Chinese fishing nets, in use for the last 500 years and one of the tourist attractions in Kerala, are fast vanishing from the Kochi coastline as huge maintenance costs and poor catch is forcing fishermen to look for other alternatives.

Called ‘Cheena Vala’ in local parlance, the huge cantilevered fishing nets are believed to have been brought by Portuguese from Macau, once a Portuguese colony.

While some accounts mention that the nets were set up between AD 1350 and 1450 by traders from the court of Kubla Khan, some others say Chinese explorer Zhang He introduced the nets to Kochi shores.

There were at least 30 Chinese nets on the Fort Kochi and Vypeen shorelines about 10 years ago which have now been reduced to 20, including 11 in Fort Kochi, says Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Kerala convenor, K J Sohan.

Sohan, a former Kochi Mayor, who heads the Chinese Fishing Net Owners Association, told PTI that despite the nets being the most photographed tourist attraction in the state, the government was not doing enough to protect them. This is a signature of Kerala and a living monument.

No insurance company was coming forward to insure the Chinese nets. “I have approached many insurance companies. But they are not interested,” he says. There is no support system from the government also. The timber needed for the nets can be given to fishermen at subsidised rates, he says.

Set up on bamboo and teak poles, the nets are fixed land installations for an unusual form of fishing — shore operated lift nets. Suspended horizontally over the sea, the nets give the appearance of a huge hammock.

Huge mechanical contrivances hold out horizontal nets of 20 metres or more across. Each structure is at least 10 meters high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counter weighing at the other end. Each net is operated by 5-6 fishermen.

Rocks each 30 cm or so in diameter are suspended from ropes of different length. As the net is raised, some of the rocks come one by one to rest on a platform thereby keeping everything in balance.

According to local fisherman Ashraf Ali, there is no profit in the business now. Thanks to dredging activities, the catch was also dwindling.

Ruben Antony, who sold his Chinese fishing net at the Vasco Da Gama square at fort Kochi 4 years ago, says at least about Rs 5 lakh is needed to set up new nets. There is no help from the government by way of subsidy.

There is no medical insurance for us, he said, adding there have been instances of the net collapsing on the fishermen and some of them being killed or critically injured.

The nets have to be changed twice a year and the amount work out to about Rs 30,000, he said.

Presently, there are 11 Chinese fishing nets dotting the Fort Kochi shoreline while it was 20 about ten years ago.

The owner employs 5-6 fishermen to operate the nets and the catch is shared between them.

According to Sohan, neither insurance companies nor banks are keen to help the Chinese net operators. The result is that the fishermen are forced to approach moneylenders and pay hefty interest and get loans to repair the nets.

Austin Paul, President of the International Forum for Cultural Heritage and Tradition says the descendents of the Chinese fishing net operators and fishermen will be forced to look at other options for their survival if incentives are not given to them by the government.

Not everyone can afford teak, so few enterprising Chinese net owners have decided to use iron rods instead of teak poles. However, it will have to be seen if it would last longer as the saline waters will make the pole rusty, fishermen say

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