Entangled lives of dolphins and fishers


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It is 5 a.m. and still dark. Cold air sinks in from the sky and the sea breeze makes me feel even colder. I step on to the beach and see a fire burning at a distance. As I walk closer, the darkness makes the fire look alive and orange. Around the fire a few men sit huddled close to each other; warming themselves before they head to the sea for fishing.

I walk up towards the fire; they welcome me and I sit with them. Surya, a 15 year old boy who goes fishing every day with the older men, is already there. The man who welcomed me says in an empathetic tone, ‘Oh you should have come with us yesterday, we saw so many dolphins.’ I reply that I saw a couple of dolphins from another boat yesterday, but couldn’t photograph them. He then says there were even little ones – referring to dolphin calves as ‘minni kutti’. He thought of getting into the water and capturing the calf.

Surya intervenes and says, ‘Yeah we need to catch the dolphin calf and kill it because it makes holes in our net and eats all the fish.’ The older man says, ‘Don’t say that Surya, what else can the dolphin do? It is hungry so it bites the fish from the nets to eat.’

Later, I am told that yesterday, a whole pod of dolphins fed fish off their nets. It took six men and one woman six hours to repair the nets. By the time they finished mending and loading the net on the boat, it was dark. (Field notes, 28 November 2016)

I began my PhD fieldwork a year ago to study the artisanal fishing communities and humpback dolphins in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu. Unlike in other parts of the state, here dolphins and artisanal fishers have historically had an uneasy relationship over their shared resource – fish. Intense conflicts are reported where dolphins depredate or plunder fish from fishing gears, thereby destroying them in the process. On the other hand, fishers contradict themselves in the way they see dolphins, not only as a competitor that causes economic loss but as an animal which depends on the same fish they depend on too. In a way my research is a story of a dilemma. The forest department wants to find ways to protect the dolphins, but the artisanal fishers wanted me to find ways to kill the dolphins for the trouble that they cause. It is from this uncomfortable position of being a researcher and in these fleeting moments of contradictions that I conducted my study.


Fishers in the Gulf of Mannar have been in conflict with dolphins for over five decades, whereas in the Palk Bay it is a recent phenomenon, only emerging over the last decade. Fishers attribute the recent spike in dolphin conflict due to declining near-shore fisheries and recent technological changes in artisanal fisheries. The wedge shaped coast of Ramanathapuram, located in the southeast coast of India, is influenced by both the northeast and southwest monsoons. For instance, the Gulf of Mannar experiences extreme wind conditions between April and October under the influence of the southwest monsoon. Wind speeds and gusts occasionally reach up to 50 kmph making it impossible for fishers to venture into the sea. When wind conditions turn unfavourable fishers migrate to the Palk Bay in search of calm waters to fish. So fishing is effectively carried out for only six months of the year in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay respectively.

Artisanal fishers in the Gulf of Mannar have historically been affected by dolphins. The stories of old fishermen who live in the region where the artisanal fishers use the vathai, an oar propelled boat, captures life in the past. Vathais are small boats, but are heavy and sturdy. Fishers go to the beach before sunrise in groups to help each other push the boats from the beach into the sea. As they fish in groups they also stay close to each other at sea without hindering each other. They spark a match and throw it into the water to signal group members to indicate their intention to lay a net at a particular spot. Now torchlights have replaced match sticks. An old man once told me that dolphins are very observant of where fishers are and what they are doing. He was afraid to light a match to smoke his beedi because the dolphins would see the light and come directly to the boat – to depredate the fish from the gear.


The coastal villages of Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar are known for their shore seine fishing practice. Shore seines are large fishing nets with a bag that scoops fish from the near-shore areas. About 60 to 80 people are required to operate a shore seine net depending on its size. Shore seines are known as kara valai in Tamil. One end of the net is held on the shore. A boat known as kara valai thoni takes the other end of the net into deeper water, makes a big arc and brings it to the shore. People pull the net towards the shore from morning onwards, at times taking up to even seven hours. As the net comes closer to the shore in the evening, the dolphins begin to arrive. It is difficult to say what kinds of cues the dolphins respond to but they arrive exactly on time. As the cod end of the shore seine comes closer to the shore, five people swim into the water to protect the net. Otherwise the nets will be full of holes rather than fish, putting a whole day’s work to waste.

Conversations with older people in the village are reminiscent of a time when near-shore waters were teeming with fish. When there are lots of fish there are lots of dolphins too. The dolphins enter the shore seine nets and come along with the fish when the net is pulled to the shore. To disperse the dolphin pod, fishers would playfully tie a dried palm leaf to a single dolphins’ tail and release the animal. The pitching sound of palm leaf in the water scattered the whole pod. Fishing pressure was less, mechanized boats were absent and all fishers would do was dip the net in the water for a few minutes to find it full of fish. Over time things changed. Shore seining declined with the lack of labour availability and declining profits as fish catch began to decline. ‘Earlier we used to go behind the dolphin to find fish as it is the best hunter in the sea. Dolphins were friends of the fishermen back then. Now they are our greatest enemy at sea since they eat all the fish and damage our nets,’ said Mariappan, a 62 year old fisherman during a chat, explaining the change to me.


Though the Gulf of Mannar was demarcated as a marine protected area (MPA) in 1986, regulations began to be enforced only in 2002 with the help of international funding. Islands that were traditionally used for harvesting fish were now suddenly out of bounds. The fringing coral reef islands off the Gulf of Mannar also act as barriers against strong winds, providing a safe haven for vathai fishers. But with the lack of safe fishing spaces, people have turned to intensifying fisheries in near-shore areas to compensate for the losses arising from lack of access to the islands. People had their own ways of keeping dolphins away from their fishing gear before conservation of biodiversity became a priority vis-a-vis livelihood interests of fishing communities.

At present, fishers have subjected themselves to certain changes in their occupation to keep the troubling dolphins at bay. These include shifting from oar propelled to motorized boats in order to fish beyond the foraging range of dolphins; discontinuing the use of particular fishing gears which dolphins target; avoiding particular areas and sacrificing sleep to go fishing after midnight to avoid dolphins. These changes are seemingly not visible at the outset. However, the actions of the dolphins are subliminal, influencing fishers to make changes in their day-to-day fishing practice.

Seeni said dolphins are a major problem here. That they take the catch as well as damage the net severely. So I asked Seeni, ‘Why do you use soodai valai (sardine nets) even though you know it’ll get attacked by dolphins?’ Seeni said, ‘Soodai valai is cheap to purchase, and is also easy to operate.’ There is a common saying among fishers in the village that when a person goes for soodai valai fishing, that person can put rice on the boil and go to fish (‘olaiya oothi vachittu polam’) because there will definitely be some catch to bring home to shore and eat for that particular day. (Field notes, 12 December 2016)

Fishers who have switched to motorized boats are able to escape depredation by fishing in deeper waters, beyond the range of the dolphins. One needs enough capital to maintain motorized boats and buy appropriate fishing gears that are often expensive. But the most affected are the non-motorized artisanal boats who use small-mesh gear to target small, near-shore forage fish such as sardines and anchovies. The dolphins prefer sardines and anchovies and come directly in contact with small mesh gear used by non-motorized artisanal boats. These are socially and economically the most vulnerable group of people, living in poverty, who can neither avoid dolphins nor stop fishing. For others, the morning is the start of a new day but for the vathai fishers it is fresh trouble, as the dolphins come exactly at twilight, before sunrise.

If ten dolphins come and bite the net (‘kappuchu-na’), then that is the end of the net… After that to buy a new net the fisherman does not have much economic power. It is a great loss because fish catch is gone, net is gone (‘meenuku meenum pooi, valaikku valaiyum pooi’) and he is pushed into a situation where he cannot go fishing the next day. (James, 70, Palk Bay)

When the water is calm in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay, humpback dolphins remain close to the shore. These are the times when fishers get a good catch but the catch is also susceptible to depredation. During the calm seasons the water turns clear. Fishers say clear waters allows better visibility for the dolphins. I was surprised at what a fisherman from the Palk Bay told me: ‘These dolphins come and eat away all the costly fish.’ I wondered how dolphins came to distinguish between costly fish and the cheap. When questioned about this logic, he told me that the white and silver coloured fish fetched higher prices in the market and were more visible to the dolphins compared to the darker coloured fish that are sold at cheaper rates.


Sleep is something that is elusive for the vathai fishers who go fishing earlier than usual to avoid dolphin trouble. They have to sacrifice their sleep in order to save the days catch and avoid the risk of getting their fishing gear damaged. Out at sea on the vathai with the fishermen, I learnt that they are keen listeners. In darkness it is difficult to see dolphins, but easy to hear them. Fishers listen for the sounds of dolphins breathing as they surface every few minutes. In case they hear dolphins’ close to their boats, they begin to remove their nets and signal to their neighbours that trouble is around.

When dolphins are around… we take out the net fast. The person who pulls the net fast can save it from damage. The person who is lazy loses all the catch. If in case only one dolphin comes it can forage and then go. But you see, even dolphins care about other members of its family. Were it to slaps its tail and make noise, I think ‘oh shit! Now the dolphin is making such a noise that my whole family is likely to lose out’ (dolphins come as a group and eat all the fish). When a whole pod forage from the nets, it is difficult to mend them... It makes circular holes in the nets. The nets cannot be used for anything else later. (Umaiyar, 62, Gulf of Mannar)


People say that the dolphin depredation events have intensified in the past decade. Earlier, dolphins seem to have taken fish from drifting gillnets that float on the water surface. But these days the dolphins don’t spare the bottom set nets too as they dive and feed on fish caught below. When dolphins take fish from the net they also take a large bite of netting material. If dolphins were ingesting fishing gear made out of cotton, it would not be much of a problem as it would get digested. But what if they are ingesting plastic nets, the monofilament fishing gear that is widely adopted by artisanal fishers and used these days? The decline of near-shore fisheries is jeopardizing the lives of both artisanal fishers and the dolphins. Artisanal fisheries has transformed over the years by adopting new fishing technologies to counter the decline of fisheries as a means to make ends meet. However, with artisanal fishers adopting these new technologies, what are the effects on dolphins?

In the past, fishing nets and traps were made by extracting fibres from the bark of acacia trees. Making fish nets was a tedious process which involved patience and skill. Over time, acacia fibres were replaced by cotton materials. People had to sit for long hours and make a net for themselves. There are skilled net makers in the village who are much sought out by other fishers. What if the nets get torn after getting trapped in corals? They had to be mended quickly in the middle of the sea in order to fish and come back. In 1964, after a ferocious cyclone wiped out Dhanushodi on Pamban island, the government provided fishers with nylon nets as a part of reconstruction efforts. These nylon nets were sturdy, caught more fish than cotton nets and wouldn’t break easily. But both cotton and nylon nets were heavy to carry as they absorb water once soaked at sea.


By the 1990s, monofilament nets, made of plastic, began to be used in artisanal fisheries. The uptake of monofilament increased after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, when government and non-government aid agencies provided money to purchase fishing gears, as a part of tsunami reconstruction efforts. Initially there was a boom in fish catch and then a bust. Monofilaments changed the way people fish. Since net mending was a labour-intensive activity people were using only a few types of mesh sizes to target multiple species of fish. Monofilament technology replaced manual labour with machines. Now fishers did not need to depend on their skilled neighbours. They could just call the monofilament company, give the specifications of the gear including mesh size, gear height and length. And what’s more, the monofilament industry began to employ fishers who would provide advice for gear design according the target species.

Unlike cotton or nylon fishing nets that are visible underwater, the fine, transparent plastic monofilament nets are invisible to fish. Therefore, the catch is comparatively high in monofilament nets but not without affecting distribution. The catch brought in by many fishing boats earlier is now caught by a single boat, as monofilament prevents fish from escaping. Monofilament nets do not absorb water when they are soaked at sea, and can remain underwater for many hours too. The ease of using monofilament is that it can be customized according to the specific needs of artisanal fishers who are trying all possible ways to keep their livelihoods alive in a sea of declining fisheries. Artisanal fishers are aware that monofilament gears cause both ecological and social consequences to fisheries but they have little choice despite the negative effects. I’ve asked fishers if they would be willing to switch to cotton gears like they used years ago. They say they want to, but cotton nets are not available. The monofilament industry has become hegemonic now.


Marine mammal conservation narratives posit artisanal fisheries in developing countries as an emerging threat to animals such as dolphins.1 But the case presented on dolphins and artisanal fisheries in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar illustrates otherwise. Here the artisanal fishers are not only affected by dolphins but also have been subject to the pressures of biodiversity conservation. The biased narratives of artisanal fisheries being a threat to marine mammals emerge from Euro-American countries where a different understanding of nature and people-in-nature exists. These narratives are biased because they do not account for the situated histories of artisanal fishing communities within the political-economic transformations of fisheries in developing countries.

Another crucial aspect these conservation narratives reinforce is that they reify dolphins as passive animals that perish due to anthropogenic forces. Such a framing foregrounds the importance given to dolphin conservation over the livelihood concerns of fisher people. The fishers in fact see dolphins as a highly intelligent animal that fools them and takes their catch at sea. They wonder about the ways to prevent such an intelligent animal taking away even the meagre catch they get these days. Such biased conservation narratives also help to keep alive and promote intensive conservation such as no-take MPAs that might be biologically sound but socio-economically flawed.

Dolphins getting entangled in fishing gears and dying as a result remains a serious conservation issue. Far worse is the creation of simplistic binary actors in conservation: that is, by saving dolphins, conservationists become heroes and by entangling dolphins in their fishing gears artisanal fishers become villains. Instead, we need to focus on some uncomfortable questions such as how can we conserve an intelligent species like dolphins that is highly adaptable without compromising on the livelihoods of the artisanal fishers?


During my PhD fieldwork, living with the artisanal fishers in their village, I often wondered why people engaged in such a difficult occupation. They risk their lives, sacrifice their physical health by eating one meal a day and their mental health due to sleep deprivation. I put myself in a position to experience how social and economic marginalization leaves a person without choice. People have to continue fishing as they do not have other means for an alternate livelihood in spite of the economic and material losses that dolphins cause. For biodiversity conservation to be fruitful in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, it needs to reconcile the livelihood requirements of artisanal fishing communities rather than alienating them.



1. R.L. Lewison, L.B. Crowder, A.J. Read and S.A. Freeman, ‘Understanding Impacts of Fisheries Bycatch on Marine Megafauna’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19(11), 2004, pp. 598-604.