Tales from the Tides: Stories from the Fishing Communities
Fishing communities ride the tides of hardships day in and day out. This blog is a reflection on the author’s experience living with fishing communities in coastal villages in Andhra Pradesh.
Early in my career, I had the good fortune and opportunity to work on marine turtles along the east coast of India. My primary task was to closely interact with the local fisher communities of the coastal villages of Andhra Pradesh to estimate the marine turtle population in those villages. Every year, from December to April, marine turtles migrate from the beaches of Sri Lanka along India’s east coast up to Odisha where thousands of Olive Ridley marine turtles nest.
My team and I were to get on a small fishing boat and with the guidance of the local fishermen we used to go out into the sea to count the marine turtles in the near shore waters. There was a set protocol that we followed every time we did these surveys across 4 months in the year. After a few visits to a quiet village by the sea- Bandaruvanipeta in the Srikakulam district, we were soon referred to as “Tabelu Madams” (Turtle Madams), since our arrival came with the arrival of marine turtles.
Fishermen know the sea like we know the way back home after work every day. It’s their mother nature. They consider it sacred since their livelihood depends on it. A team of local fishermen turned our friends. Without their support, we would not have received the kind of results we did from those surveys. Although we had a GPS with us to track our path and to ensure we were heading in the right direction, our fishermen friends did not need any of those gadgets, they just needed to look towards the shoreline and to know exactly where we were. We trusted their inputs on the surveys, the weather, sea conditions and our safety at sea. We increasingly relied on their decisions to head out to sea.
On one such survey day, we had a break from a rain spell for two days and we were ready to utilise this to the fullest. We reached the village, fuelled boat, the propellers hit the water and within no time we were on our marked path to spot the turtles. The sun was out but the sea looked murky from all the sediment that was churned within during the rains. Halfway into the journey, one of the fishers, upon receiving a call from one of his friends back home, suggested that we head back because the weather was deteriorating. I was not too worried since we were closer to shore that day. We turned the boat around then a few minutes into our onward journey, we saw the rain coming in. Our driver increased the speed and the 3 other men on the boat started preparing the boat for what was to come. The ropes were fastened, mobiles and food were shut in a small cabin in the boat and my colleague and I were instructed to sit tight and stay calm.
I never headed into a storm on a boat! My colleague and I held on to each other while the waves splashed at us and the rainwater drenched us. The boat was rocked by the waves and we could barely see anything even by squinting our eyes. After twenty minutes of a hell of a ride, we set foot on land almost feeling like we were given a second chance at life.
The time spent with these fishing communities is one of the most memorable in my life and every time I visit, besides the wonderful time I have on the beautiful coast, I also reflect on the challenges the people face. They ride the tides of hardships day in and day out. Development in these regions is slow-paced and adds to the challenge of poor living standards. The income of a vast majority of households is too low, forcing them to neglect basic hygiene and sanitation. We often come across open drains and open defecation is common. Saltwater intrusion makes water less accessible for drinking. Consuming these waters without filtration increases health risks. To improve income levels and standards of living, the literacy rates are low, leaving the youngsters no choice but to pursue small-wage jobs. In addition, the changing climate is affecting the marine ecosystem, threatening the livelihoods. They have to venture farther into the sea every year for a decent fish catch due to the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems.
As a marine biologist, the cause of the betterment of the lives of people along the coast is close to my heart. I’m glad that through the interventions focused on Coastal Ecosystems, at Dr. Reddy’s Foundation (DRF), we are making efforts towards improving the livelihoods of the community alongside the restoration and conservation of marine habitats. Community-led mangrove restoration projects by the foundation are being scaled to benefit several fishing communities along the coast of Andhra Pradesh. Mangroves by providing feed and shelter to a variety of species of fish, improve seafood value chains greatly. Community-led projects of DRF in agriculture and climate action yielded excellent results in terms of time to scale, adoption of sustainable practices and income enhancement. As we look to intensify our efforts by collaborating with technical experts and knowledge partners, I’m hoping for a similar result with coastal communities.