No place for old men

By Ajith Lawrence

Thiruvananthapuram

Muscular and suntanned with a rapid gait, Shanthappan does not look 65 except when he gets lost in memories. Once an all-season fisherman, he recalls his forays into the sea, for ‘thangal’ (stay-over) fishing in his catamaran.

A five-day trip twice a month would fetch income to take care of his family often.

 “After 10 days rest and enough preparation, we used to go with a lantern each in our three catamarans,” Shathappan recalls.  “We would keep cooked lemon-rice to eat with fresh fish curry – or we would just barbecue a big fish.”

The catch comprised big species like rays, sharks, seer fish and local varieties knows as Thamba, moda, thala, thalava.

 The fishermen would keep the catch of live fish in the water in net bags called ‘omal’ and ‘kachal’ till they return – so they bring a fresh lot for people waiting on the shore, yelling and cheering as they approach.

 “And when we come back after five days, there would be a good catch worth Rs 10,000 to 15,000 or sometimes even more,” Shathappan recalls.

 “At home we had various seasonal recipes made with different kinds of fish we brought. The taste of all those recipes is just a memory now. Now we have just one fish molley or some curry with coconut paste and the like.”

 The fishermen had their own fishing grounds around underwater reefs. “Reefs like ‘pakal paru’ (day reef) and Chiraman Thura paru used to feed us throughout the year.”

 “We never had any problem of high tide or any such rough season, that had prevented us from going for fishing. It was joyous trip for us.”

 “We used to cover some around 31.5 fathom ( 11-15kms) in our catamrans  with a sail. Now sail is made of polythene and people are increasingly using outboard engines. And fishing has been made very easy.”

 For Shathappan and veterans like him thangal fishing was the high point of their career. Now nobody goes for thangal fishing as there are no reefs. Even if some one goes the catch is dismal, as reefs have are no more fertile, Shathappan notes. Species depletion in the coastal waters is a real threat, according to fisheries scientists.

 Alex and Stephan, two brothers who used to go for thangal have now shifted based to Kollam, a neighbouring district, for fishing in out-board engine-fitted boats.

 Besides, catamaran fishing is becoming out of fashion with the advent of machines. Shathappan also finds sandy shores disappearing as more constructions and sea walls take away the coastal space. “In many places you just have no space to land safely anymore,” he notes.

Walk along the coast of Kerala and you will find its sandy shore being replaced by rocks and bricks. There has been construction along the coasts over the past years. Only a quarter of the shore are freely accessible of late, notes a new study by the Centre for Resource Management Studies.

 Thangal is just on practice of traditional fishing that is becoming a memory. A whole lifestyle might be just a part of history soon, many veteran fishermen fear.