Coastal communities scuba-dive to conserve marine environment

  • Citizens’ groups in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are training fishermen in scuba diving to clean up the seabed and observe changes due to climate change.
  • By building artificial reefs through community participation they have strengthened sustainable fishing.
  • Learning scuba diving skills is opening other avenues for employment for the young people in the fishing communities.

After Cyclone Ockhi caused damage and destruction in the south Kerala coast near the southwestern edge of the Indian peninsula, Friends of Marine Life (FML), an NGO working with coastal communities, got on with their work with gusto. With the windswept, rough seas, and the destruction in the coast, much debris had flown into the coastal seabed. The members of FML, some of whom are certified scuba divers, along with volunteers removed marine debris and cleaned the ocean floor near Valiathura and Kovalam beaches near Thiruvananthapuram.

For the members of the FML, scuba diving and clearing the seabed were part of the activities they have been doing for years now. Theirs is a citizen science intiative that has been training local communities to dive and look out for signs of climate change.

Robert Panippilla, president of the FML, is a citizen scientist and a fisherman rolled into one. A resident of Valiathura, he has been studying and training others to study the changes in the marine environment due to climate change since the past 12 years. “We started observing the impact of climate change since the 2004 Asian Tsunami,” he said.

“The nature and character of the sea is not the same as it was 12 years ago. It has become unreliable and unpredictable. The water is not as transparent and clear as it was a decade ago. The surface of the sea water now looks disturbed, as if stirred up with all sorts of dust and other particles, and also plastic debris of various kinds,” Panippilla said.

According to him, the water feels warmer than before under the surface. Some of the seasonal fishes are not there now and others such as hamour and seer fish are less available. Some tropical fishes such as sardine, tuna, anchovy and mackeral are in plenty at times but they are not grown enough. This shows that the water is warmer and the tropical fishes reproduce profusely and come to the upper surface of the water before they are old enough.

“When I began my quest for knowing as to what’s happening underneath the Ocean, I swam with my naked eyes. But it was very difficult and time-consuming to do any substantial research. So I got support from a scuba diver. Then, I learned scuba diving and trained six other fishermen like me,” Panipilla explained.

Robert Panippilla (right) and his team bring out garbage from the sea. Photo from Friends of Marine Life.

Citizen science

It was while being involved with their citizen science research that the team decided to start cleaning the seabed near the coast. At Valiathura and Kovalam they collect as much as 75 kg of waste in an hour of underwater swimming. It consists mostly of plastic debris. They operate in a team of seven fishermen scuba diving. Other volunteers help segregate waste. As an example of citizen science blending with policy support, selected waste samples are tested by Department of Aquatic Biology of the University of Kerala at Thiruvananthapuram, and the results shared with the Environment Committee of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly.

By joining this activity, the young volunteers not only help clean the environment but also get trained for other employment opportunities. “There are opportunities galore for people trained in scuba diving,” said Panippilla.

“If we are involved in disaster management programmes, the entire operation will be more successful since we know the sea,” said Mohammed Sadique from Vizhinjam village, trained as a scuba diver for the FML research programmes. “The Government can induct us in their disaster management task force.”

“Fishermen trained in scuba diving can be a great help in documenting marine biodiversity,” said A. Biju Kumar, professor and head, Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala. “The scientific community needs help to do research. There are many universities outside India that depend on citizen scientists for biodiversity documentation. The research also gets community buy-in when their people are involved.”

Volunteers segregate the waste for recycling. Photo from Friends of Marine Life.

Building reefs in the east coast

In the eastern coast, between Puducherry and Chennai, Aravind Tharunsri of Temple Adventures has taken the combination of scuba diving and citizen science into creating a platform for sustainable fishing. Along with his team, Tharunsri built an artificial reef using boulders, cement blocks, steel rods, debris and even used beer bottles.

This reef is now home to barracudas, stingrays, parrot fish, gorgonian sea fans, the rare pink coral and much more. It enables an increase in the population of these fishes and thereby sustainable livelihood opportunities for the fishing community through a longer length of the year.

The sea has always been like home for Tharunsri and protecting and conserving its environment has become his passion. He has been doing this by organising seabed cleanups in the coast, building artificial reefs, protecting endangered species, training the marine police in special skills and even educating fishermen about the safe use of trawlers.

Picking up garbage from the seabed. Photo from Friends of Marine Life.

“The most important issue now is to clean the seabed,” said Tharunsri. The end-2015 floods in Chennai deposited unimaginable amounts of garbage into sea. So far his team has recovered nearly 200 kg of plastic bags, bottles and damaged fishing nets.

“In addition, we are recultivating the corals because most of them have been killed or washed away by the floods. The artificial reefs we’ve built using beer bottles helps with this because the glass doesn’t hamper their growth. In fact, it also provides a safe breeding ground for fish,” he added.

His team is training the local community to strengthen their skills. “It is not enough if a fisherman knows how to fish, he should know the right methods when using modern technology,” he said. “Even up till a decade ago, traditional pearl divers held their breath underwater. It was like a form of meditation for them. But today, pearl divers breathe from compressed air cylinders. If this is done the wrong way it can cause death, and many lives are unnecessarily lost every year.”

Both the teams, in the western and eastern coast of south India, believe that by using scuba diving skills they can help the local community and those visiting the coast to better appreciate the biological wealth under water. “There is really a lot going on underwater and it is a fascinating world,” commented Tharunsri. “I just hope the people gain enough sense to stop polluting and destroying it.”

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