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Storm-tossed Fishers

Climate change disrupts livelihood of Kerala’s fishers

Extreme weather and cyclone alerts reducing the number of fishing days, besides dwindling fish catch, climate change is taking a toll on fishers’ livelihood
  • Aug 18, 2021
  • Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

Traditional fishermen in Alappuzha district have been observing a reduced catch over the last few years (Photo by KVA Khadar)

Until recently, Kerala’s coastal population had every reason to rejoice the arrival of the monsoon in the state. Apart from good fishing hauls, the important celebratory events such as weddings came about during the monsoon which spans from June to August, as the fishers generally attained economic stability during the period.

However, over the last few years, climate change and the ensuing shifts in the marine environment have disrupted the rhythm of their lives. Long gone are the days of big catches and the subsequent rise in seasonal income for the small-scale fishers.

“Our age-old custom of planning and celebrating big events during the monsoon season has come to a halt as this period no longer offers us a stable income for the past few years. Lately, the monsoon is quite erratic in its patterns resulting in a reduction in the number of fishing days, and thus becoming the worst-hit season of the year,” says 55-year-old Ponnan K, a traditional fisherman from Alappuzha.

“These days we return with empty boats. Going for fishing only adds to our debts,” says fisherman Unnikrishnan T B, of Vypin in Ernakulam district. Like Ponnan and Unnikrishnan, 1,37,248 active fishermen in Kerala are passing through a difficult phase, as the impacts of climate change are taking a toll on their livelihoods.

Climate change impact

In a recent research article Changing Status of Tropical Cyclones Over the North Indian Ocean published in the journal Climate Dynamics, a group of scientists observes that the frequency, intensity and duration of cyclonic storms have increased in the Indian Ocean.

According to them, the frequency of cyclones has increased by 52% in the Arabian Sea (during 2001-2019) and that of very severe cyclones has risen by 150%. While the intensity of the cyclones increased in the region by 20% to 40%, the duration of very severe cyclones is up by 260% in the Arabian Sea, says this study.

“The sea surface temperature has increased by 1.2 degrees to 1.4 degrees for the past century. The surface temperature in the Arabian Sea sometimes rose to 31˚C-32˚ C which is 28˚C-29˚C normally,” says Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist with Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune and one of the authors of this study.

Extreme weather and cyclone alerts have reduced the number of fishing days, impacting fishers’ livelihood (Photo by KVA Khadar)

With a substantial increase in alerts on cyclones or extreme weather conditions, the number of fishing days has come down. Annual marine fish landing estimates of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Kochi, shows fishing days in Kerala had a fall of 46% in 2017 compared to 2016 due to Cyclone Ockhi.

Some scientists call the phenomena ‘weather shocks’. “Change in ocean ecosystem following a series of climatic issues directly affect the small pelagic resources such as oil sardine,” says Grinson George, marine scientist and senior program specialist of the SAARC Agriculture Centre, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

According to George, who works on climate-related aspects in fisheries and aquaculture in the South Asian region, weather shocks and associated developments in the waters influence the distribution pattern, life cycle, behavioral changes, migration pattern and reproduction of the fish.

Another study by Koll signals the reduction of primary productivity such as phytoplankton – which serve as food for fish – in the waters owing to rapid warming over the tropical Indian Ocean. Rapid warming of the Indian Ocean may potentially turn this biologically productive region into an ecological desert, the study warns.

CMFRI’s vulnerability assessment of Indian marine fishes to climate change also shows that ocean temperature, current speed, direction and chlorophyll have an influence on the biology of fishes. According to this study, 30% of fish species are vulnerable to climate change along the south-west coast (Kerala, Karnataka and Goa).

Drop in sardine catch

The common name kudumbam pularthi (family’s provider) for oil sardine among the fishing community, implies the economic significance of the species in Kerala. The decrease in the availability of oil sardine is hitting the economic stability of coastal communities.

Fishers find a decrease in catch over the years, affecting their economic stability (Photo by KVA Khadar)

In a recent study, CMFRI points out that oil sardine resource in Kerala waters is severely affected by climate change related disruptions. After a harvest of nearly 4 lakh tons in 2012, catch of oil sardine is on a decline every year. In 2019, the catch was 44,320 tons and the yield again dropped to one-third the following year.

Abdussamad E M, principal scientist at CMFRI who works on oil sardine says, “The unfavorable conditions in the ocean ecosystem following El Nino seriously influence the growth and reproduction of oil sardine resources in Kerala.”

Social and economic impact

A CMFRI study reveals that following the reduction in oil sardine landings, the average net returns of Kerala’s outboard fishermen using ring seine reduced from Rs 12,000 per fishing trip to Rs 2500 between 2014 and 2018.

Charles George, an activist and the president of the Matsyathozhilali Aikya Vedi (Fishermen Unity Forum) says that the traditional fishing community in Kerala that is already marginalized socially and economically, is reeling under the impact of the climate-induced crisis.

“Income of fishermen in the state, who depend on fishing for their daily needs, has drastically reduced over the past three years. People are forced to flee from fishing and find some other livelihood to support their families,” he says. He demands that a fish famine package be allowed to compensate their economic loss due to climate change and ‘fish drought’.

Coastal lives in peril

Storm surge, high waves, sea erosion and extreme weather conditions have put the lives of Kerala’s coastal people in danger. Many coastal villages like Chellanam in Ernakulam district, Vizhinjam and Poonthura in Thiruvananthapuram district are increasingly becoming vulnerable to sea erosion which leaves many fisher families homeless often.

Coastal village Chellanam was flooded by a storm surge that followed Cyclone Tauktae (Photo by Melton Antony)

In May this year, hundreds of people residing in the coastal village of Chellanam were impacted when Cyclone Tauktae struck. Houses collapsed and a vast area along the coast, which extends to about 15 km, was flooded following storm waves.

According to Sebastian D S, a fisherman residing at Chellanam, the sea is encroaching into their land each year. “This year the sea erosion is severe after the Cyclone Tauktae,” he says. Livelihood apart, such incidents are posing a threat to their life and coastal assets.

At the same time, marine experts are of the view that storm surge will occur more frequently in the coming years. According to them, alarming winds by the cyclones help form storm surge in the waters which results in high waves, sea erosion and flooding in the coastal hamlet.

Safety issues

Another lurking issue faced by the fishers is the lack of social safety nets such as insurance coverage. A 2017 study carried out by Shinoj Parappurathu, senior scientist at CMFRI, Kochi, shows that though accident risks of fishermen are covered, other risks such as vessel loss or damage and loss of other coastal assets due to natural disasters are covered only at a limited scale in India.

“If suitable insurance schemes were available, the lives of the coastal people would not have become this pathetic. Their only livelihood option is at stake owing to climate change and related fallouts,” says Parappurathu. He further states that the fishermen need to be equipped with on-board safety equipment to ensure disaster-proofing.

Lack of advance warning system and means for two-way communication exacerbate the risk involved. Fishermen are pushed to bear the brunt of the natural calamity in the light that only 4.25% of fisher families have GPS and 0.67% use wireless communication.

“CMFRI is working on assessing the future vulnerability of the marine fisheries sector,” says Gopalakrishnan A, director of CMFRI. “The institute has come up with adaptation strategies that include adoption of climate-friendly technologies or green practices, capacity building to make fishers climate-smart, development of knowledge base and promotion of coastal aquaculture or cage fish farming.”

KVA Khadar is an independent journalist based at Kochi. Views are personal.

This was first published in Mongabay-India. The original version can be read here.

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