The August sun was relentless a few hours after dawn sometime last year, when I watched a boat with four men go out to sea off the coast of southern Tamil Nadu. Behind the boat was a long net, over two kilometre long, being dragged into sea. When the boat was around 5km from the shore, the boat circled back, and the two ends of the net were handed to two groups of around 20 people each, who were standing in two lines. The fisher at the front of the line stood close to the water, and the others fell in line behind him, along the stretch of beach. Those 40 people were participating in one of the oldest forms of fishing the world has known, shore seining or beach seining. 

The true beauty of shore seine, or beach seine fishing, is not seen in the sea, but along the beach. The grit of the people who fight against the strength of the sea to pull the net back to shore is a sight to behold. The beach is filled with the sound of people singing in Tamil, and encouraging each other to pull harder. The most challenging position is in the front of the line, where even keeping a grip on the rope can be difficult. To share the labour, the fishers take turns moving to the front. Sometimes, fishers will spend the entire day pulling to be able to see any results. This traditional practice of using ‘karai valais’ (‘karai’ means shore in Tamil) is one of the most taxing and labour-intensive forms of fishing, which is one of the reasons why it is dying out.

Beach seines have been in use for thousands of years around the world. While few studies exist on the fisheries and operations of shore seines in India, we know that the method was used extensively along the Tamil Nadu Coast. As of 2010, over 4,200 shore seines were owned by fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu, according to the Central Marine Fisheries Census. Most of these were in the Nagapattinam, Ramanathapuram and Tuticorin districts. Along the Palk Bay coast, in the southern part of Tamil Nadu, shore seines, once commonly used, are less frequently employed because of decreasing fishery resources near the shore.

Fishers using the shore seine tend to go out six days a week, depending on weather conditions and manpower. On any given day, the net may be operated one or two times, depending on the quality of the catch. While the human spirit and the camaraderie that permeates the practice of shore seining constantly amazes me, I am also aware of the waste and destruction it causes.

One of the main problems with the shore seine is that it is non-selective, and often hauls in species of conservation concern as “bycatch”. Non-edible crabs and other crustaceans, seahorses, and even turtles are often caught in shore seines. The fishers tend to use nets with very small mesh sizes, often around 18mm or smaller (around the diameter of the mouth of a soda bottle). This means that they often drag in “juveniles” or the young ones of commercially important fish such as anchovies, seer fish and barracuda – making it much harder for these fish stocks to regenerate to sustainable numbers. In Tuticorin, a recent study found that in 2012-2013, shore seines caught over 950 tons of fish, of which 158 tons, or around 17 percent, were juveniles – mostly, tiny sardines and anchovies.

The shore seine also drags along the floor of the sea, causing severe damage to bottom habitats, and altering the structure of the seabed. While this kind of ecological destruction is often attributed to fishing methods like bottom-trawling (where a net is dragged along the seabed, impacting nearly everything in its path), the shore seine acts in a similar manner too.

In fact, several studies have concluded that shore seines are the least likely artisanal fishing gear to support sustainable yields. In some parts of the world, such as The Gambia and Kenya, shore seines or beach seines have been banned because of the destruction that these nets cause.

Yet, some fishing communities along the east coast of this country still persevere, and continue with a tradition that is fast fading away. I have spent the last two years interviewing fishers across the coast of India to understand the impact of non-selective fisheries on incidentally-caught organisms like the seahorse, and to understand the impact of a catch and trade ban on seahorses in an unregulated fishery. My observations on the shore seine were part of this study.  

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The human spirit and the camaraderie that permeates this practice constantly amazes me.

Pictured here are the famous shore seine fishers of Vallinokkam, a region that is famed for the freshness of its shore seine-caught fish. Over 50 fishers pull the nets, starting early in the morning and pulling the net for over 8 hours. A Muslim-dominated village, Hindu fishers can operate only on Fridays when the Muslim fisherfolk take the day off. On this day, the fishers were hopeful of good catches based off the previous day’s catch, but were sorely disappointed with their landings. 

When I met with some other elderly fisherfolk, who also operated in the Gulf of Mannar, I asked them after a particularly poor day much like this one, how they managed with this meagre income. They told me that their sons worked abroad and sent money home. Today, fishing for them was more a pastime than a livelihood.

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One of the main problems with the shore seine is that it is non-selective, and often hauls in juveniles and species of conservation concern as bycatch.

The use of ‘olai valai’ (modified shore seines with palm fronds on the side) is popular along the Rameswaram coastline. It is believed that the vibrations caused by the palm fronds scare the fish and keep them from escaping from the nets. After pulling the nets for hours beneath the unrelenting sun, these fishers were left with a catch of mostly juvenile crabs and seagrass that were of little use to them. Walking along the coastline, we were greeted by the sight of these mounds of discarded catch – a lot of these organisms still alive, left to slowly desiccate to death.

Some studies estimate that bycatch and discards using shore seines amounts to around 2.78 percent, including protected species like seahorses and sea-cucumbers. However, others conclude that the wastage is much higher. One study from Kerala found that in the post-monsoon season from October to January, juveniles of commercially important species contributed to nearly 77 percent of the total catch in shore seines.

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Between July and October, it is not unusual to find nets filled with jellyfish, all of which end up discarded.

The type of fish caught by shore seines differs according to the location. For instance, in the Wadge Bank (off Kanyakumari) shore seines are used mostly for herrings, sardines and mackerels; in the Gulf of Mannar they target king mackerels, goatfish and barracudas, in addition to herrings and sardines; in Palk Bay they target squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses.

The kind of catch that is netted depends on the fishers’ luck too. As I observed these fishers at work, I heard many complaints about the unpredictability of their work. And of course, it changes by season too. Between July and October, it is not unusual to find nets filled with jellyfish. In this particular haul, over half of the catch by weight was made up of jellyfish. They were entirely discarded.

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Sometimes, a bumper haul can be composed entirely of 'trash fish'. It isn't intended for human consumption, but still fetches a tidy sum when sold for chicken feed.

In Tuticorin, after several days where bounty from the seas was hard to come by, the shore seine fishers finally had a bumper haul. This catch of approximately 2 tons, sold at approximately Rs 22-25 per kg, was entirely composed of “trash fish” not intended for human-consumption, but for chicken feed. The fisherfolk were happy though, as this meant that they would finally be paid enough to return to their villages nearby, at least for the weekend.  

Labour is an issue that these communities increasingly find themselves struggling with. These nets require a minimum of 25 people to operate, yet many fishers have left their villages to go elsewhere, in search of other occupations, or to other forms of fishing. Employing women is more common among Hindu shore seiners than in the Muslim communities.

To cut costs, most operations employ relatives and work with other fishers, so that these fishers might return the favour some other time. Owners of shore seining operations have a particularly difficult time through the year as they are forced to pay for the accommodation, transport and daily wages of the labourers. With declining catches, they are often unable to pay wages after every catch, and when they are finally able to, the labourers take the day off to return to their villages. 

Local labour is not without problems either. The owner of a shore seine operation in Mandapam told me he was unhappy as the local men he employed tended to drink away most of their earnings, and because the women are out working the whole day, there is no one to look after the children or ensure their education. 

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This lovely fisher sang for the entire group throughout the fishing operation in Vedalay, in Ramanathapuram district. He even found a moment to pose for me, and managed a smile between the back-breaking work.

For shore seiners, the one time they look forward to in the year is the two-month monsoon fishing ban (this year, it was between April 15 to June 15), when larger, mechanised vessels are not allowed to fish, and cannot pose any competition to them. This is the season that works in their favour, when they actually make money and break even for the months to come. Fish, scarce in the markets at this time, is in high demand, so any fish they sell during this season fetches greater rates.

Near Mandapam, these fishers toil away in the hope of a good catch. At the end of the day, I turned to one of the shore seine owners and asked him, “Why do you do this?” He told me, Indha thozhil lottery sheet aadara maadhri. Oru naal perisa adikaporen, adhikaprom kavailai illai” (“This is like a lottery, one day I will hit it big and then I will no longer have to worry!”) With a great sense of pride, he added, “My sufferings might be large, but look at the number of families I support.” He supported eight families.

I have often heard from fishers along the Tamil Nadu coast lament how, in the next few years, shore seine fisheries would fade away and then vanish. Many of them blame the use of trawl boats, purse seines and crab nets for their declining catches, as they believe that the bigger, faster boats with larger nets catch the small fish they depend on. Trawl fishers now operate within 3 nautical miles, despite rules stating that mechanised boats must operate outside this limit. Additionally, a number of fishers attribute declining fish to the effects of the 2004 tsunami. Now, as many of them leave their traditional livelihoods behind, they are focused on educating their children, and a phrase I hear often is “indha thozhil nambalodiya mudiyatom” (“let this profession end with us”).

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Beach seines contribute greatly to food security in small-scale fishing communities.

The photograph above was taken on one of the more promising days, when this particular group caught a sizeable amount of expensive cephalopods. A woman from the neighbouring village approached to observe the day’s catch and take fish free of cost for her daily consumption. 

Although beach seines provides little economic growth, they are far more important for their contribution to supporting livelihoods and food security in small-scale fishing communities, as noted in a 2011 paper released by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.  

As I walked along the shore that day, a popular saying that I once read in the work of Dr. Maarten Bavinck, a Professor at the University of Amsterdam, came to mind: “periya valai pooddaal uuree saappidum” (“If the shore seine is shot, the whole village eats.”)