Until just a few years ago, PK Rajesh earned up to Rs 2,000 a day selling the valued pearl spot fish that he caught from the Ashtamudi lake in Kerala’s Kollam. Now, he barely makes Rs 500. The reason: illegal fishing has decimated the lake’s fish stocks.

“I got only a handful of fish after spending five hours on the lake,” Rajesh, 40, who lives in Thekkumbahgam gram panchayat, said on May 19. “I don’t know any work other than fishing. How will I live if the fish stock continues to dwindle?”

About 400 km north in Kannur, A Vijayan shares Rajesh’s worry. He has been fishing in the Kattampally river for as long as he can remember, Vijayan said, and he always returned with a rich catch of prawns, mullets and clams. Until, that is, around half a decade ago. “Illegal fishing with stake nets has destroyed all stocks in the river now,” he lamented.

Stake nets are seine nets with the smallest mesh size. They are tied to wooden frames fixed in the water and trap all the fish that are washed in when the tide is on the ebb. They can even catch juvenile fish weighing less than two grams. “If allowed to grow, such fish will weigh 100 grams,” Vijayan said. “By sweeping up everything from the river, stake net owners are depriving us of our livelihood.”

Surveys conducted over the years have noted an alarming decline in the fish stocks of Kerala’s inland water bodies – backwaters, brackish waters, estuaries, rivers – mostly because of illegal fishing, overfishing, area shrinkage, pollution, barrage construction and the destruction of mangroves.

To arrest the decline and protect the inland ecosystem, the fisheries department now plans to amend the Kerala Inland Fisheries and Aqua Culture Act of 2010. “The government aims to bring timely changes to the existing law to steer the growth of inland fisheries,” said Ignatious Mandro, the joint director of the fisheries department. The legislation is expected to be introduced in the Assembly within four months.

The coastal state depends heavily on inland and marine fisheries for employment and revenue. According to the State Economic Review of 2018, fisheries and aquaculture contribute 9.2% of the Gross Value Added from the primary sector. While the inland fishing sector employs 2.38 lakh people, the marine sector provides work to 7.96 lakh people.

A stake net that is used in the Kattampally river. Photo by special arrangement

Illegal fishing

A key reason for the depletion of fish stocks is overfishing and illegal fishing. “Use of fixed nets with small mesh sizes like Chinese stake nets poses the biggest threat to fish population of Kerala,” said Mandro. “Such nets are being heavily used to trap juvenile fish.”

The fisheries department has not issued licences for fixed nets since the 1980s, yet they continue to be used, widely and illegally.

Sanjeev Ghosh, former additional director for fisheries, argued that apart from the nets, “changing fishing methods have contributed to the depletion of fish resources”. “Inland fishers have adopted marine pelagic fishing methods causing heavy damage to the inland ecosystem,” he said.

In Kannur, fisherfolk have been protesting against the use of some 40 stake nets in the Kattampally for over a year, claiming the illegal nets have destroyed the river’s ecosystem and deprived traditional fisherfolk of their livelihood.

“Stake nets catch juvenile prawns, clams and every other fish species from our river,” said CP Abdul Rahman, a local fisherman. “If they continue using stake nets, we will see the death of our beloved river.”

The protesting fisherfolk even submitted a memorandum to the fisheries department, Rahman said, but to no avail. “We now have no option but to move the courts to save our river and fish,” he added.

Fisheries officials agreed that illegal stake nets are being widely used across Kannur, Ernakulam and Alappuzha. “We will soon remove all stake nets from the Kattampally river,” claimed M Sreekandan, deputy director, fisheries. “The nets are destroying the fisheries wealth.”

Shrinking lakes

Kerala must also deal with the shrinkage of lakes and rivers to check the decline in fish stocks, experts said. The state’s water bodies are shrinking as land is reclaimed for development work.

Vembanad, Kerala’s largest lake, for one, lost 12.28 sq km between 1972 and 2015. Its depth too has decreased from sedimentation, reducing the water holding capacity by about 40%, said Mandro. “The lake could easily have absorbed the floodwaters had there been no shrinkage in volume,” he added, referring to the floods that wreaked havoc in Kerala last August. “It would have averted a major calamity.”

Stake nets being tied to wooden frames in the Kattampally river, Kannur. Photo by special arrangement

Pollution, barrages

The proposed changes to the Kerala Inland Fisheries and Aqua Culture Act need to address pollution, destruction of mangroves and barrage construction as well. The state’s water bodies are heavily contaminated by pesticides and industrial effluents.

To prepare the fields for rice cultivation after the monsoon, water is usually pumped out into the backwaters, contaminating them with fertilizer and pesticide residues.

Though Kerala’s industrial units are required to have effluent treatment plants, many of them pump their waste into backwaters and lakes as well, said Mandro. “Industrial pollutants kill fish,” he added. “We have to take strict action against those who pollute our lakes and backwaters.”

The first fish surveys in 1979 and 1984 documented over 150 fish species in the Vembanad lake. By the time the Ashoka Trust for Ecology and the Environment carried out another survey between 2008 and 2011, there were only 71 species.

For this, experts primarily blame the Thanneermukkom barrage, constructed in the 1970s to reduce the lake’s salinity.

The barrage altered the very ecology of the lake, said Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan, a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust. “Many freshwater species require some salinity for breeding. Some marine species, like shrimps, require freshwater for breeding,” he explained to Current Conversation. “The barrage poses problems for such animals. It has also caused another problem: saline water helps flush the lake, keep it clean and prevent excess nutrients accumulating in it. Since the barrage came up, this flushing happens less frequently.”

The fisheries department should also ensure the protection of mangroves to preserve and replenish Kerala’s inland fish stocks. “Mangroves should get a pride of place in the proposed amendments as they are the ‘birthing places’ of fish,” observed Ghosh.

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