Kerala,  Sustainability

What Does it Take to Save India’s Largest Lake?

The belief that a rising tide will lift all boats, says a fisherman-conservationist, who is part of a community setting up fish sanctuaries in Vembanad Lake

Story by: K. M. Poovu

See video snippets of this story in Malayalam

My name is K. M. Poovu. I was born in a traditional fishing community by Vembanad Lake — a wetland system that connects 1.6 million lives across three districts of Kerala. My earliest childhood memories are those of sitting by the lakeside near my home and dropping the net in it to catch fish, different varieties of those like Malabar Labeo, Pearl Spot, Giant Danio, Anchovy. I must’ve been 8 or 10 years old then. It was the time when the lake was home to over 150 species of fish.

Vembanad Lake. Photo: Vinayaraj, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even as a child, I was aware of the challenges that the fishermen in my community faced to make ends meet. Over the years, I have witnessed numerous changes that have caused a sharp decline in the fish wealth in the lake and in turn multiplied the problems of the fishermen here. How did the fish population decline? There are many factors that contributed to the impoverishment of the Vembanad Lake ecosystem.

One of the major factors was the construction of Thanneermukkom Bund (Thannermukkom Salt Water Barrier) in 1975 across the Vembanad Lake to prevent flow of salt water from the tidal waves of the Arabian Sea into the low lands of the Kuttanad region and help paddy cultivation that needs fresh water. This barrier divided the 36000 hectares lake into two parts – the northern part with salty water all through the year and southern half with fresh water from rivers.

Thanneermukkom Bund on Vembanad Lake. Photo: Kondephy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before the barrier was commissioned, 429 tons of prawns were obtained from the lake as per the government records. A year later, prawns obtained from the lake reduced by 27 tons. Studies revealed that this decline was a result of reduced salinity in water in the southern part of the lake. Prawns need salty water for breeding.  Same was the case with clams. A clam lays about 5 lakhs eggs, but salty water is needed to facilitate hatching of those eggs. The low salinity in parts of the lake caused prawns and clams production to fall drastically in this region. The varieties of shrimp that used to come from the sea into the lake water — Indian white prawn, tiger, kadal – reduced too. Crabs became difficult to obtain in the lake. Half of the 150 species have been wiped out since the barrage was built and it has resulted in losses amounting to hundreds of crores to the local fisherfolk as well as the government.

Production of clams and other fishes in Vembanad Lake fell due to low salinity content in southern part of the lake after commissioning of the barrier. Photo: Andy Castille on Unsplash

The Green Revolution that commenced in 1965 in India was another factor that adversely impacted the marine life of Vembanad Lake. Excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers to protect grain crops and increase crop production in parts of land, which were originally occupied by the lake and were later reclaimed for agricultural purposes, resulted in polluting the water of the lake and the disappearance of fish species from the lake. Moreover, the consumption of fish from the pesticide-laden water caused health hazards.

Use of pesticides in cultivation of grain crops in the areas that are reclaimed from Vembanad Lake has resulted in polluting water of the lake. Photo: Achuthan K V, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The growth of the industrial sector, especially the industries along the banks of the Periyar river that flows into the Vembanad lake, caused industrial waste to trickle into the lake. Increased tourism brought more boats than the lake could carry. All these factors led to polluting of the lake water, shrinking the size of the lake, decimating the fish stock and eventually impacting the livelihoods of the local fishermen.

Growth of industries and tourism contributed to the pollution of the lake and resulted in declined fish wealth. Photo: Kunal Kalra on Unsplash

A few shrewd, money-minded individuals from our own community, who were not mindful of their impact on the environment started encroaching upon the lake, over-farming the fish and even used pesticides. Those who didn’t participate in any of this had to suffer as well. Forced to sit in a corner and cast their nets within a limited area, eventually, they too started adopting new methods to catch more fish and save their own livelihoods, making matters a lot worse. They replaced old ecofriendly nets with nylon nets of different types with the smallest mesh size to catch more fish, including juvenile fish. Earlier, they caught large clams, but due to the lack of availability, they started catching small clams as well. If you catch a clam when it is 6 months old, it does not have reproductive capacity. So, reproduction of clams stopped and clam catches fell. Moreover, fisherfolks had not left a single spot of the lake untouched. They caught fish everywhere in the lake. Fishing in the areas of the lake where fish breed and lay eggs resulted in destroying eggs and hatchlings, causing further depletion of fish stock.

To address these ever-increasing problems, K V Dayal, a pioneering environmentalist in Kerala, established the Vembanad Nature Club in 1986 in Muhamma village and started organizing various initiatives and activities for the conservation of Vembanad Lake. He formed a lake protection group in my area along with my uncle, Ashokan. It was under K V Dayal’s guidance and with his personal funds that the first Matsyathavalam (fish sanctuary or fish shelter) was established in Vembanad Lake. In 2007, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) started working together with the local fishing communities and institutions to address the conservation issues faced by Vembanad Lake.

Influenced by the work of such institutions and determined to make a difference, I joined Vembanad Kayal Samrakshana Samiti or the Lake Protection Forum (LPF) at a young age. LPFs use traditional ecological knowledge to govern and manage fishery resources. They study the challenges of the fishing community, come up with localized solutions, find people who are interested in supporting initiatives, and work with them to bring about real change.

I started participating in LPF initiatives such as organizing awareness programs for fisherfolks, general public and government officials to explain how fish and clams are produced, the adverse impact of overfishing and need for protecting them. I also started participating in conducting fish counts, monitoring water quality (Jaladarpanam), organizing meetings to discuss issues on Vembanad Lake, and conducting various campaigns for cleaning and safeguarding the lake.

To prevent the problems associated with overfishing, we started building fish sanctuaries by using the traditional paddal system – using bamboo fencing and branches of cashew and mango trees. These sanctuaries were declared no-fishing zones to help fish breed and LPF members took turns to keep vigil.

Building a fish sanctuary or matsyathavalam using bamboo and branches of trees. Photo: Cherish Expeditions

Today, through the continuous combined efforts of organizations such as ATREE and Cherish Expeditions, local bodies such as Lake Protection Forum, and also some foreign student groups, we have been able to raise funds and establish 30 fish sanctuaries. The evaluation of these sanctuaries by fishery experts has shown an increase in the fish stocks, especially pearl spot, clams and other small fish. We have also managed to get government participation in the effort – the government has now established 14 fish sanctuaries over an area of two hectares.  In addition, five Panchayats manage five sanctuaries.

The fishing communities have realized that these sanctuaries would make it possible to improve their lives and livelihoods. When some fishermen went to catch fish in the sanctuaries, they were forced to retreat by the other fishermen – “Don’t cast nets there, that’s the fish sanctuary there, that’s the spot where pearl spot fish have laid eggs, therefore, don’t do it,” they said. Fish sanctuaries have thus managed to curb the rampant overfishing by fisherfolk. They also act as artificial mangroves that protect us from floods.

Think about it, apart from stabilising the traditional livelihoods of the fisherfolk here, in time, these fish sanctuaries, if left alone, will also help other people in the region by making clean fish available and affordable to them. In fact, even if these sanctuaries cannot be expanded later to other areas of the Vembanad Lake, south of the Thanneermukkom Bund, it’s wonderful that they are already impacting the lives of thousands of people, including the local fishing families. But I believe the biggest achievement has been that these sanctuaries have raised awareness about sustainable fishing within a community that was once exploiting the lake without sparing a thought for the future. Changing habits can take time. But without changing our habits permanently, how can we expect real change to happen?

See video snippets of this story in Malayalam

Meet the storyteller

K M Poovu

K M Poovu was born and brought up on the banks of Vembanad Lake- the longest lake in India. He is well-connected with his community and their main source of livelihood is fishing and collecting clamshells on the lake. He is the Secretary in the the Lake Protection Forum, a body that uses use traditional ecological knowledge to govern and manage fishery resources. Poovu has also authored a book that explains how to protect fish reserves against overfishing.

Cherish Expeditions

Cherish Expeditions is a travel-based impact initiative for building a community of conscious travelers and offering them sustainable & transformational experiences to uplift the local livelihoods through programs designed to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The aim of such projects is to mould sociopreneurs and ecological entrepreneurs through hands-on problem-solving. This is not only a journey to give back but also a journey within.

One Comment

  • sridevi rao

    Mr Poovu
    Very inspiring efforts on your part. I am a recent migrant into Kerala and have spent sometime around the Vembanad and was distressed with the pollution afflicting it. I wondered how anyone could eat fish from this lake! I truly wish you and your team a lot of success in spreading your solutions. Kerala certainly needs its rivers and lakes rescued! And by the same token, their resources including fish.

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