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Building the resilience of coastal fishing communities in Kerala

UK Aid is supporting the Government of Kerala protect the livelihoods of coastal fishing communities from the impacts of climate change.

‘Forty years ago there was an abundance of fish in Poovar,’ recalls Mercy Alexander, a 59-year-old local woman. ‘I had to preserve the excess catch and store it in bulk near my house. As the catch was more than the demand, it fetched only a marginal price, and meant additional storage and preservation work. I used to pray for less catch.’

The situation has reversed drastically in the past 20 years. ‘The catch stays deeper in the water and doesn’t come near the shoreline. We have to go farther in the sea and even cast our nets deeper,’ say fishermen Thomas and Iganticus.

Exploitation of marine resources is the fundamental reason this fishing community is vulnerable. Over the long term, this has had a negative impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. Catfish, ribbonfish and butter-fish, which were once found in abundance along the southern coast in Kerala, have disappeared. Schools of butter-fish, after disappearing from Kerala, have started appearing along the Maharashtra coast. The reported reason for the disappearance of catfish is indiscriminate fishing of brood stock by trawlers off the Malabar and Mangalore coasts.

Meanwhile, climate change impacts such as sea level rise, sudden and extreme weather events, storm surges and rising sea surface temperatures are adding to the problem. Marine ecosystems have traditionally been the primary source of livelihood for coastal fishing communities. In recent years, rising sea level and sea surface temperatures have adversely affected such ecosystems and the incomes fishing communities derive from them. Finding out the exact reasons for fish movements requires scientific inquiry, but there is substantial reason to believe that increases in the sea surface temperature may be a factor.

Damage to houses during the monsoon has also become a threat in recent years. Affected families are typically shifted to temporary shelters such as local school buildings, where they end up staying for months. Measures such as the construction of sea walls and groynes to protect fishing habitats from erosion and extreme wave action have proven ineffective and, worse, counterproductive. Erosion continues to take place underneath these sea walls, causing their eventual subsidence and disintegration. ‘In my own village the walls have been built several times in the past 10 years. Such maladaptation has also caused erosion in adjacent areas,’ says A. J. Vijayan, Chair of the Western Ghats and Coastal Area Protection Forum.

There are 65,459 fisher families (55%) below the poverty line. The State Planning Board estimates the per capita annual income of fishers at 50,491 rupees – half of the state average of 99,977 rupees. Fishermen believe changes in wind and rain patterns account for the shift in the movement of marine species towards the Maharashtra and Gujarat coast

The road to resilience

A total of 300 km of Kerala’s coastline had been covered by sea walls, at an investment of around 12 crore rupees per kilometre and with an equal amount spent on maintenance. These spoiled open beaches and stopped fishing communities having direct access to the sea. Rather than similar hard measures, a more ecosystem-based approach was needed to protect the coast. There was also a pressing need to integrate climate change information and models into the design of development interventions and infrastructure.

It is in this context that ACT held consultations with the Government of Kerala and identified enhancing the resilience of coastal fishing communities as an important area of intervention.

‘The fishing community is one of the most vulnerable in the state. Fishing is becoming difficult as resources are dwindling. Current measures being adopted to enhance their income security have fallen short of addressing the roots of their vulnerability. Providing them with two-wheelers, cycles and ice boxes is not a long-term solution to address their livelihood issues,’ says Mariamma Sanu George, ACT Kerala Team.

ACT conducted an elaborate vulnerability assessment of select coastal locations, demarcated areas based on their level of vulnerability to climatic factors and built a rationale for priority actions in areas identified as most vulnerable.

One of the main findings is that the sustainability of marine fisheries requires restructuring current fishery practices using an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management. This would represent a move away from management systems that focus only on the sustainable harvesting of target species to a system that also considers the major components in an ecosystem, and the social and economic benefits that can be derived from their utilisation. Some of the concrete measures recommended in the study are:

  • Creation of no-fishing zones: Resource depletion exacerbated by climate change has directly affected the livelihoods of fishing communities. Rise in sea surface temperature has caused lateral and vertical shift and depletion of fish resources. Aquaculture, both brackish water and fresh water, is also vulnerable to climate change. Increasing community resilience requires measures such as delineating ‘no-fishing zones’ and sustainability of marine fisheries can be ensured only through restructuring current fisheries along the principles of ecosystem health and equity.
  • Building bio-shields: Communities collecting and selling non-timber forest produce are present in certain pockets of the coast. Afforestation through bio-shields would represent an appropriate protection measure, as increased coastal erosion is likely to affect these systems. Inclusion of plants such as vetiver and screw pines in the bio-shields could potentially improve their economic potential. Local self-government institutions should promote growing trees wherever vacant space is available, including encouraging communities with ample space to plant more trees and grow vegetables.
  • Empowering fishers through livelihood reforms: Provisions in aquatic reforms, such as the right to first sale and restricting ownership of fishing units by issuing licences to actual sea-going fishers in consultation with the Fisheries Department, will reduce fishers’ dependency on boat-owners, employers, moneylender and traders. It will allow them to get a fair price for their catch and address the depletion of resources caused by fish harvesting techniques, encouraged in both the mechanised and the traditional sectors by an initial spurt in output and profit.

ACT and its partners in Kerala have brought in an understanding that building the resilience of coastal communities to the impacts of climate change requires a move away from an exclusive focus on hard solutions, to include governance reforms and ecosystem-based solutions.

This article was previously published by ACT in On the Frontiers of Climate ChangeFind out more about ACT's work.

Image credit: ACT on Flickr