Global Ambassadors (India): Adapting to an uncertain future - the fishing community of Vizhinjam.

By our Global Ambassador Cassidy FitzClarence

Less than one kilometre from the popular international tourist destination of Kovalam lies the old fishing harbour of Vizhinjam. The people of Vizhinam have relied on fishing for subsistence, income, trade, employment and survival for as long as anyone can remember. These fishing communities are also some of the poorest in a densely populated coastal fringe that suffers from a lack of infrastructure, open sewage systems and limited running water...

At present these communities are facing unprecedented changes to the world that they have known for generations. The fish species they have become so used to catching are vanishing or declining rapidly, their traditional fishing grounds are becoming increasingly polluted and the waters they have traditionally fished undisturbed are becoming overcrowded with larger modernised international fishing operations. The fisherman of Vizhinjam are incredibly aware of the importance of a clean and abundant ocean for their survival, yet their lack of financial security and limited fisheries management strategies means that their industry and the marine life they rely on are facing an uncertain future.

As the sun rises over the neighbouring Muslim and Christian fishing communities of Vizhinjam, the ancient interplay between fisherman, trader and buyer unfolds. Around 250 traditional timber boats with single outboard motors return home or leave for fishing expeditions through this harbour every day. The sandy shores of the harbour are a flurry of activity at all times of day as buyers and auctioneers survey the hauls. The most common buyers are women from the Vizhinjam community who set up makeshift markets every day despite seasonal changes or prevailing weather conditions.

Local buyers and traders survey the haul from the night-long catch in the early hours before dawn.

Local buyers and traders survey the haul from the night-long catch in the early hours before dawn.

Market prices for each species can change rapidly depending on the availability of fish stocks and the demand from tourist outlets. This fascinating, alluring world is like being transported back in time when economies and industries were far simpler than they seem today with the more mechanised, sterile marketplaces that many of us are used to. However, for the local people of Vizhinjam this system represents a reality where daily interactions largely dictate the community’s survival. Fishing here is dangerous, dirty work where death is a daily threat and earning an income is becoming considerably more challenging.

A local fishermen offering our team a fish from his catch. Large fish are a rare occurrence in the coastal villages in this region.

A local fishermen offering our team a fish from his catch. Large fish are a rare occurrence in the coastal villages in this region.

As part of our Global Ambassador Adventure, Elizabeth Tovar and I made up the Fisheries component of the Global Program. We spent two weeks finding out more about these communities and interviewing local residents to gain an in-depth understanding of their lives and the local fishing industry that they rely on for survival. Our interaction with fisherman, traders, sellers and community members revealed significant challenges that the community and the region’s fish stocks are facing.

The most frequently mentioned threat for the fisherman is the increased financial pressures that they face in association with fishing practices. The ever-increasing costs of fishing lines, tackle, nets, kerosene, food, water and fuel make the overall cost of launching daily fishing expeditions a financial gamble. These financial pressures coupled with a significant decline of fish stocks is driving fishermen further out to sea to record catches worthwhile of making a profit from. Most fisherman indicated they are currently travelling beyond 30km into open ocean to record the same catch size and species that they previously found within 5km from shore. Conversations with three generations of fisherman who have been actively fishing these waters for over fifty years painted a clearer picture of the changes they have observed. One of the most senior fisherman we spoke to noted how he had witnessed specific marine species completely vanish from the region since he commenced his career, another commented how the size and abundance of his hauls has been consistently declining throughout his career, whilst one of the younger fisherman remarked that he often held little faith that he would make any profit from his fishing expeditions.

The team (from right) Cassidy, Elizabeth and our translator James (middle) discuss some of the issues facing the fishing industry in the region.

The team (from right) Cassidy, Elizabeth and our translator James (middle) discuss some of the issues facing the fishing industry in the region.

Many of the issues the fisherman of Vizhinjam face are a result of little to no regulation of their industry. It was revealed through our research and interviews that the only marine species protected by the Indian Department of Fisheries are dolphins and sea turtles. We were told that a lack of fishing regulations and enforcement had opened the doors for international fishing operations which were said to take large hauls of fish which local fisherman using smaller-scale methods could not reach. Local authorities denied these claims and, as we didn’t see any international trawlers ourselves, more research is warranted.  

Small catches such as reflected here in this driftnet paint an alarming picture of an all too common trend in declining fisheries across the globe.

Small catches such as reflected here in this driftnet paint an alarming picture of an all too common trend in declining fisheries across the globe.

The majority of the local fisherman from Vizhinjam also outlined the extent of plastic pollution that they encounter while at sea. Fishing with nets is a common practice, particularly of the Muslim and Hindu fisherman who are coming across extensive amounts of plastic and other marine debris each time they leave shore. One group of fisherman disclosed that debris sometimes damages their nets so badly that they often cut the nets and the debris free at sea. They believe that this is the most cost effective and practical means of dealing with the problem not realising that in the end they were simply further contributing to the overall mass of floating waste in their waters.

Pressures of overfishing, increasing industrialisation and rampant marine pollution, as seen above, compound the problems facing marine ecosystems in Vizhinjam and surrounds and the local community who rely on them for survival.

Pressures of overfishing, increasing industrialisation and rampant marine pollution, as seen above, compound the problems facing marine ecosystems in Vizhinjam and surrounds and the local community who rely on them for survival.

The complex pressures on the fishing communities in Vizhinjam has meant fewer young men are engaging in the industry. The continual advancement of fishing technology is seemingly out-competing traditional fishing methods and the costs associated with purchasing these technologies is far beyond the means of fisherman from Vizhinjam. Despite these realities, many older fishermen and traders still engage in this industry as they have no other experience or training. It’s the only way they know how to make an income.

The issues faced by the fisherman of Vizhinjam are all too common throughout the developing world. The need for healthy, clean and diverse marine ecosystems are as important as ever to support small scale industries, however the financial pressures and populations they support continue to grow exponentially. The fisherman of Vizhinjam are more than aware that change is needed and they are very open to refining their practices or, in some cases, exploring alternative industries. With this in mind the local fisherman were very welcoming of our team of Global Ambassadors and the ideas that we presented.

Working alongside with the Mahatma Fisheries Union who took no time in welcoming our team, introducing us to the local community of Vizhinjam and assisting with our work.

Working alongside with the Mahatma Fisheries Union who took no time in welcoming our team, introducing us to the local community of Vizhinjam and assisting with our work.

Some of the ideas that we came up with include replacing the plastic materials used in the fishing industry with biodegradable, natural products which can break down if lost at sea; improved waste management systems within the Vizhinjam community to limit the amount of marine debris entering the ocean through regular collections, sorting, recycling and community education (we would look to support the fantastic local group Eco Preserve who are already operating small-scale collections in this area); and the implementation of an industrial composter that turns fish waste into a microfinance industry (again in collaboration with local groups such as Eco Preserve). Cleaning the fish waste from the harbour will improve human health whilst allowing the residents to sell the compost to farmers from neighbouring areas. Data collection of catch rates, species caught and water quality testing by local universities is also being investigated to gain a more detailed understanding of the local conditions and how to mitigate the issues that the fishermen and women face. Our seawall mural project has already been completed in the centre of the Vizhinjam harbour area with the approval of the local community and authorities. It was set-up to raise awareness for the local residents of the harmful effects of pollution on their resources and the importance of maintaining healthy marine ecosystems.

A surreal scene - sunrise over Vizhinham Harbour.

A surreal scene - sunrise over Vizhinham Harbour.

The challenges that the people of Vizhinjam face are real and quite often have devastating consequences, however their enthusiasm to create positive change along with their resilience and adaptability gives us hope for their future as well as the future of the local marine ecosystems that they rely upon for survival. We are incredibly excited to be launching our Conservation Masterplan shortly to address these and other issues in the region, as well as to set-up a full time team on the ground in India later this year. Please stay tuned to our social media pages and this site for more information as we progress our plans and if you’d like to support this project please donate bia our website here or our Giving Circle for this project here.