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Barnamali Malik, 40, sailed his country-made boat through the Kharasota river, that flows parallel to his village in Odisha, for seven hours on a Wednesday. The tiring sail however ended without a single catch. It was one of his many no-fish days. But Malik claims that this could have, in fact, been a good day.

A few dead fish floating close to the riverbank indicate what he suspects. “There were fishes in the water which we could catch and ensure an income today,” Malik said. “But even before our arrival, the fishes were killed and caught. The remnants are proof of this.” Their death, he claims, was allegedly caused by chemicals used by the bigger fishermen in the village. They use these chemicals illegally, to kill and then catch the fish, which has led to a decrease in the variety and quantity of fish in the rivers, he notes.

For Malik and four other fishermen from the Balagati village, who share the same boat, recurrent no-fish days mean one less meal at home. They are dependent on catching and selling fish in the villages nearby and the local market, to make a living.

A fisherman throws his net into the river in a bid to catch fish. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty/ Mongabay.

Decade-long struggle

Kendrapara, a coastal district in the eastern state of Odisha has seven rivers flowing through it, accounting for the state’s second largest riverine waterway. Specifically, in the Rajkanika and Aul blocks of the district, the riverine villages are also close to the sea, where the issue of illegal fishing is rampant. According to a study, the Kendrapara district boasts of 63 species of fish fauna, belonging to 44 genera and 25 families. The fish population, however, is on a decline.

In Balagati, which is 5 km from the Bay of Bengal coast, around 60% of the fishermen are equipped with mechanised boats and depend on the sea for fishing. The remaining depend on the river.

The sea, however, remains out of bound for two months during the seasonal ban across India to maintain fish population, between April and June. It is during these months that the use of chemicals to kill and catch freshwater fishes rampantly increases, the village residents claim.

The residents in the district’s riparian villages claim that illegal fishing activities have been underway for over a decade. But there has been no strict action.

“It is not a daily affair. So, it becomes difficult to catch them,” another fisher Subakanta Malik says. “They generally poison the water at night and take away the fish catch before dawn. Two years ago, some people were apprehended by a patrol squad constituted in the village. But that turned into a physical brawl even before the police arrived. Cases were filed against both the groups. We do not have that kind of money to fight cases.”

Sitaram Sahoo from Dalikenda, a village in the Rajkanika block, emphasised that with increasing temperatures, most fishes venture deeper into the river making it difficult to catch them from the surface. This accentuates the use of illegal trawlers and chemicals which make the fishes come to the surface. “When the chemical is mixed in the water, the fishes come to the surface to save themselves,” Sahoo said. “Many of them die and start floating on the surface. The trawlers also venture into the deep waters and catch a huge amount of fish.”

Fishermen fixing their fishing net in Balagati. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty/ Mongabay.

Dhaneswar Rout, a social activist from Aul, who works for the fishing community said that they have repeatedly made representations to the officials concerned, but it has not worked. “The number of fishermen is more and the quantity of the fish is less. In such a scenario, if someone stakes claim over the common asset through illegal means, there must be strict action against them. This is one of the many issues faced by the fishing community that is forcing them to look for alternate jobs.”

A loss of livelihood

The monsoon months of July, August and September are typically lean for the fishers dependent on inland fishing, specifically rivers, due to high tides and increased water flows in the rivers. From mid-October, after the offset of monsoons, it is considered a good time for the fishing community to earn good revenues. But for these fishermen, it continues to remain uncertain.

A fisher from from Balagati after his only big catch of the day. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty/Mongabay.

“Through these illegal activities, the prawns and smaller fishes are killed too,” Barnamali said. “One day of a good prawn catch could mean three days of a meal at home. The big fishes who feed on them also tend to move from the area and explore new avenues where they can feed themselves. So, even if some fish survive, they navigate to newer areas, making it difficult for us to catch them.”

Five years ago, Barnamali had shifted to Delhi to work as a contractual labourer after he failed to provide for his family through fishing. He was last involved in pipeline work when he moved back to his village after the Covid-19 pandemic started.

The migration is visible across these villages. In the Badaanka village of the Aul block in Kendrapara, most young men have migrated for work, while the elderly have stayed back and resorted to share-cropping. The village is situated at the cross-section of Brahmani and Kharasota river. Once a thriving village of fishers, hardly a few families are actively involved in fishing now.

“Either the rivers are dry and there are no fishes, or when there are fishes, we have some miscreants poisoning the water for their own benefits,” Bipra Malik said. The 62-year-old, who is a landless fisherman, now cultivates paddy as a sharecropper.

“We had made a delegation at the block level but nothing happened. Depending on seasonal fishing is of no help. To support the families, youngsters have started looking for work outside. Our traditional work [fishing] is slowly fading away.”

Fish cooperatives

According to the District Fisheries Officer of Kendrapara, Mamta Mohapatra, the district has no mechanised trawlers registered. However, when any illegal trawling is observed or reported, necessary action is taken. After taking charge, when she received her first complaint regarding poisoning of the river to catch and kill fish in 2019, she initiated the formation of primary fisheries cooperatives to take charge of the water bodies and the fish population.

“Trawling in rivers is not allowed and there have been no such incidents,” Mohapatra said. “For the poisoning of water bodies, there have been no complaints after 2020. We have asked all the block officials to form cooperatives and also keep a check on such activities.”

Fishers allege that the illegal activities in the river happen during the night. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty/Mongabay.

Meanwhile, the Tehsildar at Aul, Tapan Kumar Senapati, said that they are contemplating action against people indulging in any illegal fishing in the rivers. “The alleged miscreants carry out illegal fishing activities during the night. We are planning to form night squads to keep a check on them. I have spoken to the in-charge of the local police station and concerned officials from the fisheries department,” he said.

This article was first published on Mongabay.