The season has finally come to an end here in Goa. The last package tourists have arrived risking the monsoon, and budget backpackers are here looking for cheap off-season accommodation. All that is left on the once-packed beaches are sleeping dogs, day-trippers sleeping off the excess of a whisky-fuelled night, a few sun worshipers in ill-fitting bikinis and the fishermen.
The local fishing communities have begun to fish again and the beach returns to the way it looked ten or so years ago. Nets and ropes line the beach. Men, neck deep in the lagoon waters, drag their nets through the tides, catching enough fish for their families’ dinners. For hundreds of years, fishing communities around the world have lived this way, a dynamic and sustainable existence along the coastal belts. Generations have grown up with a profound understanding and respect for their environment and everything it gives and everything it takes.
In certain areas of India’s western coastline, fishermen from different castes could identify each other by the way they threw their nets. Each caste group had their own system of fishing as well as fish species. Higher caste members were permitted to catch the larger fish while lower caste would catch the smaller species. This system, while seen as unjust to many, was a sustainable system in many ways. Communities would take what their families required to sustain a reasonable standard of living. They knew that their resources were finite and they respected this. They also knew of the seasons the fish laid their eggs and the time they needed to mature and to continue the life cycle and they knew of their migration patterns.
For hundreds, if not thousands of years, this natural flow has existed between people and their environment, an understanding of how to manage these life-giving resources in a way that was mutually benefiting to society and our essential bio-diversity.
I began talking to a young fisherman here in Palolem, Guru. He’s 30 years old, married and has one child. He and his father run tourist trips to show the dolphins further out to sea. During the season, all day long, you can hear the drone of the fishing boat engines, the smell of kerosene and the piercing screams of over excited tourists trying to catch a glimpse of a dolphin’s fin or tail as it hunts for small fish.
They make good money. Every trip is a minimum of Rs1000 ($18) for a 45 minute round trip on the boat. Guru told me that local fishing had dramatically diminished over the past ten years making it difficult to provide for their growing family with the sustainable income it needs. The dolphin trips are now their only real source of income, and like so many communities around the world, as their income base shifts and they begin to earn hard currency, they become economic consumers, slowly removing themselves from hundreds of years of tradition and resource-based self-sustainability.
As a community’s environment and life styles change, so do its priorities, the traditions of hand-made wooden fishing boats are disappearing. At the far end of the beach, unloved and uncared for, beautifully-crafted wooden boats lay rotting and vandalized and once-valuable and cherished nets are now buried in the sand.
It’s not just the changing social dynamic that is responsible for these changes. The fishermen told me that they want to fish, but what else could they do, when the beach is full of money-touting tourists and there are so few fish to catch? Over the last few years, fishermen’s catches have steadily dropped and the biggest culprit responsible for these decreasing catches lay just a little out to sea – the trawlers.
At night, the horizon is often lit up with tiny bobbing lights; during the day they crisscross the local waters, engines pumping black smoke from their stacks as they strain to drag the heavy nets through the water.
Over the last few years, fishermen have experienced huge changes taking place as businessmen have started to see an opportunity to exploit the shallow waters of the west coast. Big diesel-driven trawlers prowl the waters with purse nets, scraping the bottom of the sea and lifting all the life; fish eggs, tiny crustaceans, everything is taken, then dumped onto the deck of the boat. Fishermen busy themselves with plastic boards, flicking anything that is saleable into a basket, the rest, dead, back into the sea. Day in, day out, throughout the season, the trawlers take anything and everything.
Somewhere, inland, a man sits at a desk and taps figures into a calculator to work out how much profit he has made.
This, according to the local fishermen, is the real cause of the problem. Fishing is now seen just as an activity based on profit. Businessmen, mainly local politicians, own these boats and easily flout seasonal and quota laws. No one seems able to change anything. For the last few years, fishermen have come together to lobby local government officials to change and enforce the laws, but these officials are also the boat-owning businessmen and they have no desire to reduce their own annual profits. They know that time is running out and that soon fish stocks will begin to collapse, but that’s “not their problem”; their only concern is to make money and to make it before any other person gets a chance.
It’s all “big business”, and as global demand increases so does the value of our resources. As long as you have the hardware to collect, the resources are free - and that’s a profitable business.
We went to one of the ports, a place called Betul on the estuary, where some of the bigger trawlers come in. Here we met one of the boat owners, dressed in slacks and a clean shirt, mobile phone clipped to his designer belt. He told us that it was the sardine season. Billions of sardines migrating along India’s west coast are scooped up by these giant nets, loaded into the hold and then taken to port. He explained that these sardines were headed to the next state, Karnataka, to be processed into feed for huge chicken farms, a source of valuable protein for another growing food business. He was a happy man content with his business interests of fishing and mining.
So as the giant trawlers take the lion’s share of the sardine, mackerel and kingfish bounty out of the sea, the smaller trawlers sweep up everything else. Local fishermen worry about what the future will hold for them. If there are no more fish in their sea there will no longer be dolphins and without dolphins there will be no tourist to give them an income.
Music by Gary Reuben Morris - hoorayface.bandcamp.com/