Living with humpback dolphins and fishers: A photo story

Written by Rahul Muralidharan

The Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu are home to humpback dolphins and artisanal fishing communities. Dolphins and fishers here have historically had an uneasy relationship: that is dolphins engage in depredation or in other words -plunder fish caught in fisher’s nets. But, on the other hand dolphins are incidentally caught in certain types of fishing gear and die as a result. To counter the decline of near-shore fisheries, people are experimenting with new types of fishing gears, materials and intensifying fishing operations. The humpback dolphins, however, are also busy learning, behaviourally adapting to these new technologies to maximize their foraging efficacy.

What appears to be a simple story of conflict over fish between fishers and humpback dolphins, deep down it is an indication of how conservation is conceived and practiced in marine environments. This photo story explores the lives and deaths of humpback dolphins, and what happens in between.

As a pod of humpback dolphin forage on cuttlefish on a sunny August morning; black plumes rise from the shallow blue waters off Adam’s Bridge in the Palk Bay, close to the International Maritime Boundary Line which separates Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
The waters are not as calm as they appear in Rameshwaram, Palk Bay. Artisanal fishers say their lives are under growing pressure because of humpback dolphins depredating catch off their fishing gears and competition from trawlers in the contentious coastal waters between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
Shore seining needs calm waters and abundant near shore fish, which is seasonal yet crucial income earning activity for both men and women. But shore seining has been banned in the islands of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park since the year 2000 ostensibly to protect coral reefs. Fishers, however, point out that it is the shore seine nets that get damaged by getting caught in reefs.
Over time, fishers have switched from the use of cotton nets to monofilament (plastic) nets. This has not only altered how people fish but also changed how dolphins respond to fishing gears. This encircling monofilament net targets small forage fish abundant in near-shore waters and used mainly for dry fish processing. But it also attracts intense depredation by dolphins.
In the past, shore seine fishers would use simple tricks to scare away dolphins. The sounds made by a dry palm leaf tied to a single dolphin’s tail could scatter a whole pod of dolphins. Now dolphins gather wherever the nets are and it has become tough to chase them away.
Most of the waking hours of some fishermen are spent in mending nets, sometimes even for six hours a day.Dolphins make holes in the nets when they bite through to pull the entangled fish.
Sleep is something elusive in the fishing village and is shaped by the movement patterns of the target fish. A typical fishing day begins at 2 am. Fisher need to return to shore by 8 am for the auction. The rest of the time is spent mending nets and preparing for the next day.
According to the State’s discourse, fishers are harvesting resources for free in an open-access system. But fishers say that they invest a lot of capital in terms of gear, fuel and fishing crew. Moreover catching fish is not as simple as just dipping nets in the sea – it requires skills, patience and experience.
Deciding where to fish on any particular day comes with a risk when the fishing grounds are ruled by dolphins. While most research has focused on how dolphins are affected by fishing practices – more research needs to look into how people are affected by dolphins especially under particular conservation contexts.
Dolphins aren’t always victorious. On a longer time scale, their survival might be jeopardized not just by depredating from monofilament fishing gear but also by ingesting plastic along with it. Moreover, they train their young ones to depredate, trapping them in the same cycle of vulnerability.

About the Author:

Rahul Muralidharan joined the ATREE PhD program in 2013. He studies the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, artisanal fisheries and the interactions between them – but is focused on exploring how biodiversity conservation is conceived and practiced.At present he seems to be in a phase where he isfiguring out whether he works for a living or is just enjoying his life by learning the art of fishing by participating in lives of fishers. His favourite fieldwork pastime are chatting with people in tea shops about fisheries and dolphins, dissecting fish and squid to cook and eating them fresh with utmost relish.

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