Nets are a fisherman’s backbone; without nets, there is no fish

Mohan skips over the bundled-up net like a billy goat. “Nalla velai — Thank goodness,” he says. “I didn’t step on it. I would’ve got yelled at.” He tiptoes around the rope that holds the bundle together. “It’s disrespectful to step on our nets,” he states. The nine-year-old is the son of a fisherman from Nochi Kuppam. Here, nets are sacred; they are a fisherman’s backbone — without nets, there is no fish.

The net is the first thing a fisherman picks up when he heads to sea. Not everyone owns one — an owner employs about five men to work for him, who are then paid for their labour. The net owner of course, gets more than the others since he has invested in it. A net can cost up to Rs. 30,000, the mani valai, used to catch shrimp, being among the most expensive.

“We use the gill net to catch fish such as sura and mavalasi,” explains fisherman Ezhumalai from Kasimedu. “The surukku valai is used to catch smaller fish.” The name of a net varies according to the size of the ‘eye’ and material used. Salesman Ganesh at King Fish, a shop that sells fishing gear in Kasimedu, says that there are 300 varieties of pann valai alone. Then there are the HDPE rope nets that come in 50 sizes. “If a customer asks for 10 no., 52 mm and 100 ‘kannu’ depth, he means a net with a twine of 0.10 mm thickness, ‘eye’ size of 52 mm and with a depth of 100 eyes,” explains Ganesh.

Nagercoil in the hub of fishing nets in Tamil Nadu. Most nets used in and around Chennai are machine-made there. A fisherman assembles these nets to suit his requirement. The float and lead pellets, hand-stitched on either ends of the net to enable it to stay afloat to trap fish that pass-by, further increase costs. For instance, one kg of lead costs up to Rs.150.

Today, nets are made of synthetic material such as nylon and HDPE rope. They come in light colours such as white, blue and green, so as to merge with the colour of the sea. There was a time when nets were made entirely of cotton twine and coloured using crushed tamarind seeds for camouflage. But maintaining cotton nets was difficult — the men had to fiercely protect them from rain and spend hours looking after them since they were perishable.

According to a study titled ‘Modernisation of Marine Fisheries — Impact on Employment and Income of Fishermen in Tamil Nadu’ directed by Dr. B. Natarajan and V. Karthikeyan, synthetic twine was first introduced in the early Fifties and have “almost totally replaced cotton twine for making nets”.

The study describes how initially, traditional fishermen protested against the use of nylon twine. But they eventually gave in, “seeing the success with use of nylon and other synthetic twine”.

But what did fishermen use before nets came into existence? According to A History of the Fish Hook and the Story of Mustad, the Hook Maker by Hans Jørgen Hurum, man once used a pole or a forked branch to fish, as an extension of his arms. Then came fishhooks in various shapes, sizes and materials. Hurum says that the oldest fishing hooks were made of wood. They were even made out of shell, stone, bone, and bear fangs.

Nets may be as precious as the sea itself, but there are instances where this interwoven twine brought doom to a fisherman’s life. More nets mean more fish — a thought that is a constant in the minds of some fishermen. If he makes Rs. 5,000 one day, he would sometimes walk straight to the net-seller to buy more, and more, without taking the money home. This is a vicious circle, for his all-expensive net might bring him nothing on some days. He would’ve wasted all his efforts and investment for nothing. But he never loses faith. He will sling his net across his shoulder the next day and march towards the sea.