ALAPPUZHA, India, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
Flocks of storks and cormorants perched on bamboo stilts peer
into the blue-black depths of Vembanad Lake in India’s southwest
Kerala state, searching hungrily for food.
“Around 200 fish pairs are breeding here, which is why
predator birds are hanging around,” said KV Dineshan, steering
his canoe towards the tennis court-sized fish sanctuary, a
fertile oasis in the degraded lake located in a Ramsar-protected
A barrage built by the state government divides the lake’s
36,000 hectares (88,958 acres) in two: the northern part has
brackish water all year round, while the southern half is fed
with fresh water from rivers and seawater is shut out from
December to April, allowing rice to be grown.
But grave challenges face the 7,500 fishermen like Dineshan
who make a living from the southern part of the lake, which
covers 13,000 hectares. They are struggling with low salinity
which harms shellfish reproduction, water stagnation, pollution
and agro-chemical run-off.
Over-fishing and the mounting impacts of climate change -
including warmer water in the lake, a decline in winter rains
and severe flash floods during the monsoon - are making matters
The 1.5 million people supported by Vembanad, one of India's
largest lakes, live off agriculture, fishing, clam collecting,
duck breeding, coconut fibre production, tourism and water-based
transport. But yields have been falling and times are hard.
“To get the same quantity of black clam meat that we used to
collect, process and sell in three hours, today takes nine,”
said NK Raju of Sarithodu village, one of 5,000 clam gatherers
in Vembanad’s south, as he processed the day’s haul of just 8 kg
(17.64 lb) on an open fire in a lean-to.
Half the wetland’s 150 fish species have been wiped out
since the Thanneermukkom barrage was built in 1975, show fish
counts by the Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in
Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).
So in 2008, a group of fishermen decided they would make an
effort to protect their livelihoods by trying to conserve the
lake’s natural resources.
Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan, a senior fellow with ATREE, said
his organisation worked with the fishermen to develop a
“bottom-up” conservation model.
“The fisherfolk use their traditional ecological wisdom
(and) we help them partner with scientists to identify problems
and solutions which they themselves implement,” he explained.
The fishermen set up Lake Protection Forums (LPFs), legally
registered bodies, which numbered 13 by 2011, spread across
Alappuzha and Kottayam districts, each with 50 members, 20 of
One of their projects was to create fish sanctuaries based
on a traditional method called ‘padal’ or ‘fresh foliage’
To simulate mangroves, leafy mango and cashew branches were
fixed to the lake bed to create a plankton bloom, attracting
lots of fish. But these would be caught before they had time to
The LPFs decided to declare the areas “no-fishing zones” and
erected bamboo fencing to prevent canoes from entering and
Commercial fish varieties, including pearl-spots, red
snappers and mangrove snappers, can now multiply in these
sanctuaries where eels, water snakes and otters add to the
The Kannankara fish sanctuary, set up in 2013, benefits 300
families, said Dineshan.
An evaluation by experts from the Kerala University of
Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS) and India’s Central Marine
Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) found healthy reproductive
couples and larger shoals of fish larvae in the sanctuaries
compared with other locations in the lake.
In other parts of Vembanad where fishermen are less
ecologically minded, when they catch mother prawns, holding up
to 100,000 larvae each, they sell them for $6 apiece to private
prawn hatcheries instead of returning them to the lake, said KV
Jayachandran, former director of research at KUFOS.
CMFRI has included fish sanctuaries in a set of
recommendations on coastal adaptation to climate change, for
nations in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation,
and India will offer technical assistance to countries that want
to introduce them.
Another victory for the LPFs has been to get the barrage
gates opened earlier, instead of them staying closed through
April to help rice farmers bring in late harvests.
The low level of salt in the water was hurting clam
harvests, but officials told fishermen they must provide proof
of their complaints, according to KM Poovu, who heads the
federation of LPFs.
So in 2012, the federation decided to monitor water quality
at 14 lakeside locations and display the findings on
market-place boards every month.
“People read them - at first curiously, then seriously - and
began discussing salinity and pollution as never before,” said
Poovu, who has written a book about ethical fishing practices.
“The public discussion of a common problem brought together our
disintegrating fishing community.”
ATREE set up monitoring stations, and helped local people
with training and testing kits to measure water salinity,
acidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen and dissolved solids -
all critical to the wetland’s fauna.
At the beginning of April that year, when pollution was at
its highest and the barrage gates still closed, LPF members took
data from their tests to Alappuzha’s district administrator.
Faced with the evidence, he ordered the barrage to be opened
on April 2, 10 days earlier than before. Since then, the gates
have been opened in early April each year.
The forums have tackled theft too. In 2014, a group from
neighbouring Kottayam district was rowing into the Kannankara
area at night to dredge up white clams – whose shells are used
to manufacture industrial cement - 30 feet underwater, using
powerful suction pumps.
Local fishermen began finding large amounts of dead clams in
their nets due to the turbidity and acidity of the water as the
pumps stirred up sediment from the lake bed.
“When we confronted the intruders, they used their political
connections and got us arrested instead,” said Manoharan from
the Kannankara LPF.
After the forum appealed to the local clam collectors’
arbitration panel, the Kottayam group was thrown out and all
dredging was banned.
The LPFs also collect plastic waste which ends up in the
lake following the annual pilgrim season in November and
December. Each forum collects 40 to 70 sacks of plastic which
are recycled to build village roads.
Local people now understand that “their economic condition
is directly linked to sustainable ecology management”,
Jayachandran said. “Better health and cultural unity are other
(Reporting by Manipadma Jena; editing by Megan Rowling. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.