Fish kill spotlights pangs of Periyar

The latest fish kill reported in the Periyar river on May 21 and 22 has brought to light uncontrolled pollution of the river and the misery it heaps on the fish farmers who depend on this lifeline for sustenance. K.A. Martin takes stock of the situation

Updated - June 07, 2024 10:06 am IST

Published - June 07, 2024 12:45 am IST

Dead fish found floating in a cage farm at Shappukadavu near Cheranalloor in Kochi on May 21.

Dead fish found floating in a cage farm at Shappukadavu near Cheranalloor in Kochi on May 21. | Photo Credit: NITHIN R.K.

It was the changing colour of the water that first caught the attention of veteran paddy cultivator-cum-fish farmer E.J. Baby, 43, on Pizhala island located less than a kilometre northwest of NH-966A better known as Container Road, and cage farmer T.R. Subbayan, 42, a resident of Thanthonni Thuruth, a tiny island located across the Container Road to southeast of Pizhala. Intermittent rain over the previous day had its effect on the flow of the waters they depend on for their farms.  

But the fishermen were not expecting what followed. They were familiar with the change in the water’s colour and sometimes a sharp smell rising out of it. But these signs on May 21 gave way to fish appearing to struggle to breath and floating to the surface in large numbers in the waters of the river Periyar.

Subbayan, living in a modest dwelling, is among the fishermen who pick mussels in Vembanad Lake. He is into cage farming for extra income. He found the fish in the cage floating to the surface, either dying or near the point of death, he says.   

Soon he realised there was something seriously wrong as news spread of mass fish death in the in the Pathalam-Edayar segment — an industrial area — of the Periyar by May 21 afternoon. The phenomenon continued into the following day when the scale of losses went up with hundreds of tonnes of fish floating dead in this segment of the mighty river.

While fishermen sustained unquantified loss of stocks, farmers like Subbayan and his friends lost around 60 cages in the waters of Moolampilly, Thanthonni Thuruthu, Pizhala, Cheranalloor and Kothad, which were hit by what environmental activists called release of untreated toxic effluents into the Periyar in the industrial Pathalam-Edayar reach.  

Harvest up to three tonnes

Like many fish farmers in the region, Subbayan takes up different jobs, including fishing and cage farming, to look after his family. Each cage used for growing varieties such as pearl spots, tilapia and cobia, costs at least ₹5 lakh. A cage measures, in most cases, about 6x4 metres. While the price of fish varies depending on their size and variety, income from a cage ranges between ₹65,000 and ₹70,000 for a season of six months. Around 2.5 tonnes to three tonnes can be harvested from a cage in this period, but it falls short more often than not, given the rise of salinity in water and change in weather conditions.

Cage farmers like Subbayan were getting ready to harvest varieties like pearl spot, which fetch a premium in the market, and tilapia, ahead of the annual trawling ban that is set to come into effect on June 9. During the 52-day ban period for large boats, fish scarcity drives up prices and farmed fish is in great demand. Each of the more than a dozen farmers active in Subbayan’s group may have lost at least ₹6 lakh, he rues.  

On the Pizhala island, Baby has been running his fish farms out of naturally occurring enclosures in paddy fields along the coast. His family is in the business of maintaining paddy field-based fish farms for the third generation. He has a family of four, including his two children, wife and mother and the latest bout of fish death and massive river pollution has resulted in substantial losses, enough to break a farmer’s back, he says.  

Baby says most of the farmed fish in his fields just disappeared over two days, while he was preparing for a harvest. The loss cannot be quantified but an indication is that he had caught shrimp worth about ₹1,200 on May 20 but on May 21, the catch dwindled to around ₹1,000, he says.  

The case of Jackson Scimenti in Kundannoor and a Joint Liability Group(JLG) with him is another example of how pollution of waterbodies hit the fortunes of the small and marginal fishermen and aquaculturists (JLGs are groups formed to take bank loans with joint liability so that if one fails the others can pay back). 

Around 5.5 million people in central Kerala rely on the Periyar for a range of requirements from drinking water supply to irrigation of farms to fishing and aquaculture. The 244-km river has stirred poets to call it the conveyor of cool winds from the Western Ghats. It is inextricably linked to the lore of 8th century Vedic scholar Shankaracharya and the riverbanks form the sacred ground where millions offer prayers for the deceased every year.  

‘A carrier of death’

But the mass fish kill has once again highlighted the river condition, prompting environmentalists to call it a carrier of death, a conveyor of toxic pollutants, threatening the health and lives of the millions, who drink its water.  

“The river, if not dead, is on its deathbed. Restoring it to its old glory looks almost impossible, its summer flow has shrunk to negligible levels over the last 40 years,” says river protection activist S.P. Ravi.   

Purushan Eloor, who has watched the fortunes of the river for about four decades, says, “This is the ninth instance of fish death in the river in 2024.” The last instance was on May 12. But the newspapers take notice of these incidents only when there is a massive outcry and big losses of riverine flora and fauna, he says.  

Industrial units blamed

The fish death of May was allegedly caused by industrial units located along the Periyar bank in the segment flushing untreated toxic wastewater and solids into the river, alleges the community of river watchers and protection activists. But the Kerala Pollution Control Board (PCB) said in its preliminary report that industrial effluents were not detected in the water samples collected immediately after the fish death. The study, however, indicated low oxygen levels in the water.

A preliminary report by the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies pointed to low oxygen level and chemical pollutants in the water samples collected at the site of the fish death even as it expressed the suspicion that sulphur may have been released directly into the water. The university also called for a standing monitoring system and money to back the programme. The university did not specify the origin of the chemicals either as organic or inorganic.  

The PCB, directly in charge of monitoring the health of the river especially along its industrial reaches, said in its preliminary report that there was no indication of industrial pollutants in the water samples collected by the board for tests.  

Industries Minister P. Rajeeve, who convened a press conference in the aftermath of a loud protest triggered by the fish death, reiterated the government’s commitment to support only environmentally responsible businesses in the State. He promised a high-level committee, which would look into setting up a River Monitoring Authority, as well as a protocol for release of water from the river using the sluice gates like the one at Pathalam.  

But environmental activists slammed the Minister’s claim that the level of pollution had seen some let-up. Purushan says that all the studies conducted by officially appointed bodies of the river Periyar had found it polluted. In one of the reports, he claims, the Eloor-Edayar industrial cluster was identified as one of the most polluted in the country.  

The Eloor-Edayar industrial area, one of the oldest in the State, has 286 industrial units and 106 of them are in the Red Category with a high pollution score, Purushan adds. He says that the government’s lack of concern is obvious from the fact that a 500-tonne fish processing plant is awaiting government clearance and may get permission to set up business.  

Rampant pollution in Periyar

The pollution of Periyar has been rampant, he says. Only on occasions do they come to public notice due to its enormity. The opinion is backed by fish farmers like Baby, who says the media pays attention only when there is a big hue and cry.  

But the incidents have been so frequent and frustrating that farmers like him are thinking in terms of switching to farm tourism and associated activities that have begun to draw a large number of visitors, thanks to improved facilities for movement between islands near Kochi.  

It is possible that farmers like him will one day totally give up fish farming for more lucrative fields consigning the chequered history of the Periyar as an icon of life support system to the margins of history.

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