Communication technologies for deep-sea fishers as cyclones intensify in the Arabian Sea

  • Artisanal fishers from Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu are known for fishing 500-1,000 km offshore or even farther.
  • The Arabian Sea is becoming warmer and more prone to intense storms, making offshore fishing riskier, longer and less profitable.
  • Deep-sea fishers need more efficient and affordable information and communication technologies and ready access to weather forecasts to stay safe. Broadcasts from coastal radio stations can be explored a solution.

Under the rain clouds playing hide and seek, artisanal deep-sea vessels lay docked close to one another at Thengapattinam harbour, 45 kilometres north of the cape of South India in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. Robinson Remmy, 35, is taking the monsoon offshore fishing holiday. Sitting on board Saint Anton, a 60-foot, mechanised fibreglass craft owned by his family, Remmy shares the three major concerns of the deep-sea fishers – more intense storms, limited communication and low price of fish.

Saint Anton, an artisanal vessel that goes 500-1,000 kilometres offshore in search of tuna. Photo by Bennet John.
Saint Anton, an artisanal vessel that goes 500-1,000 kilometres offshore in search of tuna. Photo by Bennet John.

Even with low-range (30 kilometres) radio sets on board and expensive satellite phones, it was often unsafe to fish when his fishing spots, 500–1,000 kilometres away from the shore, increasingly face intense storms. “Over the past five years, we have been experiencing storms during October, and to some extent in May, too,” Remmy said.  “Hence, we don’t get to see any dolphins that mark the presence of kera (yellowfin tuna, Thunnus albacares).” In the Arabian Sea around the Lakshadweep archipelago, about 600 kilometres away from their villages, yellowfin tuna are found abundantly, often with dolphins that the fishers do not catch.

Staying away from storm tracks and chasing unseen fish, takes time. “Of late, we end up spending 40-45 days for each fishing trip instead of 25 to 30 days,” said Remmy.

A recent study showed that on average, an offshore fishing unit from this region made 11 trips a year, each lasting 20-35 days, often with limited profits.

Experts in offshore fishing

Artisan fishing boats from eight villages – Thoothoor, Erayumanthurai, Poothurai, Chinnathurai, Eraviputhenthurai, Vallavilai, Marthandanthurai and Neerody – close to Kanyakumari’s border with Thiruvananthapuram district, contribute over half the offshore fish in India. Offshore fish found in the upper parts of oceans deeper than 200 metres include tunas (yellowfin, skipjack, big eye), ribbon fishes, carangids, squids, billfishes, pelagic sharks, barracudas, dolphin fish and wahoo, scientists Shinoj Parappurath and colleagues from Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) note. 

Local fishers say that they operate about 850 offshore vessels from the region. Most of them dock at the Kochi fishing harbour in central Kerala, but also the local habours of Thenghapattinnam and Enayam.

Remmy’s crew catch yellowfin tuna with simple, metre-long handlines. Saint Anton has a single deck, a spartan cabin with basic radio, navigation and fish-finder gadgets, the engine and iced fish kept below the deck. Most of the 15-member crew sleep on the bare deck and cover themselves with raincoats or plastic sheets when it rains. Of late, boats keep lifebuoys and jackets.

Most vessels here use handlines or let their boats haul multiple troll lines with baited hooks, while the rest use gillnet and long line. Fishers here are experts in these methods, with traditional knowledge gained over generations. “My grandfather used to go on board a catamaran raft; my father’s generation started using boats with outboard engines; now we harvest distant oceans,” Remmy said. It is hard work. While catching a small fish with a handline takes a few minutes, a giant tuna can swim with the line for hours.

Robinson Remmy, a deep-sea artisanal tuna fisher from Vallavilai, a village in Kanyakumari. Photo by Bennet John.
Robinson Remmy, a deep-sea artisanal tuna fisher from Vallavilai, a village in Kanyakumari. Photo by Bennet John.

A single trip of the $80,000 (approximately Rs. 65,63,240) vessel built locally, accompanied by two or three 30-foot fibreglass boats with outboard engines and a crew typically costs $15,000 (approximately Rs. 12,30,607). Often the capital is raised on high-interest private loans. The vessel has to carry enough water, food, fuel, ice blocks to preserve fish, lines, hook and nets. To break even, the crew will have to catch over five tonnes of yellowfin tuna for at least $3 per kilogramme (Rs. 246 per kilogram). Each fish can be a quarter to a metre-and-a-half long and weigh 25 to 100 kilograms or more. Often, bulk buyers push the price low by a third, fishers said. Storms make the whole operation even tougher.

Severe cyclones make life difficult for artisan fishers North Indian Ocean has two cyclone seasons – March to May, before the southwestern monsoon and October to December after that.  Over the past five years, several extremely severe winds (above 168-kilometre per hour) have been reported in the Arabian Sea just before the monsoon. This year, Cyclone Biporjoy (‘Disaster’ in Bengali) hit Gujarat, rapidly intensifying on its long journey along the Arabian Sea. In 2021, cyclone Tauktae lasted several days before its landfall in Gujarat. In 2019, cyclone Vayu came close to Gujarat, but moved towards Oman. Cyclone Mekunnu lashed Oman in 2018.

There were five cyclones in 2019, including four late or post-monsoon events. Extremely severe cyclone Maha overlapped briefly with the super cyclonic storm (222 kilometre per hour and above) Kyarr in a rare event. “In recent years, the Arabian Sea is becoming very warm. It has more warm water. Therefore, when a cyclone forms, it intensifies,” said Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, a monsoon expert at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Cyclonic Storm Ockhi nearing peak intensity over Lakshadweep, India on 2 December 2017. Image captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Suomi NPP satellite/ Wikimedia Commons.

Challenges faced by deep-sea fishers

“We briefly call home on our satellite phones once in a while to check the weather forecasts,” Remmy said. Calls are very expensive, so the communication is rather telegraphic. “We just say hello, and they’ll say high wind is approaching…” A pre-paid recharge for quarter of an hour’s international talk time can cost as much as $50 (Rs. 4,102 approximately), a significant sum, fishers said.

The use of satellite phones is restricted in India, and offshore fishers made a strong demand for them after Cyclone Ockhi in late 2017, in which Vallavilai suffered one of the highest numbers of casualties. Seven boats were destroyed, killing 67 crew members, including 33 natives, while 380 men were rescued, a study notes.

In a policy shift, the Tamil Nadu government started distributing satellite phones to fishers. During 2021-22, 500 deep-sea fishing boats were equipped with satellite phones with 75% subsidy of the unit cost. Besides these, 160 satellite phones, 200 NavIC and 80 Navtex message receivers have been installed in 80 clusters of boats engaged in deep-sea fishing.

Offshore fishers are pushing the boundaries of communication. “What we actually need is a system that can allow us to connect to the internet, while offshore,” Remmy said.  “We check wind conditions before we go, but as the trip is very long, we need regular updates.”

The need for creative, cost-effective communication solutions

Sunil Sabariar, the local Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) expert of Vallavilai says the offshore fishers of the region use GPS for navigation, Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to share position, and wireless sets of limited coverage. “AIS helped us track and rescue many boats stranded at the time of cyclone Ockhi,” Sabariar said.  “They actually need more powerful long-range radio sets, so that they can communicate with the home base and other vessels to stay safe. They will also need satellite internet receivers to access the internet while offshore. The government can also use coastal radio stations for detailed marine weather reports.”

Former All India Radio (Akashvani) and Doordarshan official and community media expert Sajan Venniyoor says there is merit in the argument for using existing coastal stations to transmit programmes and weather updates to fishers offshore. “The short wave and medium wave transmitters – which are rapidly and ill-advisedly being decommissioned by AIR, unless we can find new uses for them – can be heard all the way up to Oman. AIR Tvm, for instance, is relayed from Alappuzha on a 200 KW medium wave transmitter,” he said.

Venniyoor added that AIR has a few FM stations and transmitters along the coast and there are coastal Community Radio stations that can be heard dozens of kilometres into the sea. “And a 10-kW medium wave transmitter in Kavaratti (Lakshadweep). Officials of the Meteorological Department, Akashvani, and disaster management officials can come up with creative and cost-effective communication solutions for artisan fishers. All that the listeners will need is a waterproof AM/FM radio receiver that costs $12 (approximately Rs. 1,000).”

How can we make artisanal offshore fishing more viable?

Fisheries experts note that with dwindling coastal catch, seaward expansion of fishing should be made sustainable and economically viable. Hook and line fishing is the most eco-friendly way of fishing, as it does not involve disturbing the seabed or wasting bycatch like in trawling. Investing in making this kind of fishing safer can go a long way, as scientists note.

“Given that India’s previous attempts to harness offshore and deep-sea resources relying on capital intensive fishing fleet and outsourced expertise has failed to yield desired results, developing and exploring the artisanal capacity and expertise seems to be a practical and economically viable option for future,” wrote CMFRI scientists.  “It is high time to recognise the prowess of these enterprising fishermen and channelise technical, logistical and institutional support to empower them.”

Artisanal vessels at Thengapattinam harbour of Kanyakumari during the monsoon holiday season. Photo by Bennet John.
Artisanal vessels at Thengapattinam harbour of Kanyakumari during the monsoon holiday season. Photo by Bennet John.

A co-author of the paper, K.K. Baiju, argues that it is the fishers who usually bring in new technologies, often at their own expense and risk, while they receive little scientific support from the government and community systems. “We need a technology shift to make artisan offshore fishing more viable. That should include better communication, safety measures and management.”

Read more: Artisanal fishers deploy communication technologies to stay safe during the monsoon


Banner image: Aerial view of a fishing boat. Representative image. Photo by Le Do Thanh Dat/ Pexels.

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