Home--Issues--Energy and Climate Change

Fishing in Troubled Waters

The Impact of Climate Change on Fishing Communities

By Lalitha Sridhar
India Resource Center
October 24, 2002

Unloading fresh catch from the
kattumaram at Mahabalipuram.
 Photo: Documentation Centre of ICSF

CHENNAI-- They call it a second summer in a city that knows little else. As temperatures soar and October burns in Chennai, in the Southern fringes of the Uroor Olcott kuppam (fishing village) in Tamil Nadu the sea looks deceptively unchanged in its expanse.

The centuries-old fishworking community knows otherwise. Catch is dwindling and even fisherfolk like Kathir, 32, who possess motorized boats, would rather not indulge in fuel and futility. Instead, like so many of his kin, he prefers to take up a job as a watchman for Rs 1,500 a month (about US$30). Witnesses to the 'development' which has altered the very face of their neighborhood with its apartment complexes and luxury cars, men like Shekhar, 40, are visibly bitter, "The government spent hundreds of thousands on the beautification of the beach. It is only for people who come in cars for morning walks. We have no roads or electricity. I hate my life. It is not like my grandfather's time. Nothing is the same anymore -- even the fish are gone."

Driven by desperation to find elusive catch, they brave November winds in their traditional kattumarams (catamarans). India's most skilled artisanal fishermen are from Kanyakumari district, famous for their felicity with the hook-and-line, longlines and deep-sea fishing for sharks. Untouched by the mechanics of hydrocarbon-driven industrialization, artisanal fisherfolk across coastal communities take the full blast of the impact of climate change.

The UN WRI's (World Resources Index) 1998 figures peg the Indian Ocean sector as the most densely populated coastal region in the world, with 135 persons per square kilometer. Large populations along these coastlines depend on fishing for their livelihood and nutrition. In Southern India's Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, 200,000 people -- a third of the population -- earn their living directly from the sea.

According to R.Ramesh, R.Purvaja and S.Ramachandran, scientists at the Institute for Ocean Management, Anna University, Chennai, greenhouse gas emissions are depleting the ozone layer to the extent that we have 7 percent more UV radiation now than we did less than 10 years ago. A study by Dr. Herman Cesar, Institute of Environmental Studies, Free University, The Netherlands, revealed that between February to June in 1998, surface water temperatures in the Indian Ocean was reportedly 4 to 6 degrees centigrade above normal for an extended period of time. Fish catches worldwide plummeted in 1998 due to the El Nino Southern Oscillation which, exacerbated by global warming, lasted for over 18 months. Fishmeal production fell by 10 million tons -- about 10 percent of the global fish catch -- and entire species such as horse mackerel, mackerel and hake were acutely scarce.

In 1998, El Nino caused massive coral bleaching, even in hitherto untouched atolls of the central Indian Ocean. Besides worsening the effects of over-fishing, increasing the levels of toxicity in fish species and seriously undermining natural coral reef barriers to seasonal cyclones, bleaching directly impacts 90 percent of the traditional artisanal fishing communities which rely on harvesting near shore reef-related fisheries and seaweed resources.

According to Dr. Cesar, fish productivity may further drop as the reef structure disintegrates, resulting in reduced catches, less protein in the diet, particularly for coastal communities, lower health status and possible starvation, particularly among the poorer segments of the community. While more research is required to better assess the damage to the communities and economies around the Indian Ocean, there is no doubt that fisherfolk could experience a major loss of income and reduced ability to purchase other food.

That rapid climate change is impacting food security has been apparent for several years. An India country study by the Tata Energy Research Institute and the Ministry of Environment and Forests published in 1995 projected that a 1 metre sea level rise could put as many as 7.1 million people -- including all coastal fishing communities whose livelihood is directly linked to the ocean -- at risk of displacement. Yet, climate change is not a priority area of research in this country, even though several global studies name India among the nations that are particularly vulnerable. There are only eight scientists from India on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which advises the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as opposed to 227 from the United States.

Meanwhile, fisherman Anbazhagan, 65, of the Uroor kuppam, finds five generations of a family occupation suddenly unsustainable. The reasons he ascribes are valid but one-dimensional, "It is because of all the deep water mechanized boat trawling. Politicians come and promise everything but they never return -- they don't like the stench of fish." Anbazhagan and his community are paying for the privileges they will never see. And as always, women are the hardest hit. Tamil Nadu, the only state in India which has given significant importance to womens work in fisheries, started the first Fisherwomen Extension Service back in 1979 and within a decade, a chain of 36 women's cooperatives were operational with around 4,500 fisherwomen members.

Women, who are involved in drying, curing, vending and auctioning fish are often the most invisible amongst the marginalized. As Aleyamma Vijayan, Nalini Nayak and Mercy Alexander under the ambit of the National Fishworkers Forum point out, "As fisheries resources are increasingly threatened, the task of women gets more and more difficult. This not only relates to problems of access to fish, but also access to credit, marketing and basic livelihood infrastructure at the village level. Dr. Cesar's study estimates a loss of US$260 million at net present values to largely artisanal fisheries, over a period of 20 years, based on the admittedly optimistic assumption that the damage to the reefs is not too bad and the recovery will be relatively rapid.

An example of the damage caused, as well as potential research-enabled corrective measures, is the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve (GMMBR). A study by the Dr.M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation reveals that the Biosphere is home to more than 42 of the 365 species of phytoplankton catalogued from India. As a sanctuary for rich marine diversity it includes 20 islands extending from Mandapam to Tuticorin over a 140-kilometer stretch of coastline. Commercial exploitation of coral reefs and large-scale removal of mangrove vegetation is leading to dwindling fish harvests from the Gulf of Mannar. This region historically maintained production that was significantly higher than the national average.

Yet, 70 percent of the working population involved in direct fishing and 21 percent in fishing related activities live in huts along the sandy beaches with literacy rates of 31 percent much lower than the Tamil Nadu state average of 64 percent. Despite depending on a particularly fertile marine region, home to some of the richest mangroves of the Indian subcontinent, 40 percent of the fisherfolk are in debt. Whether the damage caused by large-scale exploitation can be controlled through ecologically sound intervention, as is being attempted here by the Foundation, only time will tell. Mangroves are critical bio-systems which grow in inter-tidal regions and act as a primary nursery area for a number of commercially important shrimp, snappers, crab, penaeid prawns, sea perch, catfish and clams. They are also the breeding ground for other species like angiospermic flora, flagellates, phytoplankton, seaweeds, seagrasses, sponges, corals and benthic algae which sustain the oceanic food chain.

Studies indicate that global warming and rising sea levels have significantly shrunk mangrove areas, as has already happened to devastating effect in the low island countries of the Western Pacific. The UNESCO, UNEP and other UN agencies are now establishing a series of marine reserves to study the impact of global climate change on mangroves. It remains to be seen whether the fishing communities in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere hurling towards its own destruction, will be able to live and tell us their story.

Much-needed interventions have to be holistic. Says Dr. Nagendran of the Centre for Environmental Studies, Anna University, "Integrated Coastal Area Management (ICAM) offers a means of balancing the competing demands of different users of the same resources. It is essential to overcome the sectoral and intergovernmental fragmentation that characterizes todays coastal management. Planning in coastal areas has to take account of the specific features of small-scale and artisanal fisheries, including the risk of over-exploitation by 'last resort' fishers -- poor people with no other source of livelihood."

Activist T.S.S. Mani, who has been working with the fisherfolk of the Nochchikuppam commune concurs, "Climate change has a direct and terrible effect on the livelihood of coastal fishworkers. They rate amongst the poorest of the poor but their concerns are completely marginalized. Even research organizations treat them as incidental to their ecological focus. Although they may not understand global warming and greenhouse emissions, their traditional knowledge of the oceans, fine-tuned over centuries, should be providing key insights. But artisanal fishworkers have become victims of development instead of being participants to the process."

Lalitha Sridhar is a freelance journalist based in Chennai.

Updated: 11/28/2003

Climate Justice Summit Image Gallery

Delhi Climate Justice Declaration

A Human Face to a Human Problem: Climate Justice Summit

Climate Justice Summit Program

>>  More Stories

Updated: 11/28/2003

Sudan: Oil Companies Complicit in Rights Abuses

GE, Bechtel Take Indian Government to Court

ONGC Videsh Buys Stake in Oil Blocks in Sudan

Enron Used U.S. Government to Bully Developing Nations

>>  More News



Home | About | How to Use this Site | Sitemap | Privacy Policy

India Resource Center (IRC) is a project of Global Resistance -- "Building Global Links for Justice"
URL: http://www.IndiaResource.org Email:IndiaResource (AT) igc.org