Why Tamil Nadu fishermen want artificial reefs

Local fishermen mending his nets
Chennai, India

Why Tamil Nadu fishermen want artificial reefs

The wharf at Theresepuram near Thoothukudi was abuzz in the morning as boats returned from their fishing trips. But many fishermen grumbled, saying they weren’t catching nearly the number of fish they once did.

“We don’t get oozhi (barracuda) even to make curry,” says Selvam A., a fisherman.

From Kasimedu fishing harbor near Chennai to Kanniyakumari, fishermen say the species they once found in abundance are not available now.

In Kovalam (about 40km from Chennai) fishermen say they’ve seen a decline in sudhumbu (white fish) while those in Vembar (550km from Chennai) in Thoothukudi district say they no longer catch fishes such as poovali, kuthippu and chavaalai (hilsa, white fish & ribbonfish).

“We usually get a lot of fish where the streams join the sea,” says Anthony Duraiswamy of Tharuvaikulam village. “We have not had proper rains in the past five years so there’s no water in the stream – and so no fish.”

Fishermen say that fish stocks have also come down because the coral reefs that served as their breeding grounds have been lost to bleaching and acidification caused mainly by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Ragesh of Sulerikattukuppam
Ragesh of Sulerikattukuppam finds artificial reefs ideal for nearshore fishing / Credit: Jency Samuel

“Everyone talks about global warming. But we are able to feel it when we go into the sea,” says David X., a fisherman from Roachemanagar village in Ramanathapuram district. “Earlier, we never used to feel the heat, irrespective of how long we stayed in the sea. But it’s not so now.”

According to Stephen R., a fisherman from Vellapatti village, the rise in temperature as well as industrial effluents being let in the sea are also causing depletion of fishes. Because of this, the fishermen say they have to venture further out to sea.

However, Sebastian P. of Theresepuram village, was unable to go far from shore because he was unwell and hence fished near what he called the “stones,” where he found breams and parrotfish. The stones are concrete structures dropped into the sea to enhance marine resources. Though fishermen generally refer to them as artificial coral reefs, they are not coral reefs.

How does fish stock increase because of concrete blocks dropped in the sea?

Concrete blocks are used to create artificial reefs
Concrete modules ready for deployment at the CMFRI centre in Kovalam near Chennai / Credit: Jency Samuel

“First a film of algae develops on the artificial reefs. Small organisms come to feed on the algae, which in turn attract fishes,” says Dr. Laxmilatha P., scientist-in-charge of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).

The M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) deployed 122 artificial reefs, each weighing a ton, near Theresepuram in 2004, says Dr. Velvizhi S. of MSSRF’s Poompuhar centre.

“Artificial reefs cannot be deployed in all places,” Dr. Velvizhi says. “The place should not be slushy, not a fish route, not all nets can be used, etc. and so we have discussions with the local fishermen and then decide on the location.”

According to Ragesh V. of Sulerikattukuppam, fish appeared near the artificial reefs within six months.

“That is the success of artificial reefs. The fishermen who cannot go far [out to sea] can fish near the shore and earn reasonably well. This helps the women who sell fish also earn more,” says Dr. Joe Kizhakudan, who’s in charge of the CMFRI centre at Kovalam.

Targeting the fishers at Vellapatti village near Thoothukudi, Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute (SDMRI) deployed artificial reefs near Vaan Island in 2003. SDMRI’s director Dr. Patterson Edward says the marine resources around the artificial reefs are being monitored and a comparison of data gathered over regular intervals with the baseline survey data indicates a clear increase in resources such as fishes, crabs and corals.

All the fishermen who have artificial reefs near their villages agree.

Marine life has started to return around artificial reefs
Artificial reefs develop an ecosystem and attract many marine organisms, serving as shelter and breeding ground / Courtesy of the Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute

“If we go into the sea, we may or may not get a catch. But near the artificial reefs, we will surely get a good catch,” says Kumar A.S. from Vellapatti. “In other places, we would get a catch worth Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000 [US$14-70], but near the artificial reefs, we would get catch worth Rs 3,500 to Rs 10,000 [US$50-140].”

Though CMFRI had deployed artificial reefs near Kovalam, when officials from Kalpakkam Atomic Power Plant approached the fishermen for village development, the villagers asked for additional artificial reefs. The reefs were deployed in March, says Ragesh.

“In addition to the increase of resources, the artificial reefs dissipate wave energy and protect the coastal villages,” says Dr. Joe Kizhakudan. “Now that the fishermen are aware, they are asking for more artificial reefs.”

“As more coastal villages ask for artificial reefs, the government is also taking steps in this direction,” says Dr. Laxmilatha.

This is an English-language translation of an article that was supported by EJN's Bay of Bengal project and originally appeared in NDTV Tamil on July 17.

Banner photo: Kumar A.S of Vellapatti – seen mending the nets with his family – finds fishing near artificial reefs more beneficial financially / Credit: Jency Samuel

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