Written by Rahul Muralidharan
It has been two months since I began fieldwork this summer. After travelling around in the hope of finding two villages to study, I now feel that I have finally arrived. On the one hand, it is stressful as it took longer than expected to find these villages and settle down,but on the other hand it is exciting, given the learning opportunities that lie ahead. In this first ‘fresh-from-the-field’ blog post, I share some of my initial experiences of arriving at my field sites. I also discuss why I chose these two villages in order to answer the central concerns of my PhD study.
First, let me set the context. My study focuses on the interactions between a near-shore dolphin species, known as the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins [‘humpback dolphins’, henceforth] and the artisanal fisheries in Ramanathapuram district, Tamil Nadu. I am particularly interested in the outcomes of the state’s conservation policies and practice on both the humpback dolphins and the artisanal fishing communities bordering the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park and the Palk Bay areas. My motivations for this study are recent conservation debates that identify artisanal fisheries as an emerging threat to marine mammals. The artisanal sector is increasingly being targeted for conservation interventions, especially in terms of imposing bans on certain kinds of fishing gear, the take of protected species and closing areas by creating marine protected areas (MPA). To realize my objectives, I had to choose field sites that have a considerable presence of humpback dolphins that overlap with artisanal fisheries, inside and outside an MPA.
For now, I would prefer not to disclose the exact names of these field sites. However,my descriptions will give you a glimpse of these locations. But first, let me explain what I mean by ‘artisanal fisheries’. There is no clear cut definition for artisanal fisheries. The definition varies according to countries and the social-economic contexts in which they operate. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) defines artisanal fisheries as ‘a sector characterised by the use of labour intensive rather than capital intensive techniques, deploy passive fishing gear [sometimes active – shore seines] with boats powered by motors, oars, or sail that operate from near shore areas using beach landing crafts’. In Tamil Nadu (as in other parts of India), artisanal fishers comprise of nuclear families where both the men, women and in some cases children of the family are engaged in fisheries to meet their day to day subsistence needs.
Glimpse of Field Sites
Gulf of Mannar
I first went to this fishing village in March 2016 by mere coincidence while searching for a field site. I was accompanied by a friend who had worked earlier with the Ramanathapuram Fishermen Trade Union. That day we had visited the neighbouring village to meet the leader to seek permission to carry out the study.After that meeting, my friend had other plans. He wanted to meet his acquaintance who happened to be the leader of the next village. My friend asked me if we could go there. I said ‘Why not, we’ve come this far, let’s go’. We had to travel almost 8 km to reach the next fishing village. Potholes and bad roads gave way to a newly laid pitch black highway. Along the way there were traces that the road was laid on top sand dunes, hugging the seashore on one side and a reserve forest on the other. There was no one else other than us, a few goats, lot of peacocks and the sound of waves for company.
While the March sun seared through the noon sky, we arrived at the village, where I would later settle to conduct my study. To our surprise, the village leader who we were supposed to meet was chatting with an old man at the bus stop at the entrance of the village. My friend waved to greet the leader as we got off our bike and he introduced me saying that I was a researcher who was planning to study dolphins and artisanal fisheries. All of a sudden, the old man sitting next to the leader came to life. He said, ‘these dolphins are one of the biggest trouble makers for us. We cannot use any fishing nets for the fear of getting the gear damaged by the dolphins‘. The leader nodded his head in agreement and said that dolphins were a big nuisance in the village. As I heard these comments, I realised that this could be the village I’d been looking to work in for several years.
By the end of June 2016, I had already moved to this village. After spending time in Bangalore and Chennai for the past three years, I was surprised that a village could exist in such isolation. The village is so silent throughout the day; in fact I began to hear even the faintest of sound such as rustling leaves, distant dog barks, and the whoosh sounds of wind as it passed through my window. The silence is broken occasionally when a bus or a bike goes by, once an hour. Being surrounded by a cacophony of noises in our cities, we tend to forget what silence feels like. Sometimes, I felt that the silence was unbearable.
A usual morning scene in the village: Fishers unloading the day’s catch on the shore;while our four-legged friend returns to the shore after taking a dip in the cold, surf filled waves
I had the most difficult time during the first week of my stay in the village. No signal on the phone, no instant water supply. I had to draw water from the well when needed. There were only two shops in the whole village and no places to eat outside. In the mornings and evenings, I found solace in the tea shop where the fishermen gathered to discuss daily events, politics and the fisheries situation in the village. I also got my daily dose of updates that eventually contributed to my field notes.
But there was a bright side too. The village is located in a curvy bay with a reserve forest and one of the largest islands on the Gulf of Mannar. Sunrises and sunsets are the most picturesque scenes of the village and the beach. The palm tree dotted shore comes to life when the sun shines at angle almost blurring imagination and reality. I could go sit anywhere on the beach, mostly under densely crowded palm trees or fall asleep anywhere after reading a book. I felt a strange sense of freedom that one would never be able to feel in crowded cities. By and by, over time, people began to get used to my presence. This was not the case when I arrived as I was looked upon as a suspicious stranger. Moreover, and this is one of the best parts –here, people talk about dolphins in their daily conversations – on the beach, at the bus stop, inside homes or at the tea shop.
How have dolphins entered into the daily conversations of people in this village? Has it always been this way? Or is it only a recent phenomenon? I used these questions to guide my conversations with people in the village whenever I was out of my house, in the field.
My first visit to this field site, located in Pamban Island,was in June 2015 as part of a project that I was carrying out. I had looked up this village on google maps before I decided to go there, guessing that the place would be an ideal dolphin sighting spot due to its isolation. As soon as I got off the bus, I enquired about how to get to the village. Following the suggestions I received, I decided to take an auto to the lighthouse where I could meet people and talk to them about dolphins. When I told the auto rickshaw driver that I wanted to go to the lighthouse he looked at me with suspicion. He started interrogating me: “Who are you? Why are you here? What are you planning to do in the lighthouse? And who are you planning to meet?” The thought of a stranger behaving like a policeman was unpleasant. Since I was new to the place, I tried not to cause any trouble and patiently made him comfortable by answering his questions.
It took 25 minutes to reach the lighthouse. On the way, the driver revealed to me that the Indian Navy had advised all the auto rickshaw drivers to collect details of tourists visiting the island’s lighthouse. We passed the Navy camp settlement as we moved towards the village. He pointed at the camp and said the Navy was vigilant there, and that they kept an eye on new people travelling in and out of the village. Momentarily, I felt I was entering a dangerous zone. Men in their camouflaged uniforms, armed with guns and hiding behind sandbags – I wondered what they were up to.
Moments later, we reached the eastern end of the village, the lighthouse beach. I could hardly find anyone on the beach. There were only four men discussing fishing. I got off the auto, walked towards them and explained the purpose of my visit. The first man said “As a researcher you should teach us how to kill these dolphins. They are abundant here, always feeding fish off our nets and most troublesome for our profession”. The second man said, “I work in a trawler. The dolphins come exactly at the moment when we use the load gear to retrieve the net. They bite the fish off the net as it is clearly visible for them underwater before the moment we take the nets on-board. These dolphin probably are listening keenly to the sounds of trawler operations.” I was doubly happy upon hearing this; happy to gain information on how dolphins are adapting to intense fishing pressure and happy to record the powers of the fishermen’s observation and their interpretation of events.
By now the driver began to be visibly upset. He wanted to leave immediately to avoid any problems. So we left.
On days when the skies are grey and when the water is calm it feels like the boats are hanging underneath the clouds.
On the way back, far beyond the navy check post, I came across a group of fishermen mending their nets. Just to cross check if they had seen humpback dolphins in the area, I showed them some photographs. They instantly recognized the dolphin and one replied, “…these dolphins are clever animals. They come and eat all the costly fish”. I was appalled. I asked him how the dolphin differentiates between a costly and not-so-costly fish. He replied, “…the dolphins are attracted to white and silver colored fishes which glitter underwater. These white and silver colored fish are also economically important species.The dolphins leave out the brown and black colored fish. These types are not economically important. Somehow these dolphins eat all the economically important types of fish and leave out the rest”.
Now in June 2016, I went back to the village after a year. Not much had changed but the naval base had expanded. Permanent structures were being built to house navy cadets. One method of data collection for this PhD study includes going out on boats with fishermen and participating in their fishing activities. However, fishermen would be willing to take me on their boats only if I had a letter from the Additional Director (AD) of the Fisheries Department. Otherwise they said they would be in trouble if the Navy intercepted the boat with me onboard. A friend in the fishing village said that the Navy does not patrol so often. But when they are patrolling, they do sometimes check the fishing boats. He said, “You look fair and you wear bright colored t-shirts and shorts. Navy people will definitely spot you on the boat. You need to dress like us. Wear an old shirt, tie a lungi and wrap a towel around your head. Pretend that you are a fisherman; you don’t need a letter from the AD if you do that”.
I laughed at myself when the fisher friend said I had a fair complexion. My friends and acquaintances back home would laugh too for they know this is a joke. Nevertheless I understood why my fisher friend wanted me to ‘become’ a fisherman to pursue this research. While I have initiated this process of ‘becoming’, my thoughts are mixed with excitement and fear of how I am going to pull this research off in such a setting. As I see it, the coast and the islands of Ramanathapuram seem to be divided in terms of the conservation and simultaneous development activities that are ongoing here. Ramanathapuram is a district in Tamil Nadu but at the same time it is also a national border between India and Sri Lanka. In the recent past,stringent border security measures have also been instituted. Where conservation begins and where development ends is unclear,and a new layer of security has been added to the mix. In my next post, I hope to share some practical, methodological and emotional challenges of carrying out fieldwork in the artisanal fishing villages of Southern Tamil Nadu.
About the author:
Rahul Muralidharan joined the ATREE PhD program in 2013. He studies the interactions between the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and artisanal fisheries; but is broadly interested in learning how biodiversity conservation is conceived and practiced in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu.