November 2011
#Ecology , 1849 Views
Fish out of Water

Byline: Annalisa Merelli
Photographs: Candace Feit

Tamil Nadu’s fishing communities’ timeless way of life.

For generations, the lives of traditional fishermen who inhabit the tiny, coastal hamlets around Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, have revolved around the sea – its changing tides and seasonal produce.

And for these villages, fishing is not simply an activity; it defines the way of life of entire communities.

A vendor selling candy floss.

The sea is not just a resource but also the central element around which an entire social ecosystem is built.Fishing imposes its rhythms on those who practice it from youth, and somehow steals them away from the central life of the community: most of the men from these villages are fishermen, who leave their villages to go fishing at night, often for a few nights in a row. When they return, they sleep throughout the day or go drinking as a way of restoring themselves from such a physically demanding activity.

People refold a fishing net.

In a way, those who are responsible for supporting the communal economy become an invisible force that is absent during the daytime, and the fishing villages are a reality animated mostly by women, children and older people.

A clock shop in Pondicherry.

For these communities, the activity of traditional fishing and the environment are strongly interlinked, having a kind of timeless quality: from the natural surroundings from which they source wood and other materials they use to build their kattumarams (traditional canoe-like vessels) and fishing implements, to all the detritus and refuse associated with fishing scattered around. Stacked nets and lined up boats are everywhere.

Yet in a sense, despite living by the ocean for generations, the fishermen’s relationship with it is somehow purely functional: it’s the source of both their food and primary commodity. Their contact with the sea is limited to that practice. And while the fishermen are generally adroit swimmers, they will rarely swim for leisure.

A young boy swims in the ocean.

And fishing rules the lives even of those who are not going into the ocean: older men and sometimes women sell and process the fish, or help to make and mend the nets by hand.

A woman sits on part of a discarded fishing boat.

But things are changing. To promote the mechanisation of the fishing sector, the Indian government invested in it, introducing fishing trawlers in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, the investments were not followed by proper regulation when it came to the quantity of the catch and trawlers; both have grown exponentially having now reached a level of saturation saturation. Rampant over-fishing by trawlers selling in the export market has resulted in less catch for traditional fishermen.

A school girl stands in front of a temple on the outskirts of a fishing village.

Today, traditional fishery remains a somewhat sustainable livelihood. With welfare measures in place and at the local marketplace level, the increasing cost of fish – reflective of both demand and depleting numbers of fish – are he keep traditional fishery afloat, albeit tenuously so. For now, even a smaller catch is bringing in a sufficient income.

Increasingly, many young men of the fishermen’s caste are less willing to choose fishing as a job and a way of life, and are now looking for other kinds of occupations, in most cases outside of their villages, which means the socio-economic dynamic of the fishing villages around Pondicherry seems destined to change.

A man stands for a portrait in front of his house on a fishing beach.

In these communities, men may no longer just be virtually invisible, but absent altogether, gone elsewhere to look for a more sustainable, and perhaps more satisfying job. These fishing hamlets, where the fishermen are hardly to be seen around, are perhaps telling of things to come.