwindling catch.

They point out that climate change is altering ocean temperatures and currents, disrupting fish migration patterns and breeding grounds.

Additionally, unsustainable practices like juvenile fishing and overfishing by mechanised trawlers are depleting fish stocks at an alarming rate.

According to Jackson Pollayil, president, of Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, the crisis is not just ecological. It’s human, he said.

“Littering of the sea is a significant threat. So are chemical effluents flowing into the sea. The recent incident in which the alleged effluent discharge into Periyar might have its impacted the sea also” Jackson told South First.

“Over the years, we’ve noticed a clear decline in fish varieties. Species that were once abundant in our coastal waters seem to have vanished altogether,” he added.

The dwindling catch pushes traditional fishers, who often rely on small boats and traditional techniques, towards financial hardship. Many are forced to venture further into deeper waters, increasing risks and jeopardizing their safety, he added.

Also Read: Indian oil sardines have returned in huge numbers to the Kerala coast

Minister’s acknowledgment

State Fisheries Minister Saji Cherian acknowledged in the Assembly that the state is witnessing a dwindling fish catch. Studies have shown that the higher sea surface temperatures are having an impact on marine life.

“The dwindling fish catch will adversely affect the fisherfolk. Climate change and the rise in sea surface temperature were considered to be the main reasons behind it,” Cherian told the Assembly.

Fisherfolk sorting shrimp (file pic)

According to a study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), the features associated with climate change like rise in sea surface temperature, change in season and intensity of monsoon, variation in current pattern, and ocean acidification are likely to change the community structure and phenology of marine fishes.

“Fishes are poikilothermic–their body temperature varies with the surrounding environmental thermal conditions. Some fishes are also affected by climate change during embryonic development and in fishes exhibiting temperature-dependent sex determination, temperature differences as low as 1-2°C can significantly alter the sex ratio of populations,” CMFRI observed.

Also Read: Blood-thirsty Muthalapozhi gobbles up lives as fishermen keep sailing into the ‘mouth of death’

Rising temperature

Jackson said as sea surface temperatures rise, many fish species move into deeper waters in search of cooler environments.

This shift in habitat is a direct response to the changing thermal conditions in the ocean and has several implications for marine ecosystems, fishing industries, and coastal communities.

“The problem for the traditional fishermen is that the traditional fishing methods and equipment designed for shallow waters may not be effective in deeper areas. They may need to invest in new technology and equipment to reach these depths,” he said.

“It also means increased costs as fishing in deeper waters often requires more fuel and resources, increasing operational costs for fishermen. There is also the risk that changes in fish distribution can lead to reduced catches for coastal fishermen, affecting their livelihoods and local economies.”

The fisherfolk have demanded the state launch a study examining the economic impact, social impact, and environmental impact of the dwindling fish catch.

They also underscored the importance of market intervention by the government and regulating the intervention of middlemen and their control over pricing.

(Edited by Majnu Babu)

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