On Wednesday, M Murugan examined the remains of his electric blue fishing net, which had become a dark mess of oil-soaked thread. The nets were useless now, said the fisherman, casting them aside as he sat down on the edge of his grease-stained boat.

It had been four days since the most of Chennai’s small fishermen had ventured out into the sea to fish. “Everybody is scared that the oil will ruin their nets,” said Murugan, who lives in a small hamlet in North Chennai called Palagai Thotti Kuppam. “Nobody wants to take the risk.”

On early Saturday morning, two cargo ships collided outside Tamil Nadu’s Kamarajar Port in North Chennai, causing an oil spill that has now spread upto 35 km to the south along the coast. One ship, MT BW Maple, carried liquefied petroleum gas. The other, MT Dawn Kanchipuram, carried petroleum oil lubricants, up to 20 tonnes of which reportedly spilled into the sea. The port authorities had initially released a statement saying that “there was no damage to the environment like oil pollution”. But the black, viscous waves that have been lashing the shore for the past four days belie these claims.

“The accident happened two nautical miles from the shore, but the wind has been carrying the oil to the shore,” said K Bharathi, the vice-president of Mylai Nochikuppam Fishermen’s Cooperative Society. “In some places it is difficult to even breathe because there is so much oil. “

Oil gathered by the breakwater in Tiruvottriyur, Chennai.

Oil-choked coast

One such place considered among the worst-affected by the oil spill is Ramakrishna Nagar Kuppam Beach in Tiruvottriyur. Officials of Kamarajar port had gathered at the rocky shore taking down notes of the damage caused by the oil in the area. By their side stood a row of large plastic drums containing a thick black greasy substance. Along the slick-ridden rocks were some black buckets which had been used by port and corporation employees to collect the substance from the water.

The entire coast of Thiruvottriyur in North Chennai was lined with breakwaters – long rocky projections installed to prevent coastal erosion. After the oil spill, as the wind carried the grease southwards, the northern side of each of these projections had collected the oil.

The fishermen of Ramakrishna Nagar and Palagai Thotti Kuppam have shifted all their boats to the southern side of the breakwaters to lessen the chances of their equipment gathering a coat of oil.

“We are now planning to go out further into sea to avoid the oil,” said B Vel, another fisherman. “But the problem is, nobody is buying our fish. Yesterday, the market was empty.”

Drums filled with oil collected from the sea.

Empty fish market

It was empty on Wednesday as well. At the fish market of Palagai Thotti Kuppam, dozens of fisherwomen sat under the straw shacks fanning their fish to shoo away flies. Business had been poor at the market for the previous five days. “All our regular customers are telling us that they cannot buy the fish because it is poisonous,” said R Tamilselvi, one of the fisherwomen. “The market is usually never this empty.”

Tamilselvi and the other fisherfolk insisted that no harm would come to the fish since they were caught around 20-40 km off the shore. “The waves have brought the oil to the shore, where we don’t usually fish,” she said.. “We at this fishing village eat this same fish everyday, but we are not having any ailments. Media has been spreading messages about the fish being dangerous to eat now, so we have no buyers.”

An empty fish market at Palagai Thotti Kuppam.

Consequently, the price of the fish has also dropped. “What we were selling for Rs 500 does not have any buyers even when we reduce the price to Rs 250,” said S Anita, fish seller at Marina Beach. “They are listening to wrong information in the media and refusing to buy fish. But the quality of the fish and the oil have no connection.”

Bharati explained that the fishing boats would have to go further into the sea to catch fish anyway, because that is where they are found in abundance. Mechanised boats travelled towards Andhra Pradesh, north of the oil spill, so the fish would not be affected there either. “The Fisheries department has taken samples of the fish to test for contamination,” said Bharati. “They will soon come out with a statement, which will mostly be positive news about the quality for the fish.”

But many fishermen and ecologists foresee a long term impact of this oil spill on the growth of fish. Bharati said that fish usually swim to the river mouth during the breeding season, lay eggs where the fresh water and salt water meet. “Now that oil has gathered in these areas, the breeding of fish will be affected,” said Bharathi. “We will know if there is a decline in the number of fish only in a few months.”

Unsold fish at the fishmarket.