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Artisanal fishers deploy communication technologies to stay safe during the monsoon

Artisanal fishers in Kerala face multiple challenges during the monsoon season such as rough seas, unsafe harbours and inadequate and unreliable local forecasts. Inadequate safety measures in harbours due to flawed designs result in accidents and deaths. To prevent such accidents, fishers have been demanding better harbour safety and design, and more reliable and localised wind and wave forecasts. In the meantime, fishers are increasingly relying on information and communications technology such as wireless sets, mobile phones and satellite phones to stay safe during monsoon fishing. Max Martin and Sindhu Nepolean report

Revving up his small boat’s outboard engine, Davidson Anthony Adima, in his early 40s, prepared to cut across high waves gushing into the Muthalappozhi Harbour, 23 km north of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. Waves often push the boats’ nose up and throw them over their crest. “Monsoon fishing is risk-prone,” Adima said. Safety measures, localised forecasts and communication facilities are limited for about 50,000 artisanal fishers of Thiruvananthapuram District who brave the high wind and waves of the season on small boats, canoes and rafts. They are now testing new technologies to stay safe, while fishing during monsoon months.

Fibreglass canoes called tsunami rafts that fishers use to fish close to the shore at the southern Thiruvananthapuram village of Puthiyathura. Photo: Max Martin

Unsafe harbours
Fishers point out the dangers of low visibility at night and on overcast evenings, when sea mist and spray sometimes make the harbour mouth almost invisible. “The narrow harbour mouth frequently gets silted up and pushes the waves up. Backflow from the lagoon and eddies (circular currents) of the estuary can spin the boat out of control,” explained Valerian Isaac, 56, a fisherman from Mampalli Village, six km north of Muthalappozhi. “About 60 fishermen would have died here. The past decade has been particularly bad,” said Isaac, who serves as the district president of Kerala Independent Fishworkers’ Federation. A study by Malayalam daily Madhyamam put the casualty figure at 45 till 2019.

The district collector recently ordered the state Harbour Engineering Department and Adani Ports to ensure the safety of the harbour, where the giant corporate has a barge to ship out granite for their upcoming port project at Vizhinjam Village. The safety measures suggested in the collector’s order include guiding lights on the south side of the harbour, safety buoys along the boulder-lined harbour channel, dredging and mandatory use of lifejackets by fishers. Isaac pointed out, however, that the harbour design is flawed and the channel much narrower than originally planned, thereby causing the boats to capsize or crash against the boulders. At Anjengo village, five km north of the harbour, fishers have been holding demonstrations to push for harbour safety. Back in 2018, they designed and erected their own guiding signals lit by LED lamps used in boats before the government stepped in with these basic safety measures. Still, signals often malfunctioned. Harbours are often unsafe, including in Vizhinjam where south Thiruvananthapuram fishers launch and land boats during the monsoon, fishers complained.

A broken boat washed up near Muthalappozhi Harbour, a risk-prone area for artisanal fishers. Photo: Bennet John

Inadequate forecasts
Fishers of Anjengo have been demanding localised wind and wave forecasts to ascertain safe fishing hours. The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services provides timely high wave alerts and localised wave and swell information along with model-based local wind forecasts. These alerts help in the event of high wave events; however, the harbour waves can be unpredictable and confusing, local fishers said. “We [have to] buy more and more powerful engines to cut across the waves safely,” a local boat owner added.

On the other hand, wide fishing bans also create issues for fishers. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) often forecasts winds of 40 or 45 km per hour speed that are risky for small boats and issues advisories against fishing during the monsoon. “We find the coastal waters much calmer than what is forecast. The forecasters seem to scare us,” Davidson said. Dozens of fishing days are lost due to these restrictions, and many fishers said they set out to fish irrespective of the advisories.

At Poonthura, close to the city centre, fishers share the same skepticism of official forecasts. “We are receiving marine forecast alerts as SMS in our mobile numbers from the central government daily; but it has no use at all,” said Joy Alukas, a fisherman in his late 50s. “They are only threatening us with exaggerated alerts. Imagine you have to avoid fishing in the Thiruvananthapuram sea because of a storm blowing over the Bay of Bengal. That’s ridiculous, right?”

IMD scientists said their statewide restrictions are based on the odds of high wind from distant systems reaching the local waters and capsizing small craft of 30 feet or even smaller canoes. A Cyclone Warning Centre became operational at the Meteorological Centre in Thiruvananthapuram that started in October 2018, a year after the Cyclone Ockhi that killed many fishers in the sea.  “They now issue coastal forecast services, detailed and frequent advisories for fishers with tracks and projected impacts of far-off weather systems, easily accessible deep ocean forecasts, and streamlined bulletins with INCOIS wave data,” said an IMD official.

Fishers also depend on loudspeaker announcements made by village panchayats and places of worship. “I don’t know whether they send any alerts on our phones as I can’t read Malayalam or English. I sometimes listen to the loudspeaker announcements from the local church, which is much more understandable,” said Soosa Nayakam, a fisherman from Poovar in his early 60s. Still, localised services appear to be inadequate. The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority that is responsible for emergency preparedness and early warnings has tested private weather services in addition to IMD services. Recent studies have shown the need for more localised forecasts.

Davidson Anthony Adima (second from right) and colleagues on board their boat Muthalappozhi Harbour. Photo: Bennet John

Technology fixes
With mounting risks, especially over the past five years, fishers increasingly depend on information and communications technology (ICTs) to stay safe. “Wireless sets are becoming increasingly popular,” said Sabu Mariyadason, a young ICT scientist belonging to a fishing family in Pozhiyoor close to the district border with Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. His research shows that while global positioning systems (GPS) helps people fish safely, catch more and earn better, wireless sets are the next most useful tool. It is followed by mobile phones that are more cost-effective. Fishers also use echosounders to spot fish.

At Mariyanadu, a village five km south of Muthalappozhi, fishers are increasingly depending on ICTs. “Our youngsters help us with some mobile apps like Windy, where you could get the speed and direction of the wind in our areas,” said Jerald Joseph, a local fisherman in his early 50s. “We don’t usually rely on government forecasts.” During the monsoon, fishers often stay close to the shore and keep a powerful 40 HP engine handy so that they can return fast at the first sign of bad weather — in an hour from fishing spots within 20 kilometres from the coast.

“We carry wireless, walkie-talkies and phones in our fishing boats during the Aaniyaadi (Aani and Aadi months in the Tamil calendar, denoting monsoon) season,” said Joseph. “Before the monsoon season, we go up to 40-50 kilometres into the sea, but now (during monsoon) as the sea is very rough, we go only up to 15-20 kilometres. Cell phones are used only to talk with fellow boatmen at sea. Walkie-talkies are good for short-range communication of three to four kilometres.” Fishers of two or more boats working together in boat seine fishing often use walkie-talkies, he added.

A fisherman in Karumkulam, a village in southern Thiruvananthapuram keeps his mobile phone safe in a waterproof pouch, before launching his boat. Photo: Max Martin

Mobile phones are also very popular, but they work only within 10-15 km from the shore where the signals are available. Wireless can work offshore over a distance of 20-30 km and the fishers said they often relay messages over much longer distances. “When the marine weather is so unpredictable, one cannot go fishing in the sea during this season without carrying at least two of these devices,” Joseph said. There are limitations. “We do not communicate much using wireless with those on shore. Usually, we don’t get enough range for that. So, we use it more to communicate with people at sea,” Alukas said. “At the same time, when we go to work from Vizhinjam harbour during the monsoon, we generally do not carry wireless sets with us. They can’t be safely kept inside the boats anchored in the harbour. The market price of a wireless set is Rs. 20,000 these days; it is also prone to theft.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some enterprising fishers living close to the Kanyakumari border are beginning to use satellite telephones that allow long-range communication with other satellite phones as well as mobiles and landlines on shore. “I can talk with people back home and check about the weather; but it has to be a very short call as talk time is very expensive,” said a local fisherman. This suggests the possibility of technology penetration from the northern parts of Kanyakumari, where multi-day offshore fishers, such as shark hunters, increasingly use satellite phones as Mariyadason’s ongoing studies show.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India)

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