Farming fish and mussels

When bad management and increasing demand for inland fish led to plummeting stocks, fishing villages around the Ashtamudi estuary in Kollam district, Kerala, have come up with their own solution. Fisherfolk, now earmark a certain area of the estuary to allow young fish to grow -- a sort of rough-and-ready fish reserve. In view of how quickly their resources were falling, the fisherfolk did not even wait for official help. They fenced off 1.5 hectares (ha) of the estuary in January 1997, six months before the fisheries department woke up to the fact that Ashtamudi needs help

 
By M P Basheer
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Farming fish and mussels

Self-help is still the best he (Credit: M P Basheer)When bad management and increasing demand for inland fish led to plummeting stocks, fishing villages around the Ashtamudi estuary in Kollam district, Kerala, have come up with their own solution. Fisherfolk, now earmark a certain area of the estuary to allow young fish to grow -- a sort of rough-and-ready fish reserve. In view of how quickly their resources were falling, the fisherfolk did not even wait for official help. They fenced off 1.5 hectares (ha) of the estuary in January 1997, six months before the fisheries department woke up to the fact that Ashtamudi needs help.

Their project was aided by the Chavara block panchayat with Rs 100,000 as initial money. This aid was provided under the decentralised People's Campaign, implemented by the then Left Democratic Front government in Kerala. With technical support from the Brackish Water Fish Farmers Development Agency (wffda), they created artificial reefs with tree branches and concrete slabs.

"The programme has been focussing on concerns that are especially important to the people of the locality. People take a greater interest in managing economic resources that they can own and manage themselves," says K G Prabhakaran, Kollam district president of the Ulnaadan Matsya Thozhilali Sanghom (Organisation of Inland Fishworkers).

Fisherfolk and fishery officials say that the fish catch in Ashtamudi has increased substantially after the marking-off of fish reserves. Karimeen (a local delicacy), catla and rohu mrigal have almost doubled in some areas," says K S Vasanti, researcher at the Central Marine Fishery Research Institute, Kochi. Fisherfolk from four backward gram panchayats (Thekkumbhagom, Neendakara, Chavara and Thevakkara) are the main beneficiaries of the project.

Keralites have traditionally shown a marked bias for marine fish. Over the past few decades, largely due to improved processing, storage and transport facilities, inland fish varieties have slowly become available to people all over the state.

Even today, though, inland fishery accounts for only 3 per cent of Kerala's fish production. About 97 per cent of the state's production comes from the marine sector, and a negligible 0.3 per cent from reservoirs. Inland fish production accounts for about 55,000 tonnes a year at present. Of the 770,000-odd fisherfolk in Kerala, about 50,000 are engaged in inland fishing.

There have been, though, few scientific initiatives aimed at fish yield optimisation. "This is mainly because of the inadequate attention received by the inland fishery sector in the early years of the state's planned development. The Ashtamudi experiment is a true deviation from the conventional approach," says K Aravindan of wffda.

In 10 villages along the Ashtamudi estuary, more than 3,000 families also depend on mussel fishing. Fisherfolk say they earn about Rs 150 -200 during the mussel season. A fishing ground is earmarked for each fishing family to collect live mussels in. "After the programme was introduced, we started releasing the young mussels back into the estuary to grow," says Rajan, a mussel collector in Thekkumbhagom village. But some fisherfolk say that influential people of the area pile up tree branches close to the fenced-off area to prevent fish from moving to other parts of the estuary.

The state government has imposed a ban on mussel collection between November and February, when mussels breed. However, the actual breeding period spreads beyond that, depending on tidal force and other weather factors. The fisherfolk are aware of these seasonal variations, and observe self-imposed discipline. Wise, indeed, for mussels do not have comfortable breeding grounds in Ashtamudi at the best of times. The water has very high nitrate content, due to pesticide run-off from the upland regions, causing a large number of mussels to die during the breeding season.

"These experiments," says K Suresh Kumar, director, Kerala Fisheries, "address how fishing communities relate to the natural resources on which they ultimately depend. Over past couple of decades, there has been a growing awareness that resources are finite, and that misuse or overuse will produce long term repercussions."

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