In the backdrop of the mild sound of waves lashing against their boats and mechanised vessels berthed in Tharuvaikulam wharf, fishers were busy mending their nets in a shed. The fishing ban had just ended and those who had repaired their nets at home were seen bringing them back. These are typical scenes in fishing villages.

However, the difference here is that Tharuvaikulam, in Thoothukudi – formerly Tuticorin – district in Tamil Nadu, is not a traditional fishing village.

“All the fishermen here belong to the community of palmyra tree climbers,” said 54-year-old Anthony Duraiswamy. “I used to climb till I was in my mid-20s, then I switched to fishing.” These men used to tap padhaneer, the sap from palmyra inflorescence and toddy, the fermented sap. Today, the palmyra climbers have become resource-conscious sustainable fishermen.

“There were no fishermen in Tharuvaikulam 50 years ago,” said Vinoth Ravindran, the state coordinator of NETFISH, the extension wing of Marine Products Export Development Authority. Most people here were into tapping toddy and some into farming.

The older men and women here recall the panankaadu or palmyra grove close to the shore. Further from the shore stretched acres of palmyra trees. “They were so close that we could hop from one tree to another,” recalled Francis M.

Fishermen bringing back the nets they had repaired at home. Credit: Jency Samuel/Mongabay

“My father and two older brothers did only work related to palmyra trees,” said Anthony Rajan J, 50, who now fishes with his younger brother. The men used to climb palmyra trees not only in Tharuvaikulam, but also in places such as Vilathikulam and Sayalkudi, about 50 km away. This kept them busy for about eight months a year. Rest of the year, they took up other jobs such as coral-mining.

The transition

Francis and Anthoniyar Pitchai, middle-aged fishermen, recall some men in the older generation mining corals. “Initially, only about 20 men set out for coral mining,” said Anthony Duraiswamy. “As it was found to be lucrative, slowly more men started joining them.”

There were corals in abundance near the 21 uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Mannar. The palmyra climbers who ventured out into the sea to mine corals used challi odam, a small country boat. “The challi or corals, a rich source of calcium carbonate, was used in the lime industry and was transported to the kilns in Theresepuram near Thoothukudi,” said Vinoth Ravindran. This was how the palmyra climbers here ventured into the sea first.

“About 40 years ago, a few people fished in pairs near the shore using ola and kuthu nets as there was fish in abundance here,” said Francis. “It was mostly for their consumption.” They sold only when the catch was more than what they needed.

When they were free, some of the palmyra climbers started working in boats in Thoothukudi, about 25 km away. The men recall a season of drought and the palmyra trees slowly dying out. Then in 1987 came the state government’s ban on toddy tapping and all the tappers started working in the boats of Thoothukudi.

Sole livelihood

“Some people think that we tap padhaneer for most of the year and fish the rest of the time,” said Vijay K. “Take a look at the number of boats here and decide for yourself. I still like to climb. But I climb only to get nungu [palmyra fruit].”

According to Vijay, 80% of the men in his village can still climb the palmyra tree. “But there’s more money in fishing,” said Vijay with a grin. Except for a few from the younger generation who took up jobs such as teaching, driving and the like, the rest are fishermen.

Their statement is reflected in a sample study on fishers’ livelihoods carried out by the Fisheries College and Research Institute, Thoothukudi in 2017. As per Census 2011, Tharuvaikulam has 1,743 households. According to the study, in Tharuvaikulam, 88% of the people are dependent solely on fishing for livelihood and the remaining 12% depend partially on it.

With fishing becoming their sole livelihood, the people here became conscious of the need for resource conservation. While the initial push to quit coral mining had come because of the ban in 2001, the decision to refrain from destructive fishing practices was their own.

Initially, having no boats of their own, the men from Tharuvaikulam worked in boats owned by fishermen in Thoothukudi. The fishermen of Thoothukudi are from a traditional fishing community, and some misunderstanding cropped on communal lines between the two groups after both the communities fielded a candidate for an election.

Deep-sea vessels being repaired during the annual fishing ban period. Credit: Jency Samuel/Mongabay

“More than 250 of us were working in Thoothukudi then, and we quit,” recalled Rajan. According to Sundaramoorthy B, dean-in-charge of Dr MGR Fisheries College and Research Institute, Thalainayiru, a few of them then bought old boats and started fishing from Tharuvaikulam. “That happened 20-odd years ago,” recollected Vijay.

The awakening

When these fishermen were working in Thoothukudi, most of them were employed in vessels that had trawl nets. “When we trawled, we could see coral reefs like koppai [cup corals] and viral [branching corals] getting overturned,” said Francis.

By then, these fishermen were better informed. They had also observed a decline in the population of fish. “The fishes lay eggs and breed among corals,” added Francis. “The corals are their houses. We realised that we were destroying their houses.” They also figured out that the remaining corals had saved their villages when the tsunami struck in 2004.

They had also observed that the trawl nets were damaging the other nets that were cast for catching crabs, squids and other marine animals. When they trawled near other villages, the fishermen there came out against the practice. “The elders felt that we should not earn at the cost of others,” recalled Francis.

The elders then convened a meeting and decided to use only gill nets, which they knew would not damage nets and corals. The boats used by those who did not adhere to the decision to use only gill nets were confiscated. Soon everyone came around and today the villagers use only gill nets.

Sustainable fishing

Unlike trawling, gillnetting is a sustainable method of fishing, according to Velvizhi, principal scientist at the Poompuhar centre of MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. “The fish get caught in the net by their gills,” she said. “The size of the mesh differs according to the fish being targeted. This helps juveniles to pass through without getting caught in the net.” In gillnetting, the bycatch is also minimal, thus reducing the environmental impact.

“Gill net is a wall of netting placed in a water column,” said Sundaramoorthy. “Fish that try to cross the net are caught. So, it’s passive fishing. Trawling is active fishing because you chase the fish and catch them.” Hence, resources close to the seabed are not disturbed.

The loss of palmyra trees to drought and the ban on toddy tapping led to the men in Tharuvaikulam venturing into the sea to make a living. Now they climb these trees only occasionally, to tap padhaneer for their own use. Credit: Kevin Samuel/Mongabay

According to Sundaramoorthy, gillnetting is also eco-friendly, as “you need more energy to operate a trawler”.

The income earned from using a trawl net or a gill net is the same, said Thommai A, 51. “The fishermen using trawl nets have become habituated to that, so they don’t want to give it up,” he added, recounting instances of some fishermen from Tharuvaikulam operating their trawlers from Thoothukudi and running into debts. “One of them came back, switched to gill nets and then earned enough money to clear his debts and get his daughters married,” he said.

Their earnings vary according to the season, the area they operate in and other factors. However, the income from gillnetting is generally as good or even better than what they can earn through trawling, they say. A year-long study on the economic efficiency of mechanised fishing in Chennai, conducted in 2012 by scientists in the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, substantiates these fishermen’s views. According to the study, the gillnetters had, per day, an average gross income of Rs 25,046 while the trawlers made Rs 21,910.

The study also showed that multi-day fishing gillnetters need 295 litres of diesel to catch one tonne of fish while multi-day trawlers consume 513 litres to accomplish the same job. “This is because the boats with gill nets need power only to reach the fishing ground whereas trawlers need power to reach the destination as well as to catch fish,” explained Sundaramoorthy.

“As biologists, we are concerned about the standing stock of fish,” said Sundaramoorthy. “Any biological system depends on the stock and how much we extract. Using fishing gear and a method that is biologically and economically beneficial for the fishing community as well as nature is the need of the hour, and the fishermen in Tharuvaikulam are the best examples for this.”

It is for this reason he recommends that Tharuvaikulam be considered a model village.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.