Davidson Anthony Adima started fishing as a 12-year-old, in the coastal waters of southwestern India, on a traditional log raft called kattumaram, propelled by sails and oars. Three decades later, outboard motors take his small fibreglass boat to deeper waters, but he finds fishing as uncertain as the state of the sea, sky and seasons. His trips are becoming longer, costlier and often riskier than before.

Davidson and colleagues from his Fathimapuram village launch and land about 50 small boats (under 34 feet in length) from the sandy shores of the Arabian Sea at the adjoining St Andrew’s village in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. A few local boats and shore seine units of fishers from villages further away, where the coast has eroded, find space on this rare scenic beach, along with joggers and walkers.

Four decades after outboard motors and fibreglass boats became popular, unsinkable traditional log rafts made of chiselled logs still provide safe and affordable means to fish for many. Credit: Max Martin/Mongabay

They fish within 35 km from the shore but sometimes go further to deeper waters, about 100 km from the shore, where bigger mechanised boats operate. Davidson’s three outboard engines of 40, 15 and 8 horsepower can handle the distance, the big motor kept in reserve to cut across big waves and escape from foul weather quickly. He navigates with a Global Positioning System, and some colleagues use radio sets and fish-finders (a device to locate fish in water). Fishers are often forced to invest in technology, even with high-interest private loans, to ensure safety and viability in a changed environment and climate.

Still, unexpected changes in the local climate, increasing fleet size, small catch, increasing fuel prices, uncertainties and market dynamics add up to make the whole operation uncertain and risk-prone.

Changing seas

“Earlier the sea would be calm like a cradle at this time. It would softly caress you,” Davidson said, describing the state of the from November to February. Following the southwestern monsoon season of June to September marked by high wind and waves, the thelivu nalukal (clear days in Malayalam) come as a relief to fishers. “Sometimes, when the sea is very clear, we can see deep down, as far as it is visible, but then we don’t get fish close to the shore during the day,” he said. Fishers chase fish that swim with the currents to faraway seas, he added.

The shallow waters adjoining the 78 km coast of Thiruvananthapuram is known for rocky or sandy reefs and shipwrecks forming rich fish habitats. “Fish used to stay in these places for days like buses in a bus stand,” Davidson said. “The regular ‘customers’ were kalava (grouper), chemeen (snapper), motha (black king fish), oolappu (barracuda) and other fish, but they have just vanished from these places now. Some fish such as thedu (catfish) and panjukadiyan (Indian halibut) have disappeared altogether.”

Fisherwomen selling fish at Vizhinjham market, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Credit: India Water Portal/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A 2021 study on the loss of marine fish stock in south west India, noted the disappearance of once popular local fish like navara (mullet), chennavara (red mullet), soles, numb fish, and torpedo ray. Scientists have also noticed fluctuations in abundance of oil sardine due to overfishing, variations in its habitat ecology and ocean warming. Additionally, they have noted an abundance of jellyfish that eat fish larvae in the warm waters.

Pollution is also an increasing issue. Plastic debris and ghost nets abandoned by fishers entangle and choke fish and damage reefs when pulled by strong currents, noted conservationists involved in cleaning up of the coastal waters here. “Discarded nets cover many reefs, and fish avoid these places, scared,” Davidson said. A recent clean-up drive on the tourist beach of Veli near Thiruvananthapuram city yielded 2500 plastic pieces, 90 kg sandals, 319 glass bottles, 32 kg thermocol, 2 kg paper and 10 kg other waste, reports environmental non-governmental organisation Thanal. “Ocean trash is a serious pollution problem that affects the health of the people, marine wildlife and local economies,” a Thanal spokesperson noted.

Plastic debris and ghost nets abandoned by fishers entangle and choke fish and damage reefs when pulled by strong currents. Credit: Tim Sheerman-Chase/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Fishers also complain that trawling boats from neighbouring districts fish very close to the shore, often on Saturdays when most local fishers are on holiday. Then there is the prevalent practice of fishing juvenile fish.

Climate change

“Global climate change has brought about changes on the coast of Kerala,” said A Bijukumar, professor and head of the department at the Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. “Because of increasing temperature in the sea, there have been changes in ocean resources as well as natural hazards, significantly impacting fishers’ lives and livelihoods.”

But climate is not the sole reason for local changes. For instance, there have been changes in the availability of many surface-water fish that are usually abundant in the sea here. “Reduction of oxygen in the Indian ocean and excessive catch involving small fish have been pointed out as reasons behind these changes,” Bijukumar said. Eutrophication caused by nutrients from the coast is yet another problem, he pointed out. Decreasing concentrations of dissolved oxygen makes parts of the Arabian sea near Kerala an oxygen minimum zone. Poorly planned coastal structures such as ports and harbours can kill fish habitats and make fishing riskier, studies show.

A dangerous job

The most severe threat to the fishers comes from changing storm patterns of the Arabian Sea, historically considered safer than the Bay of Bengal on the eastern side of India. The warming of the Arabian Sea contributes to the formation of highly intense tropical cyclones. A 2021 study on tropical cyclones over the north Indian ocean has shown a significant rise in the intensity, frequency, and duration of cyclonic storms (wind over 62 kmph) and very severe cyclonic storms (winds over 112 kmph). In 2017, for instance, Cyclone Ockhi, formed in the southwestern Bay of Bengal, traversed 2500 km and rapidly intensified into a very severe cyclonic storm near the coast of South India, killing 365 fishers caught in the sea. Climate change is expected to increase the risk of cyclones here.

Engaged in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, fishermen face frequent accidents, mostly related to weather, but also due to hits with other vessels and dangerous harbour structures. In the past five years, 345 fishermen have died in the sea off the shores of Kerala, including 145 in Thiruvananthapuram, according to a media report. This list does not include 91 fishers who went missing during Ockhi.

The crew of a 30-foot fibreglass fishing boat with outboard motors, launches its vessel just before heavy rain starts at Karumkulam village, Thiruvananthapuram. Credit: Max Martin/Mongabay

At least 643 accidents involving fishing boats were recorded in Kollam, Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari districts during 2011-2016, and 75% of them involved small, motorised boats. The accident causes included high waves while launching and landing, capsizing, getting thrown overboard and damage to gear when hit by another vessel. An international study shows that in developing countries, fishing accidents occur due to lack of enforceable regulation, small, unseaworthy and dangerous vessels, lack of visibility of small boats, lack of weather information, and the compulsion to fish regardless of weather conditions. Unscientific coastal structures further add to the risk of fishing, experts note.

The harbours that the fishers use instead of local sandy beaches during high shore waves are also turning out to be dangerous spots. In September, four people died when their boat capsized close to a harbour, 10 km north of St Andrews, a spot of several accidents. The coastal waters near Vizhinjam harbour, 27 km to the south, is another risk-prone zone. Two boats engaged in seine fishing were caught in unusual high waves also in September. Sahayaraju Susa Michael in his early 50s, one of the 11 fishermen who survived the accident, said they were caught in unexpected high wind and waves. “Suddenly the wind became ferocious,” he said. The boat in which he was fishing capsized and the five crew members were thrown overboard. “We swam, thinking that if we can live, we will live, or we will die. We swam and swam and we hollered loud.” They were joined by three men from the other boat. “The eight of us swam for an hour and a half. A boat heard our call and rescued us…they had to lift us as our hands and legs were frozen.”

Veteran fisherman Sahayaraju Susa Michael in his early 50s. Credit: Bennet John/Mongabay

Sahayaraju stopped solo raft fishing close to the shore about three years ago as it was not remunerative enough, and he was getting older. His son, Kumar Sahayaraju, a marine biologist and indigenous scientist, said several reef fish species were declining over the past five to ten years, so it is hard for small craft fishers. “There is no fish close to the shore, and the competition is more. It is like the survival of the fittest now. Rafts don’t stand a chance in this competition,” he said.

New challenges

Diversification to offshore fishing is a solution, according to a 2020 study led by Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. KK Baiju, a co-author based at the Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research, Cochin University of Science and Technology, said artisanal fishers need to embrace new technologies, use bigger vessels and venture into deeper waters. “They need adequate training and safety measures and ensure that the fishing is both sustainable and economically viable,” he said. Safety gadgets and reliable weather communication systems are essential, he added. There are takers for this view, and there is a Kerala government move to train and equip groups of fishermen for deep sea fishing.

Coastal fishers gamble in deep sea fishing for the rare bumper catch, Kumar Sahayaraju said. However, a safer and more sustainable alternative for small craft fishers could be mariculture (cultivation of fish and other sea life) and restoration of coastal ecosystems. Local fishers are not experienced in these options, and there is no comprehensive data on local biodiversity, he points out. As he noted in the International Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Studies paper he co-authored: “Accurate studies and conservation measures (Marine Biodiversity register and auditing, marine-protected areas,…marine spatial planning) are needed.” This definitely needs a bottom-up ecosystem planning approach, he commented.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.