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Kerala fisherman becomes barefoot climate ambassador

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 7 Jan 2011 16:13 GMT
Author: Ajith Lawrence
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KOLLAM, India (AlertNet) – Sitting on a sandy beach beside the blue-black Arabian Sea, 70-year-old Andrews Ambrose says climate change scares him.

 The fisherman, who survived at least two close brushes with death in a career spanning 40 years, worries loss of fish and coasts to global warming could kill traditional fishing.

 Ambrose, a school dropout, is gaining a name as the barefoot ambassador of climate adaptation in Kerala, a south India tourism hotspot.

 Ambrose’s years of diary notes and logs of fishing forays aboard catamarans constructed of bundled-up logs and on engineless canoes have spawned two books. Written in the local language, Malayalam, ‘Sea Pearl’ describes environmental and species changes in the coastal waters.

 A sequel ‘Uncountable Sorrows’ is a personal memoir about people who fished with him, and lingering poverty in the traditional fishing hamlets of Kollam, which has more recently experienced a boom in large-scale mechanised fishing.

 "The days of good catch are just a memory now," Ambrose notes. “We eagerly wait for some boatman with a great catch shouting (for extra hands to haul the net ashore).” He claims there’s been considerable decline in several fish species and blames it on local greed.

Global warming is making the scenario worse, he says.

“The sea water is becoming warmer, and fish species on the surface disappear into the coolness of faraway deeper waters. The (traditional) fishermen here venture out for night fishing when the sea is cooler and there is no rush of big boats.”

Clad in a hand-woven saffron sarong and a white shirt, the bespectacled fisherman resembles a guru. But this guru has mapped the local seabed and knows how the shore, the water and the species change.

FIELD NOTES AIDING SCIENTISTS

 Local scientists are finding value in his field notes. Aquatic biologist Shambu Chithambara, who hails from a coastal village of Kollam and teaches at King Abdullah College in Saudi Arabia, says many of Ambrose’s observations appear valid.

“Growing up in this area, I have also observed some these phenomena that he talks about. (But) we need scientific studies for proof,” he said.

 Research by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, based at Kerala’s Kochi island, has shown that high temperature alters spawning and distribution of open-ocean fish, driving some species to migrate further north.

“We have noticed a decrease in fish diversity, but the catch of some species like oil sardine has been increasing,” said a senior scientist at the institute. He declined to give his name in advance of the release of broader study reports.

Scientists with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that rising temperatures could bring a dip in the spread and abundance of fish.

 Chitambara traces the science: “Planktons - tiny organisms that fish feed on - cannot stand any disturbance like pollution or heat. Then unscientific fishing practices, such as bottom trawling that kills fish eggs and fingerlings, affects the serenity of the ambience and disturbs fish feeding and breeding.”

 Ambrose says loss of diversity is already being felt at his dinner table. “At home, it means different curries,” he said.

Kerala’s independent fishworkers’ union, which Ambrose leads locally, has relentlessly opposed coastal trawling, with only limited success.

GROWING COASTAL HAZARDS 

But lately what worries Ambrose as well is worsening weather-related coastal hazards.

 “We are the ones who live and work on the borders of the sea and the land, braving the impacts of climate change like more heavy rains and worse storms,” he said at a public meeting in Kollam. 

Located on India’s southwest coast, Kerala is not a cyclone-prone area, unlike the eastern states on the Bay of Bengal coast. But monsoon storms and heavy waves still threaten fishing hamlets here.

 In Anchutengu village of Thiruvananthapuram district, south of Kollam, the beginning of the monsoon often means waves carving away parts of the beach and damaging houses. The most recent season was not too damaging as the early rains and winds were not particularly strong.

The U.N. climate panel predicts a worldwide sea level rise of 18 to 59 cm (7 to 23 inches) by the end of the century. Fishermen worry that could have an exponential impact on coastal erosion, scientists note. 

Coastal Kerala is one of the most densely populated areas in India, with many hamlets located within a kilometre (six-tenths of a mile) from the high-tide line. Worsening erosion may lead to waves increasingly hitting houses, local people worry.

 The National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) based in Goa has noted a sea level rise of 1.06 to 1.75 mm a year over the past 40 years along India’s coasts. That is in tune with the global average, though newer studies suggest a faster rise. Meteorologists note an increase in heavy rains.

DEFENCES DOWN

 Rising sea level can also amplify the impact of waves and flooding, and Kerala’s traditional defences – mangroves and sandbars – are on the decline, Ambrose said.

 “The Kerala coast is being denuded,” the fisherman said. “In my youth there were thick mangroves and sandbars.”  

Now, stretched before him, is a coast dotted with stone walls and buildings, with chunks already eroded away. Open, safe beaches are becoming rare in Kerala as more and more areas are developed for tourism resorts and housing and built up with sea walls.

“Maybe you cannot stop global warming - but you can stop local destruction,” Ambrose said.

The fisherman, who once escaped after being caught in his own net underwater and who survived the toxic sting of a ray that left him unconscious mid-sea, is an optimist. He tells local youths to take control of their destinies and be proud. Still, as his powerful muscles begin to sag and his health fails, his words are tinged with sadness.

"For the fisherfolk, the coming days will be marked by miseries and sorrows," he predicts.

Ajith Lawrence is a journalist based in Thiruvanathapuram, India, who often writes on humanitarian issues.

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