Elevated mounds of sand prop up in the vast expanse of vacant land as we move closer to the second largest mangrove forests in India. Not more than 300 metres from the Pichavaram mangrove forest, men are busy building more of these sand mounds to farm shrimps.
Water from the natural creeks is constantly being fed to the shrimp farms while labourers working to build new shrimp farms in the protected forest area are busy digging up more canals cutting through the mangrove forests, posing a grave threat to the second largest mangrove forest spread across 2,800 acres of land.
The data published by the Coastal Aquaculture Authority on their website shows a total of 129 shrimp farms in Cuddalore district. Nearly 76 shrimp farms are in Parangipettai taluk in Cuddalore. Of which, 50 farms are yet to renew their licence. At least 25 shrimp farms are in Pichvaram and Killai, which is close to the mangrove forest.
S.G. Ramesh, organiser, Kadarkarai Makkal Vazhurimai Iyakkam, who spearheaded the protest for the closure of these farms, says that there are several shrimp farms functioning without any licence and are still undocumented by the Coastal Aquaculture Authority.
Bird count drops
The aquaculture in the protected forest area is not just threatening the forest cover but also affecting the flora and fauna which the brackish water supports. A research study titled ‘The effects of coastal shrimp farming on birds in Indian mangrove forests and tidal flats’ by Rajarathinavelu Nagarajan and Krishnamoorthy Thiyagesan, accessed through the website www.actazool.org , details that a total number of birds rose from 5,156 in 1987 to 13,097 birds in 1992 but declined thereafter as the area under aquaculture increased. “Shrimp farming peaked in 1995 and in that year 5,091 birds were recorded. By 2001, the bird population had fallen to a low of 1,278 individuals, followed by a slight increase in 2002. The number of species present (i.e., species richness) followed the same pattern. A total of 50 species was recorded in 1987, which increased to a maximum of 63 in 1990 and then declined rapidly to a low of 23 in 2001,” noted the study.
Mr. Ramesh stated that after 1992, the Forest Department did not allow people even graze their cattle or collect twigs from the forest area. “How could they allow shrimp farms within 300 metres from the mangrove forest?” he questioned.
He added that they have identified at least nine places along the Pichavaram mangrove forests where the shrimp farms have come up. “Besides drawing water through the creeks and canals cutting the mangroves, chemicals used to nourish the shrimps are let out into brackish water,” he said.
Invasive species multiply
The local fishermen involved in shallow fishing confirmed that many species in the nearby lakes and water bodies were disappearing fast and invasive species were multiplying. Sathyaseelan, a fisherman from North Pichavaram, said, “A new species of crab is found in the lakes. We have never seen this species before the shrimp farms came up. These are small in size and can live for many days. Now, they are being exported since they live longer unlike the ones that inhabited these lakes earlier.”
He added that since chemicals are let out into water, many fish species that come to the lakes from sea to lay eggs are not to be seen. “Even fish varieties like Catla, Sankara and several others have disappeared. We used to earn at least ₹500 to ₹600 per kg selling fish and at least ₹1,000 selling crabs. The prawns cultivated in the farms have infested the lakes,” he said.
Ravi Bhalla of the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL) underlined that the impact of shrimp farms being built near mangrove forests depends on the type of species and inputs being used. “Aquaculture usually involves addition of substantial amounts of nutrients and chemicals which help speed up growth while reducing the chance of disease and infection in the shrimp. Most shrimp farms use nearby natural creeks to source water and also to release waste. This can alter the natural environment significantly due to both biological and chemical pollutants and the introduction of exotic species. All of this is not permitted in a protected area such as the Pichavaram mangrove forest” he said.
Forest Department denies
The Forest Department has ruled out the presence of any shrimp farms within the periphery of the reserve forest in Pichavaram and Killai.
A senior forest official conceded that there were in fact shrimp farms on government poromboke lands and outside the reserve forests. But the Forest Department cannot take action against them as per law. The department has recommended no permission to around 33 shrimp farms to a committee headed by the District Collector. Though complaints have been received on illegal shrimp farms they are not ready to show the exact location to the department, the officialsaid.
Senthil Babu of the Coastal People’s Rights Movement detailed that after the Coastal Zone Management Authority was established in 2011, a centralised licensing authority was set up. “This investor friendly authority gave clearance to shrimp farms through the single window system. It has opened up more possibilities of violations than it was earlier. Secondly, there is no verification and in this particular case there is a blatant violation of protected reserved forest and sanctuary. Mangrove forest is a sensitive ecosystem. An ecosystem involves people, labour and communities and each one is dependent on the other,” he said.
Ravi Bhalla stated that Pichavaram is one of two protected mangroves in Tamil Nadu, and is among the last representatives of an important ecosystem. They are also a source of livelihood for communities and are, arguably, important coastal defences against cyclonic surges and tsunamis. “I do not think there is any argument against conserving the forest. To do so however, the basic environmental conditions and requirements of the mangrove ecosystem must be maintained. This includes ecological flows, protection from encroachment, deforestation, pollution and introduction of exotic species,” he said.
Shrimp farms have also polluted groundwater in the surrounding villages, making it non-potable. The residents of 15 villages near the shrimp farms are determined to fight till the farms are completely removed.