Turning a new reef

Additional image:: 

Nonsense! most people said, when they heard that the breweries at Pozhiyoor are going to shut down. It seemed an impossibility, for the town had earned notoreity as Kerala's illicit-liqour Capital. However, when they actually did so 3 years ago, a large question opened up : how to survive?

The people here were once experts in hook-and-line fishing in the natural reefs off the coast. But largescale bottom trawling over the past few decades had destroyed the natural reefs, forcing the villagers to take to illicit brewing for survival.

Siril, a 65 year old fisherman, speaks about how the village went down with the destruction of the natural reefs. "Fishes ceased to appear in the coastal areas and line fishing became futile. We turned to brewing, which was more profitable than wasting time in the destroyed reefs."

The solution to the question of livelihood, therefore, had to be simple: getting back to fishing. The only problem was: how to re-create the reefs? And that is where the traditional knowledge of the fisherfolk came to aid.

During the 2nd World War, a ship had sunk off the coast of Anjengo, 45 km from Thiruvananthapuram. Efforts to trace it failed. But in 1949, a fisherman stumbled upon it. By that time, it had become an artificial reef teeming with fish. The prodigal fisherfolk of Pozhiyoor, returning back to decent living, remembered this story. Studies proved their wisdom.

"Any external object or stable structure placed in the sea to attract, aggregate and regenerate pelagic, demersal, migratory and residential fishes can act as an artificial reef," wrote John Fernandez, who had first studied the issue of artificial reef on behalf of the Programme for Community Organisation (pco), an ngo functioning among Kerala fisherfolk.

In 1953, the fishermen of Puthiathura village had dumped 2 truckloads of rocks, packed in coconut fronds, on a natural reef for its enrichment. This was the 1st purposive attempt at creating an artificial reef.

Now, with technical support from pco, the fisherfolk got involved in the Artificial Reef Programme. The state government put in Rs 2.5 lakh for the Programme at Pozhiyoor alone, and the Thiruvananthapuram Social Service Society helped to keep the villagers motivated through the days of struggle. Some 100 ferro-cement modules were sunk at 2 sites at Paruthiyur and Kollamkode. It was the 1st time that ferro-cement modules were used for the formation of artificial reefs.

"We feared that the end of the brewery would finish us too," says Robin. "But now our hopes lie in this artificial reef." Charles, a graduate activist in the Programme, says, "Before this, we used to get up in the morning and go liquour-bottle hunting. Today we go fishing for cuttle fish."

The implementation of the Artificial Reef Programme at Pozhiyoor, especially with the involvement of the state government was a turning point. Until the end of the '80s, all the official research and development agencies considered artificial fish habitat generation as "unscientific" and "irrational". But, "the Pozhiyoor Artificial Reef Programme provides evidence that the authorities are now serious about this technology," observes J B Rajan, the research associate of the Fisheries Research Cell of pco, Thiruvananthapuram. "The pco has conducted a study after the implementation of the reef programme at Pozhiyoor. It shows that the catch from the artificial reef is considered larger than from the natural reef," he adds. "Even though the modules placed in the sea bottom would mature only after several years, the Pozhiyoor fishermen have begun fishing from this reef immediately after it was set up. Our study shows that within 1 year, the artificial reef of Pozhiyoor has yielded about 40 per cent of its original investment. But the actual results are yet to come."

There are some problems. Some of the modules have got embedded in the sea floor, some lost to erosion or swept away by the currents. Evidently, there is need for carefully monitored maintenance. But there is no gainsaying that the experiment has ushered in a sea change in Pozhiyoor.

In fact, the villagers were hopeless when they were compelled to abandon the brewing. But the setting up of artificial reefs has given them confidence and courage. "Now we know we can survive," says Cleatus, a 25-year-old fisherman. Doubtless, his statement sums up the sentiments of this village which had once been home to alcoholics and had seemed beyond redemption.