Around 15 fishermen from Chinnathurai village in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, gathered near the imposing St. Jude’s church in the village, watching as their friend and colleague Jeevadasan spoke. “In our Chinnathurai village, deep sea fishing is the favourite [occupation]. Before there was any equipment, compass, GPS anything, even in those times, deep sea fishing has been our favourite,” Jeevadasan said. “They say that the best fishermen in the world are from this village.”

Jeevadasan’s pronouncements invited much laughter and ribbing from his friends, but Chinnathurai and seven other villages – Vallavillai, Eraviputhenthurai, Poothurai, Erayumanthurai, Marthandanthurai, Neerodi and Thoothoor – collectively called the Thoothoor mandalam or zone, are known for fishermen that make long oceanic journeys for sura vettai, Tamil for shark fishing.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that until 2018, of the 26 shark-fishing nations in the world, India ranked second in the volume of shark caught annually and contributed about nine per cent to total catch. In 2019, India was the third-largest shark catching nation in the world. But very few of the four million people in India whose livelihood depends on marine fisheries, go looking specifically for shark, explained Divya Karnad, a marine biologist and assistant professor at Ashoka University.

This is what sets Thoothoor apart. Fishermen in the area have at least six decades of experience in specialised shark fishing and a history of constantly adapting to changing conditions. While scientists caution that shark populations are dwindling and a collapse in the fisheries is imminent, the fishermen of Thoothoor believe their practices and techniques hold lessons for sustainable shark fisheries across India and the world. The community is urging policymakers to engage with them on ways to ensure shark fishing can continue in a sustainable manner.

Sharks being unloaded at a shark processing unit in Thoothoor. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

Shark fishing in Thoothoor

Asked about the history of shark fishing in the region, Jeevadasan recalled what it was like for fishermen a generation earlier. “Sixty-two years ago, they would go 16 kilometres beyond the coast and catch shark. Shark would be found that close to the shore,” he said.

A 2017 study by researchers from the Central Institute of Fisheries Education in Kochi, noted that in the 1940s, Thoothoor fishermen would go out in catamarans – small, wooden boats with no motors – with a single hook and line to catch shark.

“Year after year, the sizes of the catamarans and hooks are changed and they started to migrate from Thoothoor area to other places,” said Vincent Jain, head of the Association for Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen , a traditional long-distance fishers community based in Thoothoor.

By the 1960s, Thoothoor fishermen were heading out in catamarans outfitted with sails and a combination of hooks and lines and gill nets to catch shark off the Kanyakumari and Kerala coast, Titto D’Cruz, a researcher and activist based in Thiruvananthapuram, wrote in a 2004 report on the evolution of artisanal deep sea fisheries in India.

With sails attached to the catamarans, the fishermen could go farther out to sea, fishing at depths of 60 to 70 metres. “Soon they realised that shark were migratory in nature and [were] available all along the West Coast,” wrote D’Cruz. But catamarans could not stay out at sea for several days so Thoothoor fishermen started buying second-hand mechanised boats to travel along the coastline of the country.

Longliners docked until their next voyage in Thoothoor. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

Shark found in deeper waters are typically a different species from those found in nearshore habitats. Coastal shark are usually smaller or juveniles of large deep-sea shark and are valued in the domestic market for their meat, especially in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Milk shark, for instance, are in high demand in Tamil Nadu, where they are believed to be an important dietary supplement for pregnant women.

Deep-sea shark are also sold for their meat, but it’s the livers, which were valued for their oil in the pharmaceutical market until around 2011, and their fins, a delicacy in China and southeast Asia, that has driven demand for these species.

By the 1980s, most shark fishermen were using mechanised boats with longlines, a type of fishing line distinguished by a main line that floats horizontally in the water with lines dangling vertically from it, each of which has a baited hook to catch large, deep-sea fish like shark, swordfish, marlin and tuna. With these new boats and longlines, Thoothoor’s shark fishermen were able to fish across the coast of India.

“We would start from Cochin harbour and go maybe 500-600 nautical miles near the coast of Gujarat, close to the border,” said Jobu Sataryappan, who fished for shark for 12 years, between 1996 and 2008, but stopped due to back problems.

Thoothoor’s fishermen have also gone towards the Bay of Bengal, where Jose Bilbin, president of the Thoothoor Fishermen’s Co-operative Society, said the waters “near West Bengal, Andhra, especially Kakinada and the Andaman Islands have a lot of shark.”

Longlining is a fishing technique where a horizontal main line floats horizontally with vertical lines dangling from it, each of which has a baited hook. Graphic by Good Fish Bad Fish.

Changing tides

Fishing so close to home is a luxury nowadays. When Alphonse Adimai from Vallavillai village started fishing 16 years ago, most of his fishing trips were to the Lakshadweep islands. That was a journey of around 200 nautical miles. Today he travels into international waters close to the border of the Kingdom of Oman.

“Lakshadweep does not have as much [shark] anymore,” Alphonse said. “As the fish have [declined], we have started going towards those areas.” Jeevadasan used to fish off the Andaman Islands but says he is traveling even further out into the Indian Ocean today. “Oman is close for us,” he said. “We go even [further] towards Mauritius, the African continent.”

Several other fishers reported fishing in international waters near the Maldives and Seychelles, Somalia and, according to Jeevadasan, even Australia. A 2018 IUCN assessment of shark populations in the Arabian Sea, used data from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute to suggest that shark populations were declining along India’s west coast. According to the CMFRI figures, between 1985 and 1998, shark landings – meaning volume caught – fluctuated between 33,112 tonnes and 47,207 tonnes. In 2004, 35,215 tonnes of shark were landed across India. But landings have not hit that height since. In 2018, landings were down to 21,138 tonnes. In 1985, shark formed 3.43 per cent of the total marine fish catch in India, but by 2013 shark proportions fell to 1.23 percent of the catch.

A shark on display at the fish market. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

Shark landings on decline

Most fishermen agree that shark catches are declining, but they don’t all agree on the reasons. “People are leaving shark fishing and catching tuna because now tuna fetches a better price,” said Jobu. “And you get more tuna than shark so that’s why you see less shark being landed.”

Fishermen believe the reason for shark prices falling is because in 2015 the Ministry of Commerce banned the most lucrative export of the trade: the export of shark fins. Jobu also believes that shark populations have fallen much more in nearshore habitats as the numbers of small fish have dwindled. “The shark are going into deeper waters chasing after better prey. We are following them into deeper waters,” he concluded.

Shoba Joe Khizhakudan, a scientist specialising in studying shark fisheries at CMFRI, stressed that population trends were not based on only landing data but comprised a combination of studies. “We assess the shark from their biological traits, their reproductive potential, the numbers that are landed and the size of the shark that are landed,” he said.

By combining landing and biological data, CMFRI determined that shark stocks were declining in states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. In Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in the Bay of Bengal, CMFRI suggests that stocks were already depleted. In Gujarat, the researchers estimate that shark stocks were still abundant.

What worries scientists like Khizhakudan is that compared to other species of fish, most shark are slow to mature and have low reproductive rates, which means shark populations can’t make an easy recovery if they collapse.

Fishing in murky waters

Jobu believes that factors other than overfishing, such as industrial pollution, especially in Tamil Nadu, are being ignored as a threat to shark populations.“If you go towards Thoothukudi and see, the water is yellow with chemical waste near the shore. No fish will survive in that,” he said.

Karnad agrees. Juveniles of several fish species, including deep-sea shark, congregate in waters close to the shore in what are called nurseries, which are typically in estuaries at the mouth of a river.

“And we know how polluted our rivers are in India,” Karnad said. “So, to then say that the only cause of this kind of decline is overfishing is a bit naïve,” she added. But Karnad also believes that observing ecosystem changes could help identify the role fishing plays in shark decline, citing examples of areas like Lakshadweep where industrial pollution had not been an issue.

“For instance, people from Nature Conservation Foundation have recorded these huge explosions in green sea turtle numbers in the Lakshadweep. And one of the theories about that is that it’s because the large shark have disappeared, which used to be able to eat the sea turtles,” she pointed out.

Trawling to blame

Many of Thoothoor’s fishermen blame the decline in shark populations on harmful fishing practices like trawling. Trawl fishing is a fishing method where a large funnel shaped net is dragged across the sea floor or in some cases the mid-water column. Trawl nets can be especially indiscriminate, scooping up fish of all sizes and when dragged across the sea floor destroying sea-beds and coral reefs.

Trawl fishing is a fishing method where a large funnel-shaped net is dragged across the sea floor or the mid-water column. This method results in large by-catch and damages the seabed as well. Graphic by Good Fish Bad Fish.

“All over India that is what they are using for fishing. The main reason for fish being wiped out is this trawl fishing,” said Jobu. “They smash coral boulders, they hit small rocks. This creates a situation where no fish can survive. “And if you have these methods that are removing the young ones from the ecosystem that is likely to have the greatest impact on future shark populations,” said Karnad.

The impact of trawl fishing is well documented, including in regions like the Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu, where it is linked to a near collapse in fisheries. This is all the more worrying since trawl fishing is responsible for most of the shark landed in India, especially in regions where CMFRI believes shark stocks have already been depleted. In Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, trawl nets contributed to 60.4 per cent of all shark landings. Gill nets, a single wall of netting hung in the water to trap fish, contributed 36.6 per cent and longlines 1.1 percent.

A similar trend exists in Andhra Pradesh, where trawling was responsible for 52.8 per cent of shark catches, gill nets accounted for 32.4 per cent of shark catch while longlining contributed 14.6 percent. In Odisha, longlining contributed to a substantially higher shark catch of 42.2 per cent but trawling still contributed to 51 per cent of the catch.

The solution: Switch to longlining

The solution, according to Thoothoor fishermen, is simple: Reduce or stop trawling entirely and the fisheries will survive. For shark and other deep-sea fisheries, the fishermen suggest adopting longlines like them. “With longlines, fish will never die out. There is no danger to corals. There is no inconvenience to juvenile fish,” said Jobu. “That is why we have used this method traditionally and that is why this region has managed to prosper. If, like other countries, we use big ships and nets, fish will be wiped out.”

Longlines seem to be generally viewed favourably by government agencies. Although the government has no special support for shark fishing in India, the National Fisheries Development Board has been introducing schemes to encourage trawl fishermen to switch to tuna longlining in India under the Blue Revolution programme.

Under the scheme, fishermen can claim up to Rs 1.5 million to convert trawling vessels to deep sea fishing boats with longlines or gill nets and avail training from the NFDB. The aim, according to G. Rathinraj, the Executive Director of technology, at the NFDB, is to “gradually phase out trawl fishing operations and conserve fishery resources only.”

It’s worth noting, however, that there is not enough research to suggest that longline fishing is likely to sustain shark populations. A 2015 study by the Centre For Marine Living Resources and Ecology in Cochin suggests that longlines used for tuna fisheries resulted in substantial shark bycatch. Thoothoor fishermen agree with this but say that the reverse is rare. Longlines set out for shark fisheries do not result in bycatch of other species.

Another study by the same researchers found that changing the hook design can reduce the mortality rate of bycatch, meaning a higher likelihood that unwanted fish, such as juveniles, could be released and survive. And a study from the Strait of Gibraltar showed that depending on the hook size, longlines can be more selective, targeting only adult shark and avoiding juveniles.

Thoothoor’s fishermen believe Indian fishermen should adopt their practices and methods for sustainable management of shark fisheries. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

What sets Thoothoor apart

But longlining as practiced by the Thoothoor fishermen is different from commercial longlines prevalent in countries like the United States and Japan in some aspects. Thoothoor’s longline fleets are what the Food and Agricultural Organisation classifies as small to medium scale longliners. Unlike commercial longlines that are hauled by a machine, in Thoothoor, Alphonse and his crew of ten people manually set and pull out a 50 km longline.

“We start around 5 p.m. and it takes about four hours to put out a line. We start pulling it out around 2 a.m. and by 9:30 a.m. we pull it all into the boat. That’s all done by hand. There are no machines involved. It takes two people to pull five kilometres of line,” he explained. Because of the physical effort, D’Cruz suggested that the number of shark caught in longlines operated by Thoothoor fishermen would always be less compared to industrial longlines.

But can fishermen adopting new technologies still be considered artisanal or traditional? D’Cruz believes so. The researcher’s study pointed out even though the fishermen started using mechanised boats to travel further out to sea, they relied on traditional knowledge of older fishermen to identify good shark fishing grounds and find them again.

“They know about shark fishing grounds, they know about the seasonality, they know about the different stages, when to catch shark, when not to catch [because of] … breeding and all that. And they have specialised hooks,” said Khizhakudan.

“If we want to catch seer fish, we use that specific hook, [and a] specific hook for shark,” Jose said. Jose said Thoothoor fishermen would be willing to train trawl fishers in longline fishing methods, pointing out the acute labour shortage the region was currently facing. “We don’t have men for fishing. Let them come here. We can train them. Why shouldn’t government facilitate this between states?” He also encouraged both researchers and officials to substantiate his claims by fishing like Thoothoor fishermen. “They should go fishing with us,” he said. “They should spend 45 days at sea, fishing like us and learn about these ways.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.