Francis and Balakrishnan are among the last members of a fast disappearing tribe of fisherfolk who scoffs at the prospects of pursing their profession in mechanised boats or craft. They venture into the sea at the break of dawn, rowing small country boats with their bare hands.

For these men living along the Malippuram beach in Elamkunnapuzha panchayat, the love affair with their country canoes — just big enough to accommodate two or three persons — is one that dates back to decades.

But the presence of larger mechanised canoes and trawling boats has restricted their movement to within two or three kilometres from the shore unlike a few decades back when they used to go as much as 19-20 kilometres deep into sea with their craft sporting homemade sails.

Going deep into the sea now means that the mechanised craft will beat them to the shore, leaving no takers for their catch by the time they return.

“We used to get big catch and big fish back then. Now it is the monopoly of big mechanised craft. We have to be content with relatively small catches of commonly consumed fish varieties such as sardine and shrimp,” says Balakrishnan, who has been going out in his country boat for the last more than three decades.

Charles George, president, Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi (TUCI), says it is the traditional seafaring community from places such as Kulachal and Marthandam in Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu who often catch bigger fish now.

“They venture into those stretches in deep sea confirmed as sources of bigger fishes like rays and sharks. They come prepared for the long haul and carry with them several huge blocks of ice. The methods of fishing adopted by them like gillnet, hook and line, and pole fishing give them those big catches,” Mr. George says.

While majority of those who prefer the non-mechanised country canoes has shifted their fishing expedition to river and backwaters, Balakrishnan cannot bring himself to do that.

“The first time I went out for fishing was with my father and that was in the sea. Since that day I have fished nowhere else,” says the 56-year-old. He also does not like losing his sleep, which is often the case with backwater fishing that starts late in the evening and ends early morning.

Satyan, another fisherman, cites the unique bonding that comes with fishing in small craft.

“Big craft and boats often go out with 40 or more persons. It may be difficult to adjust with such a large group of people. It’s always better to go out with a person whom you are comfortable with,” he says.

Their day begins as early as 4 a.m. if the climate is favourable. They cast the net for almost two hours and return to the shore with their moderate catch by around 7.30 a.m. “We must return to the shore around that time for the mechanised boats would have dumped their catch by then and there won’t be any takers for our catch. Taking an autorickshaw to the nearest harbour is not feasible for us considering the size of our catch,” says Chandran, a fisherman of 20 years’ standing, who goes out in one the 11 non-mechanised country craft from Malippuram beach.

Mending his net on returning from the sea, Prakasan says whatever the size of the catch is, it’s the middlemen who always benefit.

Francis vents his ire for the dire straits in which the traditional fishing community finds itself at the indiscriminate trawling.

“There is a court direction banning trawling within five kilometre radius from the shore. But boats give scant regard to it and trawl even along the coastline, sometimes damaging our nets. Marine police hardly do anything and are in fact hand in glove with boat owners,” he says.

Increasing cost of fishing nets and depleting fish wealth have also made life difficult for them.

“Depleting fish means that we have to cast the net wider and that calls for increasing the length of the net. The price of one kg of a normal variety of fishing net now stands at Rs.640 and it keeps on increasing every month,” says another fisherman.

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