Glimmer of hope for co-existence of conservation and livelihood in the Gulf of Mannar

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Chennai, June 27 (IANS/Mongabay) The struggle for daily sustenance is a reality for many fishermen in the Gulf of Mannar on Indias southeastern coast. It is home to a rich population of marine species threatened by over-exploitation, habitat destruction and pollution.

The strip of 21 islands at the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, off the east coast of Tamil Nadu, is a marine biodiversity paradise. One of Asia’s largest marine reserves, the islands are home to over 4,000 documented marine flora and fauna including sea turtles, whales, dolphins and the endangered dugong. There are about 250 villages and 200,000 fishermen in the Gulf of Mannar.

Over generations, local communities here have relied on one thing for their livelihoods – fishing. Passing on lifelong skills of going out at sea, catching fish and selling at the markets is what they pride themselves over. But as the local population grew, competition for the fish increased, leading to depleting fish stock in the sea.

Not enough fish in the sea

On a good day, the fishermen’s earnings are about enough to feed their families. But often, this livelihood is a daily struggle as they return with less than a kilogram of fish. The meagre earnings from its sale must then be split among all those on the boat.

“We have to split our earnings among five of us. The boat owner takes home the largest share of the earning, while the rest of us split the remaining 20 percent which comes to about Rs. 2,000 a week. That is not enough to feed my family of eight,” says Ravi, a fisherman at Mandapam, one of the island groups within the National Park.

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The situation has turned many fisherman to illegal activities for earning more money. By smuggling fish and endangered marine organisms such as the sea cucumber, fishermen can earn up to four times their basic income. Additionally, operating illegal trawlers helps to reel in more fish and thereby more money. The ecosystems of the buffer zones of the protected area are also under pressure from increased fishing.

Alternative livelihoods for sustainable development

In 2002, the Gulf Of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust (GOMBRT) was set up as a partnership between the Tamil Nadu government, the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility to demonstrate the possibilities of conserving the environment and encouraging sustainable development processes in the region. The GOMBRT has been conducting research and scientific studies, monitoring marine life in the 10,000 square kilometre core area of the islands.

Through the Trust, conservation activities have been introduced in the region. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute has brought in alternative sustainable fishing practices which include the use of sustainable fishing nets, deep-sea fishing and fish caging culture. Additionally, scientists from the Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute have also been deployed to create artificial reefs and prevent sand erosion along the coast.

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However, most fishing communities are hesitant and sceptical about new technologies and concepts. Some have known to get hostile when confronted by the forest department about smuggling marine resources.

The authorities, suffering from lack of staffing and efficient resources to cover all islands, find it difficult to take conservation to the forefront. Despite this, there has been some concentrated success within the islands of Ramanathapuram and Mandapam, especially among women and youth groups.

Women and youth leading the change

The GOMBRT has actively engaged these areas to provide alternative opportunities to fishing families. One of the successful outcomes is the creation of about 200 eco-development committees (EDC). Initially introduced by the government of Tamil Nadu and the UNDP in 2002, these EDCs function as women self-help groups, each engaging upto 20 women in non-fishing practices. Their activities include jewellery making, mat weaving, rope making, and jasmine cultivation. The women operate on micro-credit loans and each group has a leader who organises monthly meetings and discussions to pay off their loans.

“Earlier, women wouldn’t be seen as decision-makers. We didn’t step out much. But now, we have the opportunity to work – and we have to in order to support our families. We are called for meetings and can speak up there,” said Shashi, the president of a rope-making EDC.

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The younger generation in the Gulf of Mannar is also on the path to change. With more young people getting access to education, fishing no longer seems to be a popular career choice. The youth have aspirations to become nurses, police officers and teachers.

Education has also given them an opportunity to learn about the marine life on the islands they live on, allowing them to actively participate in outreach and advocacy. Every year, schools in Ramanathapuram have an exhibition for the general public on marine life and what can be done to protect it. The Wildlife Institute of India has also been conducting plastic waste awareness rallies and beach cleanups regularly. There is hope that children involved in these activities will take forward the messages to their fisherfolk parents.

Vocational colleges have been providing training for jobs as teachers and coast guards. Independent agencies like Quest are also providing adventure sports training as alternative livelihoods to fishing. Most young fishermen in the islands of Mandapam and Ramanathapuram have been trained in life-saving skills in the water, kayaking, paddleboarding, surfing and sailing.

These skills eventually allow them to take part in international competitions and platforms, straying away from the traditional career of fishing.

(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a source for environmental news reporting and analysis. The views expressed in the article are those of Mongabay.com. Feedback: [email protected])

–IANS/Mongabay

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