Bengaluru: More than five million marine fisherfolk live along the coast in India. In Karnataka alone, a million people are dependent on fisheries for their survival.
In the small villages that dot the coast of Karnataka, life is hard and uncertain - a constant dash between the sea and the shore, between life and death!
“Every time my brother and I step out into the sea I take a deep breath and take a long look at our little children, hoping to see them again soon. I have gone into the sea thousands of times since I started going with my father as a boy, but every time I go I still feel the butterflies in my stomach for a few minutes. But, as I negotiate the waves and head into the deep waters, I overcome the fear and focus on getting the square meal for my family. If I keep worrying about my safety, my children will go hungry, this keeps me going,” said Anand Naik, a small fisherman who risks his life every day for an average income of Rs100 per day.
Around 60 per cent of small fishermen in Karnataka live in utter poverty, earning an average of Rs100 per day.
“Our life is all about survival from dawn to dusk, day after day, week after week - off shore and on it! Fishing is like life, some days are good and some not so good. If there is fish, we relish it, if not we manage with whatever else is available,” added Naik, who makes up to three trips per day during the peak fishing season which starts towards the end of monsoon and lasts for at least three months.
But, their sufferings don’t end with their daily fishing trips. Due to growing marine pollution, changing weather patterns, erratic seas and unregulated fishing practices, the fish stock is depleting, putting thousands fisherfolk out of job.
“Sea is a strange being, it’s never the same and you never know which version of it will appear each time. These days it’s more erratic than before, and the irresponsible practices of certain big fleet owners have impacted us. The plastic pollution has also impacted fishing. Sometimes when we haul the net, we only find plastic waste, there is no fish,” said Umesh Naik, who hails from the village of Shirali in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district.
However, like most small fishermen brothers Anand and Umesh have learnt to adjust to the changing realities and they are always willing to compromise with their friend - the sea.
“We learnt our early lessons from our father, who was a master fisherman, but you will never graduate until you make dozens of solo trips. However, the learning never ends, every time we go out there, we learn new lessons,” adds Umesh.
Anand adds that fishing is not just about having the right equipment and setting a good trap.
“It’s about listening… listening to the wind and waters. You need to have your eyes and ears open, you need to be very calm and receptive all the time, fishing is about grit and patience, fishing is about having the heart of returning empty handed even after risking everything you have,” said Anand.
The struggles of small and marginal fishermen of the coastal villages of Karnataka are endless, however, even the fishermen with bigger boats are suffering.
Risk is inherent in the life of a fisherman, and it is not confined to small boats, opines Anthony D’costa, who owns a medium-sized boat.
“It’s not just the risk of taking on the sea and returning empty-handed, its the risk of losing life itself,” he added.
But for the fisherfolk such as D’costa and his friends in Karnataka’s Alvekodi village, it’s what life is all about - living on the edge of the roaring waves!
Game of hunger and fulfilment
Like the waves of these pristine beaches, the fishermen here are relentless, no matter how many times they get ‘no’ for an answer, they keep seeking their fortunes from the sea.
Most of the fisherfolk live their entire lives playing this thrilling game of hunger and fulfilment! For them life is nothing but a constant gamble!
“I know this work like my life. I started fishing as a 14-year-old for a salary of just Rs10 per day, I am now 51 years old. It’s been more than 34 years in this field,” said D’costa, who employs around 20 people for his small fishing enterprise.
Needless to say, life at sea is tough and challenging, with each fisherman’s task cut out and there is no question of any laxity. A moment’s negligence could ruin the whole group’s fortunes.
Knowing their range and surroundings is of particular importance for the smaller boats, as straying too far from the shore could mean hitting the point of no return.
For the Alvekodi fishermen the risk is greater, as the sea here is rocky and dropping the guard for a moment could spell a disaster.
“I have experienced a lot of losses and sometimes I get frustrated and feel like I should quit doing this. But, what else can I do? We have no choice other than working hard day and night in order to survive!
So, I don’t allow myself to lose hope. I believe, one day I will reap the fruits of my hard work and God will send my way a bumper catch,” says the enterprising and optimistic D’costa.
Fishing in most of these tiny coastal hamlets is as much a community business as it is an individual endeavour. It’s not just the matter of a mouth to feed or a family to sustain, its a matter of a village’s survival!
Like Anthony, many of the fishermen here employ the round-net fishing technique, which involves a team of around 20 people working together.
The technique requires setting of a trap in the sea covering a range of 250 metres, and pulling the long ropes connecting the net back to the shore.
“Earlier, I used to operate a bigger boat, employing 60-70 people, but bigger boat means bigger risks and there is not much fish to catch. So, after a lot of struggle and losses, I have started a smaller boat. But, I am still struggling to find a decent catch. Per day I make only Rs500 to Rs600, paying salaries to 20 people who work with me is a daily struggle,” said Anthony, who despite struggles keep seeking his fortune from the sea.
For the business of this magnitude to be sustainable fishermen need big hauls regularly, which is rarely the case.
What they make per fishing trip is usually between Rs50 and Rs100 per person, which is hardly sufficient for an individual to survive, let alone a family.
However, with their big hearts and vast pools of endurance they take every adversity in their stride.
Whether they hit the jackpot or return empty handed, they are in it together!
Whatever be the case, their spirits are usually high, their principle is simple - today there may not be much fish to fry, but tomorrow is a sea of opportunities!
Shafaat Shahbandari is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist and Founder-Editor of Thousand Shades of India