Alappuzha, India, Feb 27.
Flocks of storks and cormorants perched on bamboo stilts peer into the blue-black depths of Vembanad Lake in India’s southwest Kerala state, searching hungrily for food.
“Around 200 fish pairs are breeding here, which is why predator birds are hanging around,” said KV Dineshan, steering his canoe towards the tennis court-sized fish sanctuary, a fertile oasis in the degraded lake located in a Ramsar-protected wetland.
A barrage built by the state government divides the lake’s 36,000 hectares (88,958 acres) in two: the northern part has brackish water all year round, while the southern half is fed with fresh water from rivers and seawater is shut out from December to April, allowing rice to be grown.
But grave challenges face the 7,500 fishermen like Dineshan who make a living from the southern part of the lake, which covers 13,000 hectares. They are struggling with low salinity which harms shellfish reproduction, water stagnation, pollution and agro-chemical run-off.
Over-fishing and the mounting impacts of climate change – including warmer water in the lake, a decline in winter rains and severe flash floods during the monsoon – are making matters worse.
The 1.5 million people supported by Vembanad, one of India’s largest lakes, live off agriculture, fishing, clam collecting, duck breeding, coconut fibre production, tourism and water-based transport. But yields have been falling and times are hard.
“To get the same quantity of black clam meat that we used to collect, process and sell in three hours, today takes nine,” said NK Raju of Sarithodu village, one of 5,000 clam gatherers in Vembanad’s south, as he processed the day’s haul of just 8 kg (17.64 lb) on an open fire in a lean-to.
Half the wetland’s 150 fish species have been wiped out since the Thanneermukkom barrage was built in 1975, show fish counts by the Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).
So in 2008, a group of fishermen decided they would make an effort to protect their livelihoods by trying to conserve the lake’s natural resources.
Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan, a senior fellow with ATREE, said his organisation worked with the fishermen to develop a “bottom-up” conservation model.
“The fisherfolk use their traditional ecological wisdom (and) we help them partner with scientists to identify problems and solutions which they themselves implement,” he explained.
The fishermen set up Lake Protection Forums (LPFs), legally registered bodies, which numbered 13 by 2011, spread across Alappuzha and Kottayam districts, each with 50 members, 20 of them women.
One of their projects was to create fish sanctuaries based on a traditional method called ‘padal’ or ‘fresh foliage’ fishing.
To simulate mangroves, leafy mango and cashew branches were fixed to the lake bed to create a plankton bloom, attracting lots of fish. But these would be caught before they had time to lay eggs.
The LPFs decided to declare the areas “no-fishing zones” and erected bamboo fencing to prevent canoes from entering and casting nets.
Commercial fish varieties, including pearl-spots, red snappers and mangrove snappers, can now multiply in these sanctuaries where eels, water snakes and otters add to the biodiversity.
The Kannankara fish sanctuary, set up in 2013, benefits 300 families, said Dineshan.
An evaluation by experts from the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS) and India’s Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) found healthy reproductive couples and larger shoals of fish larvae in the sanctuaries compared with other locations in the lake.
In other parts of Vembanad where fishermen are less ecologically minded, when they catch mother prawns, holding up to 100,000 larvae each, they sell them for $6 apiece to private prawn hatcheries instead of returning them to the lake, said KV Jayachandran, former director of research at KUFOS.
CMFRI has included fish sanctuaries in a set of recommendations on coastal adaptation to climate change, for nations in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and India will offer technical assistance to countries that want to introduce them.
Another victory for the LPFs has been to get the barrage gates opened earlier, instead of them staying closed through April to help rice farmers bring in late harvests.
The low level of salt in the water was hurting clam harvests, but officials told fishermen they must provide proof of their complaints, according to KM Poovu, who heads the federation of LPFs.
So in 2012, the federation decided to monitor water quality at 14 lakeside locations and display the findings on market-place boards every month.
“People read them – at first curiously, then seriously – and began discussing salinity and pollution as never before,” said Poovu, who has written a book about ethical fishing practices. “The public discussion of a common problem brought together our disintegrating fishing community.”
ATREE set up monitoring stations, and helped local people with training and testing kits to measure water salinity, acidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen and dissolved solids – all critical to the wetland’s fauna.
At the beginning of April that year, when pollution was at its highest and the barrage gates still closed, LPF members took data from their tests to Alappuzha’s district administrator.
Faced with the evidence, he ordered the barrage to be opened on April 2, 10 days earlier than before. Since then, the gates have been opened in early April each year.
The forums have tackled theft too. In 2014, a group from neighbouring Kottayam district was rowing into the Kannankara area at night to dredge up white clams – whose shells are used to manufacture industrial cement – 30 feet underwater, using powerful suction pumps.
Local fishermen began finding large amounts of dead clams in their nets due to the turbidity and acidity of the water as the pumps stirred up sediment from the lake bed.
“When we confronted the intruders, they used their political connections and got us arrested instead,” said Manoharan from the Kannankara LPF.
After the forum appealed to the local clam collectors’ arbitration panel, the Kottayam group was thrown out and all dredging was banned.
The LPFs also collect plastic waste which ends up in the lake following the annual pilgrim season in November and December. Each forum collects 40 to 70 sacks of plastic which are recycled to build village roads.
Local people now understand that “their economic condition is directly linked to sustainable ecology management”, Jayachandran said. “Better health and cultural unity are other benefits.”
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