As the clouds grow darker in Fort Kochi, the faces of the fishermen in Vasco da Gama Square are even more downcast. The side of the road is lined with the famous Chinese fishing nets and on each of these nets, small clusters of workers sit glumly. Each fishing net has an owner who employs upto 6 of these men to operate them for 30 percent of the profits. This time of year, a dreadful combination of hyacinth and waste creep up on the edges of the sea making it impossible to lower the nets, let alone catch any fish.
Chinese fishing nets are delicate contraptions made by placing horizontal nets on wooden rods that are balanced on a makeshift lever. They need to be reset every five years and require continuous maintenance. The rods that were previously made up entirely of teak wood now has been replaced with iron on some of the nets. Such maintenance has to be funded entirely by the owners. Recently, the Chinese government submitted a proposal to the Kochi Corporation to restore the nets that were supposedly named after them, but the corporation is yet to execute the plan.
Ashraf and three of his fellow fishermen working on the first net explained that most of them don’t even bother coming to work during these days. While the Chinese Fishing Net Owners Association has reportedly been working towards a deal with the Kochi Corporation to get rid of the waste, the fishermen remain skeptical about any actual results. Moreover, the expansion of the beach and the dwindling number of fish spell more trouble for the business.
Unable to keep up with these conditions, various owners have had to dismantle their nets and leave. In the last couple of years, the number of Chinese fishing nets have come down to 12 from 22. The remaining nets are mere shadows of the function that they once used to serve. When asked if the fishing nets were now only mere tourist attractions Ashraf responded, “These nets are still used to fish. There are many people dependent on them. For them, they are not merely a tradition, they are a way of life. Their livelihood depends on them…but these people are unseen”. Ashraf continues to believe that the business will survive.
However, V.J. Franklin, a veteran fisherman is not as optimistic. He and the other people working with him are surrounded with an air of desperation. One of the men lifts up a bucket to display their haul for the entire week: two measly fish. In fact, they hadn’t even bothered to cast the net that day. Franklin explains, “We’ve been sitting here since 6 in the morning, we figured that it was better to sit idle here than to sit idle at home…”. This season will continue until December, he explains, the waste will begin to recede by late August but he is still doubtful if the catch will increase. “I fear that this is the end of our livelihood. There is not much that anyone can do for us now.”
While the future of the Chinese fishing nets lie in the hands of its owners and the corporation, the men who work on them bear the brunt of natural and man-made changes. As they struggle to balance the structure of the nets, the future of these fisherman hang in balance even more uncertainly. It will take wilful governance and strategic waste management to secure the future of the men behind Kochi’s greatest attraction.
Azmia is a student of multimedia journalism from Kerala.