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Climate crisis hits Tamil Nadu fishing community in Kombuthurai

The lives of Kombuthurai fishermen, a community of 150 Latin Catholics fishing in the marine sanctuary of the Gulf of Mannar, Tamil Nadu.

By Aysha Sadak
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Kombuthurai fishermen navigate changing tides of climate change impact

Kombuthurai, nestled within the Kayalpatinam municipality, is a quaint fishing village located in Tamil Nadu's southern Tuticorin district. It is primarily populated by a significant Latin Catholic community whose main occupation revolves around fishing. Currently, the village is home to 150 fishing families who derive their primary livelihood from the abundant local marine life.

The majority of today's fishermen stem from several generations of anglers, casting their lines in the Gulf of Mannar. This region, renowned for its rich marine sanctuary and historically lauded for its pearl fishery, continues to be a preferred fishing ground.

They also say that the fauna of “The Gulf of Mannar” is one of the richest in the whole of the Indo-West Pacific region. However, new challenges are arising due to the worsening impact of climate change, making their careers highly volatile.

Climate change’s influence on weather pattern

Killintus, a third-generation fisherman, said it used to be easier to predict weather patterns and wind directions when he was younger. Now, even with all the technologies in hand, the sudden changes in weather, sea current, and wind speed have made it increasingly difficult for him and other fishermen.

Killintus shows the cooler box, they store their catches in. Photo Credit: Aysha Sadak

“We use our weather forecasting system, GPS, and check the weather on our phone before entering the sea. Sometimes the underwater current increases suddenly. Although the current is visible to us, we can no longer tell the speed. The currents are getting more and more powerful,” Killintus added.

The Gulf of Mannar faces a tropical climate where the currents are swift. The region faces both southwest and northeast monsoons, with occasional gales. The changes in the monsoon directly influence the ocean currents, which depend on surface winds and temperature.

Moreover, the ocean absorbs the sun’s radiation, distributing the heat through ocean currents, leading to ocean evaporation. This increases the temperature and humidity of the surrounding air, according to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Exploration Division. Hence, the climate change above the sea is felt deep underwater, affecting the coastal meteorology and weather conditions.

Traditional, sustainable fishing in Kombuthurai

The fishermen of Kombuthurai typically embark on their single-day fishing excursions in the predawn hours, setting out at a crisp 3:00 AM and returning just as evening sets in around 7:00 PM. They rely on the indigenous "hook and line method" for fishing, a practice exclusive to this region, handed down and perfected over successive generations.

Not only is this traditional method sustainable, it also exerts minimal detrimental impact on the delicate aquatic ecosystem. Consequently, after all these years, the waters around Kombuthurai remain remarkably undisturbed and unexploited.

“Sudden changes in the current often drag the fishing line away from where we spread it. Normally, we would be able to catch large quantities of fish. But in the last few years, we have caught fewer fish in the usual fishing spots,” said Anthony.

Climate Change and its effects on Kombuthurai’s sustainable fishing practices. Photo Credit: Aysha Sadak

“Our main catches are tuna, seerfish, carangids, and cuttlefish, with occasionally catching grouper, snapper, goatfish, and pomfrets. Our fishing method increases our catch compared to nearby fishing villages. But lately, there have been days where we return with very little, or sometimes empty-handed.” Killintus added.

After being caught, the fish are kept on ice. This preserves the quality of fish for a longer time. The fishermen then bring their catch to the village auction center, where they would earn around 3000–5000 rupees on a good day. However, the seasonal fluctuations and fewer catches have made the markets very unstable.

Cyclones affect Kombuthurai fishermen's income

Climate change is causing more frequent and dangerous cyclones. The sudden increase in temperature in tropical regions is making the prediction of development and the path of cyclones difficult. This causes the government to delay issuing cyclone warnings. The warnings are declared 20 days prior to the cyclone's landfall.

“The warning stops us from going out to the sea. The conditions will still be rough even after it makes landfall. So we have to stop working for a few days. This affects our income. We need at least 500 rupees each day to meet our family expenses. The fishermen, unlike farmers, don’t get financial compensation from the government after heavy rain,” Killintus sighed. 

The fishermen of Kmbuthurai are adept at adapting to weather fluctuations, but the recent erratic weather patterns are posing significant challenges to them. Their reliance on the hook-and-line sustainable fishing method has traditionally allowed resource preservation.

However, they are now confronting an unprecedented form of pressure brought about by climate change, leading to escalating losses and unpredictable earnings.

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