Vembanad’s fishing community protects their fish with sanctuaries

By K. RajendranonMar. 20, 2018in Environment and Ecology

Transporting bamboo poles for the fish sanctuary. Photo by Ashish George Mathew / ATREE.

  • The Vembanad backwaters in Kerala is a tourism destination where foreign and Indian tourists cruise on houseboats. There is a decline in fish catch from the lake and the livelihoods of the fishing community are at stake, with women being the worst affected.
  • There are more than one thousand houseboats, which far exceeds the carrying capacity of the lake.
  • To protect the fish resources, the traditional fishing community of Vembanad Lake, supported by research organisations, has started constructing fish sanctuaries in the lake.

Cruising in a houseboat through the picturesque Vembanad Lake has been the symbol of tourism in Kerala around the world. But this symbol has incurred the wrath of traditional fishermen in Muhamma village, along the iconic lake in the heart of Kerala’s backwaters, as their fish stock are depleting.

Sailing across the lake with a pile of bamboo poles and cashew leaves stocked in their fishing boats, Raveendra Das and colleagues are engaged in setting up ‘fish sanctuaries’ that are ecological shelters for fish.

“This is our weapon against the houseboats to protect our fish,” says a tired but determined Raveendra Das. In fact, his elder son Deepak, a tourist guide by profession, taunts, “Fish gives rupees but the houseboat rains dollars.”

Fish catch or houseboats?

Stretched across three Kerala districts — Alappuzha, Kottayam and Eranakulam — and covering an area of over 2033.02 square km, the Vembanad wetland system is the lifeline for 1.6 million people and a variety of flora and fauna. Despite its glory, the lake has made headlines for being in peril.

The latest report published by People’s Commission on Vembanad constituted by the Kerala Shastra Sahithya Parishath (KSSP), the popular people’s science organisation is an eye-opener. Taking cues from the Kayal convention organized by the KSSP in September 2013 in Alappuzha, a painstaking study on various aspects related to the lake was pursued by the People’s Commission, headed by Prabath Patnaik, noted economist and former Planning Board chairman of Kerala.

The report submitted on September 2017 has pinpointed that fishermen’s livelihoods are at stake, underlining that women are probably the worst affected and suggesting that fisher folk have transitioned to being “economic refugees” in the very area where they have thrived for generations.

“While ecological decline has affected most of those who are dependent on the Vembanad kayal, probably the most affected are the fisher folks, whose livelihood is very much dependent on the health and vitality of the ecosystem. Decline in fish wealth and black clam has impoverished the ecosystem and the people,” states the report.

A fish caught from Vembanad Lake. Photo by Shibu Bhaskar.

“Pollution related problems have led to a significant decline in the quality of ecosystem services,” the report adds. “Women who have been traditionally dependent on black clam collection are probably the worst affected. Opportunities stemming from the development of tourism have largely bypassed them. In a way, they have become economic refugees in the area where they lived and thrived for generations.”

Multiple pressures on fishing

The region’s Kuttanad cuisine is ubiquitous in all tourism packages. This consists of crab, clam, various varieties of prawns, and many fish species including the famous pearl spot. While the prices have increased the varieties that are available for the consumers has decreased.

“A decade ago at least ten varieties of fish were fried and put on the platter. With the disappearance of many species, we are compelled to squeeze to around five,” rues P Muhammed who has been in the hospitality sector in Kuttanad since the last three decades.

“You cannot find out a single youngster among fishermen here. Most of them are over 50. Nowadays, fishing is a very challenging job. When I began fishing, there was a lot of fish here. Now we are getting very little returns,” rues K.M. Poovu, a traditional fisherman and a well-known conservationist and author of many books on Vembanad fish.

Decrease in the lake area, changes in land use pattern, modification of lake water through salinisation, increased pollution, aggressive growth of water weeds, continuous dredging operations and other developmental interventions have resulted in depletion of flora and fauna.

Processing clams. Photo by K. Rajendran.

In 2007, the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, in their report titled Measures to mitigate the agrarian distress in Alappuzha and Kuttanad wetland ecosystem sounded a warning. “The changed ecology is believed to have led to the loss of about 23 species of fishes, prevented migration of about 13 other species, led to the decline of 33 percent of bird population, [and] brought in new predatory bird species like Neerkozhi.”

Over 16,000 tonnes of annual fish landing from Vembanad Lake was noted during 1970s. During 2000, the fish landing had gradually slipped to about 7,200 tonnes. The current fish landing data is not available with Kerala Fisheries Departmentor Matsyafed ( the Kerala State Corporative Federation for Fisheries Development)

“Most of the fishermen have now been selling their catch directly to the consumers rather than through the fish market,” Poovu said.

In 2017 May, Vembanad lake witnessed its biggest ever fish count jointly conducted by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE ), the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, the Fisheries Department, Vembanad Nature Club, and Vembanad Lake Protection Forum. In the dawn to dusk fish counting involving 120 volunteers, 46 finfish and 8 shellfish were identified.

A fish sanctuary marked out by bamboo poles. Photo by K. Rajendran.

More boats than what the lake can carry

Houseboat is synonymous with Alappuzha, the Kerala district popular by the sobriquet ‘Venice of The East’. It is a district that abounds in natural beauty and a top draw for tourists.

In 2017, according to Kerala Tourism, 1,46,73,520 tourists visited Kerala. At least two third of them had toured Vembanad. The state’s revenue from tourism in last year is pegged at Rs. 333.83 billion. At least half of it was contributed by Vembanad lake tourism, which means the houseboat is an icon of prosperity for the state.

Houseboats on Vembanad Lake. Photo by Shibu Bhaskar

On the other hand, the disastrous consequences negate prosperity. Engine, toilet waste and plastic from houseboats are dumped into the lake causing irrecoverable damages. Report of Peoples Commission on Vembanad indicates the gravity of the situation.

“The usable surface area in the case of Vembanad is only about 65 square km, which implies that at any given time only about 130 boats can use the area. Though this estimate may require refinement, it still clearly indicates that the present number of over one thousand boats far exceeds the carrying capacity of the lake.”

While fishermen blame houseboats for pollution, boat owners tell a different story. For them, the government is the sole culprit.

“The number of the recognised houseboats having a valid licence and fulfilling all pollution control guidelines are not more than 500. In fact, more than 1000 houseboats sail in the lake. There is a huge amount of money involved in this illegal business. Instead of punishing the real culprits, we the genuine boat owners are being blamed,” claims by Manuval, a houseboat owner at Alappuzha.

K. R. Vinod, the registering officer in the Kerala Port Department is not hesitant to admit flaws. “Regular searches are needed to bust illegal operations. But, we don’t have the manpower,” Vinod said.

Government is considering forming three permanent special investigation teams headed by sub-inspectors, to be located at Alappuzha, Kumarakom and Ernakulum.

Fish sanctuary can help protect fish stock

The fishermen don’t have the patience for a long wait. They are reinventing traditional scientific experiments. Ravindra Das’s fish sanctuary – created out of bamboo, twigs and leaves – is ready for cultivating fish juveniles. He is optimistic to face off challenges.

Constructing a fish sanctuary. Photo by Ashish George Mathew / ATREE.

“No one can stop the fish population from growing in this sanctuary,” he said. “Now onwards, this would be a non-fishing area.” Yachts, canoe, houseboats are not allowed in the vicinity. Bundles of foliages are deposited in the shelter which is surrounded by bamboo fencing. ATREE provided the scientific guidance to the fishermen to develop the shelters.

“Fish shelter has been an ideal habitat for the fishes to breed and young ones to hide from predators. Till this date, we have set 26 fish sanctuaries in the region, and the concentration of juvenile fishes has gradually increased after its implementation,” said Jojo T. D., project coordinator for ATREE’s Vembanad Wetland Conservation Project.

Taking a cue from this kind of innovation, the Government of Kerala has recently set up a twelve member committee of experts to find out long-term solutions for protecting fish species in Vembanad.

“Our government will conserve the Vembanad lake and its species at any cost,” assured Thomas Isacc, the state’s finance minister who is also the MLA of Alapuzha. “Pollutions and encroachments must be curtailed,” he added.

If the system of fish sanctuaries work properly, then both fisheries and the operation of houseboats for tourism can sustain.

First published by Mongabay
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