- Off the shores of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, biodiversity-rich reefs support traditional raft fishing, a fading profession that competes with rising operational costs and risks associated with offshore fishing.
- Researchers documenting these reefs as part of a study, found evidence of plastic waste and ghost nets, entangling marine life.
- Raft fishers and researchers call for urgent conservation of these reefs. Marine biologists highlight that coral reef conservation is a part of climate action.
Riding three-metre high shore waves, Placid Netto, 72, approached the shore on his eight-foot fibreglass raft, jumped off and clung on to its stern for a moment. He pushed the raft in a deft move that saved him from a wave hit. He then swam, waves hitting against his back, and walked over to his friends on the shore. They helped him land his raft and discovered that Netto’s catch was good.
The platform reefs off the shores of Netto’s Puthenthope village, about 15 km northwest of Thiruvananthapuram, a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala, are rich fishing grounds that attract traditional fishers. Migrants from southern villages have built two thriving fishing villages nearby.
Unlike some other coral reefs that may have more complex structures with deeper crevices and passages, platform reefs generally have a flatter and more expansive surface. The coast of Thiruvananthapuram has rocky reefs, platforms, ridges and rare mudflats, unlike the coral reefs around the Lakshadweep Islands. Scientists from the University of Kerala, who recently documented the state’s reefs beyond a 40-metre depth, call them “animal forests” – home to sea pens, sea fans, rare soft corals, solitary hard corals, sponges, worms, molluscs, moss animals and sea squirts.
While the turbid waters off the shores of Kerala are not ideal for coral reefs, they are still as stunningly scenic and diverse and also serve as the best dive spots in the world, professional divers associated with the university research reveal.
“They attract huge schools of fish and support traditional fishing,” says A. Bijukumar, professor and head of the Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, who is leading the study. However, their underwater exploration as part of the inter-university Ecomarine conservation initiative, supported by the European Union, has exposed plastic waste and ghost nets over the reefs, entangling marine life. The team has called for “immediate action” to stop dumping plastic waste into the ocean, rivers and backwaters upstream. Fishers also demand reef conservation to sustain their livelihoods.
Sustaining traditional fishing
Traditionally, reefs are the domain of hook-and-line fishers who can spot diverse fish growing on these unique ecosystems. Fish that move along and around the reefs also attract net and seine fishers and shore seine units that capture shoals close to the shore. Bottom trawlers, however, stay away as the jagged reef edges damage their gear. Still, sometimes they hit and damage the reefs, the local fishers claimed.
Netto’s colleague, Richard Miranda, 55, prefers the old-fashioned kattumaram, a 12-foot raft made with a set of four logs cut, chiselled, shaped, bundled and lashed together. These old favourites are near extinction, with old craftsmen moving on and softwood groves shrinking. Miranda recently bought a used raft from Veli, a village close to the city. Further south, across the border in the Kanniyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, artisans still craft wooden rafts in small batches, he shares.
“Heavier and hardier than the fibreglass ones, these rafts help me ride the waves safely,” Miranda says. Netto and Miranda are performers; they have seen more than their share of rough seas. Miranda even survived the 2017 cyclone Ockhi, that claimed 365 lives.
Only around ten other fishermen in Puthenthope, including Miranda and Netto are working to keep alive the fading tradition of raft fishing – propelled by oars (paddles) and fuelled by sheer muscle power. Many of them have sails from old rafts that can take them afar when there is enough wind, but they hardly ever unfurl them. Like their ancestors, they are confident that there is always good fish around the reefs that are close by. Trips are usually within six kilometres from the shore, and reachable in an hour.
The input costs for these rafts are minimal when compared to the 30-34-foot boats with twin outboard engines that dominate the shores of Thiruvananthapuram. For a kattumaram, there is no fuel or labour cost involved and a catch of Rs. 2,000 or even Rs. 1,000 a day—or sometimes just enough fish to make a curry—can keep the solo fisherman going. An old wooden one costs around Rs. 20,000 and can take aboard a crew of one to three fishermen. Meanwhile, a 32-foot boat costs above two lakh rupees and its outboard motors cost another Rs. 10,000. There is usually a crew of four or more. The fuel costs mount as the boat goes farther—up to 100 km offshore—and against the wind. The gear depends on the size and the nature of the operation. To break even, each trip must fetch fish worth Rs. 20,000 or more.
Those who prefer a middle path, choose fibreglass canoes or rafts generically called ‘tsunami maram’ propelled by a single, small outboard engine. They are small, light and fast. They are used for distances of about 20 km or more – still shorter than the distances covered by the larger boats. This fibreglass raft can cost Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 50,000, fishers say.
Paradoxically, kattumaram fishers elsewhere in Thiruvananthapuram are edged out of fishing amidst stiff competition, overfishing and a declining catch, shared Kumar Sahayaraju, a fisherman and a marine biologist. “It is these biodiversity-rich reefs that allow safe fishing close to the shore on small craft,” he says. His doctoral research probes how to make that possible by blending scientific studies with traditional and local knowledge. Kumar’s father, Sahayaraju Susa Michael quit kattumaram fishing a few years ago as it was no longer viable in his village, Karumkulm, in southern Thiruvananthapuram.
Far or near, fishers with small boats look for fish around reefs. Each cluster of villages has its own favourite local fishing ground. Historically, hook-and-line fishermen from southern Thiruvananthapuram moved in search of reefs close to the shore towards the north, notes Robert Panipilla, coordinator of the local conservation NGO, Friends of Marine Life (FML).
“While there are rocky reefs at 22–27 fathom (40–49 metres) depth off the shores from the city centre to Anjengo up north, there are platform reefs at 12 fathom (22 metres) depth, close to the shores around Puthenthope,” Panipilla shares. The sandy shores of these villages make launching and landing small craft and shore seine fishing easier – thereby sustaining low-cost, reef-friendly fishing.
Panipilla narrates in his book Eyes on their fingertips, the story of his father Panipilla Kurishadima, who discovered the Cherumankkara reef at 24.5 fathom (about 45 metres)— a “treasure rock” (draviyakakallu) kept as a secret— spending five days straight in the sea. When the fishing season began, an exclusive group of hook-and-line fishermen would clandestinely migrate from their native Valiayathura village, close to the city, to Puthenthope, 16 kilometres northwest, and launch their craft from there to catch fish from this reef. Once Kurdishadima discovered their secret, he revealed the exact location of the reef to his fellow fishers.
Some of the southern fishers, searching for reefs close to the shore, have set up a new village near Puthenthope called Fathimapuram. A native, Davidoson Anthony Adima, succinctly narrated his reef fishing experience in a recent interview with the community weather service, Radio Monsoon, “We have reefs here at a depth of 12 fathoms, a depth equivalent of six men standing on top of one another. There is one right here off the shore of Puthenthope. There are (many) fish. We know all about them. There is vilameen, you know, kurali (emperor fish). There is this fish they call shari (sand snapper) in Arabic. Then kalava (reef cod), chemeen (white spot), kera (yellowfin tuna), azhuva (grouper), motha (cobia), neymeen (Spanish mackeral). Then there is chamba. These are the fish that live in reefs. Other fish come and go — tuna and other such species….”
“Save our reefs”
Anthony Adima along with others in his community is worried about the current status of the reefs. “In these reefs, fish used to come and stay for four to five days. Now, it is not like that. These days when someone spots them, they would call the others, and we have to go and catch them.” Adima believes that it’s because the reefs are damaged and polluted.
“The underwater sites were littered with various forms of plastic waste, including bottles, bags, fishing nets, and fragments of single-use plastics. This alarming find highlights the urgent need for increased efforts in waste management, recycling, and the adoption of sustainable practices to prevent further degradation of our oceans,” reads the press release from University of Kerala.
“Many deep-water reefs are covered with plastic nets, which may be either discards from the ocean, or the ones deserted by fishers due to entanglement. These ‘ghost nets’ trap many creatures every day, and remain a permanent threat to underwater life unless removed,” the statement continues.
The University of Kerala plans a digital documentation of Kerala’s coastal marine biodiversity through deep water dives and the use of remotely operated vehicles. “Divers can go up to 50 metres but beyond that, we will need remotely operated boats (vehicles), lights and probes,” Bijukumar reveals.
Meanwhile, FML claims to have found coral colonies on platform reefs near Puthenthope and elsewhere. “We need a baseline study and urgent steps to conserve these reefs,” Bijukumar adds.
Panipilla shares that the reefs must also be viewed as part of the fishers’ cultural heritage and suggests a socio-ecological study to map the local seabed. “Reef conservation must be part of climate action and sustainable development,” Sahayaraju points out.
Banner image: Rocky reefs with soft corals and solitary hard corals. Photo by Umeed Mistry.