ArticlePDF Available

Entangled lives of dolphins and fishers

  • Krea University
SEMINAR 702 – February 2018
Entangled lives of dolphins
and fishers
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 or-
ange. 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 wel-
come 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 wel-
comed 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 commu-
nities 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 fish-
ers have historically had an uneasy
relationship over their shared resource
– fish. Intense conflicts are reported
where dolphins depredate or plunder
SEMINAR 702 – February 2018
fish from fishing gears, thereby des-
troying them in the process. On the
other hand, fishers contradict them-
selves 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 dol-
phins, 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 fleet-
ing moments of contradictions that
I conducted my study.
ishers 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 emerg-
ing 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 Ramanatha-
puram, 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 impos-
sible for fishers to venture into the
sea. When wind conditions turn unfa-
vourable 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 respec-
tively.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 mem-
bers 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.
he 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 pro-
tect 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 teem-
ing with fish. When there are lots of fish
there are lots of dolphins too. The dol-
phins 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 pitch-
ing sound of palm leaf in the water
scattered the whole pod. Fishing pres-
sure 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 dam-
age our nets,’ said Mariappan, a 62
year old fisherman during a chat,
explaining the change to me.
hough 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 har-
vesting fish were now suddenly out of
bounds. The fringing coral reef islands
off the Gulf of Mannar also act as bar-
riers 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
At present, fishers have sub-
jected themselves to certain changes
SEMINAR 702 – February 2018
in their occupation to keep the trou-
bling dolphins at bay. These include
shifting from oar propelled to motor-
ized boats in order to fish beyond the
foraging range of dolphins; discontinu-
ing the use of particular fishing gears
which dolphins target; avoiding par-
ticular areas and sacrificing sleep to go
fishing after midnight to avoid dolphins.
These changes are seemingly not vis-
ible at the outset. However, the actions
of the dolphins are subliminal, influenc-
ing 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 dam-
age 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 com-
mon 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)
ishers who have switched to motor-
ized boats are able to escape depreda-
tion 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 morn-
ing 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 fish-
ers get a good catch but the catch is
also susceptible to depredation. Dur-
ing 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 dis-
tinguish 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.
leep is something that is elusive
for the vathai fishers who go fishing
earlier than usual to avoid dolphin trou-
ble. 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 dif-
ficult 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)
eople say that the dolphin depreda-
tion 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 bot-
tom 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 adopt-
ing new fishing technologies to coun-
ter the decline of fisheries as a means
to make ends meet. However, with
artisanal fishers adopting these new
technologies, what are the effects on
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
SEMINAR 702 – February 2018
had to be mended quickly in the mid-
dle 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 fish-
ers with nylon nets as a part of recon-
struction 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.
y 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 indus-
try began to employ fishers who would
provide advice for gear design accord-
ing the target species.
Unlike cotton or nylon fishing
nets that are visible underwater, the
fine, transparent plastic monofila-
ment nets are invisible to fish. There-
fore, the catch is comparatively high in
monofilament nets but not without
affecting distribution. The catch brou-
ght in by many fishing boats earlier is
now caught by a single boat, as mono-
filament 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 monofila-
ment is that it can be customized
according to the specific needs of
artisanal fishers who are trying all pos-
sible 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 avail-
able. The monofilament industry has
become hegemonic now.
arine mammal conservation nar-
ratives posit artisanal fisheries in deve-
loping countries as an emerging threat
to animals such as dolphins.1 But the
case presented on dolphins and artisa-
nal 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 fish-
ing communities within the political-
economic transformations of fisheries
in developing countries.
Another crucial aspect these con-
servation narratives reinforce is that
they reify dolphins as passive animals
that perish due to anthropogenic forces.
Such a framing foregrounds the impor-
tance 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 narra-
tives also help to keep alive and pro-
mote intensive conservation such as
no-take MPAs that might be biologi-
cally sound but socio-economically
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 dol-
phins in their fishing gears artisanal
fishers become villains. Instead, we
need to focus on some uncomfortable
questions such as how can we con-
serve an intelligent species like dol-
phins that is highly adaptable without
compromising on the livelihoods of
the artisanal fishers?
uring 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 depri-
vation. I put myself in a position to
experience how social and economic
marginalization leaves a person with-
out 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 con-
servation to be fruitful in the Palk
Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, it needs
to reconcile the livelihood require-
ments of artisanal fishing communi-
ties 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.
... According to Anderson (2014), small cetaceans like dolphins fail to detect gillnets and get entangled, which is a common issue. Reeve et al. (2013) and Muralidharan (2018) reported that fishermen consider cetaceans to be nuisances because of the problems they create for the artisanal fisheries and the unintentional bycatch damages the fishing gear, while the dead cetaceans are discarded at sea. There are no proper systems to monitor cetacean bycatch, or mitigation measures to reduce this, and thus there I inefficiency in accounting the impact of fisheries on cetaceans. ...
Full-text available
Received on: 25-10-2020; Revised on:01-02-2021; Accepted on: 02-02-2021 This paper reports cetacean stranding events along Kerala coast during 2017 to 2019 of Bryde's whale (Balaenoptera edeni), blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), killer whale (Orcinus orca) and Indo-Pacific finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) identified through morphological approach. DNA barcoding using mitochondrial COI gene confirmed the identification of B. edeni and B. musculus. The bushmeat trade involving striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) is also photo documented here. The paper affirms the need to form cetacean stranding response programs to build a scientific baseline for cetacean conservation and research, monitor threats to cetaceans and curtail the cetacean meat trade.
Hunting by humans played a major role in extirpating terrestrial megafauna on several continents and megafaunal loss continues today in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Recent declines of large marine vertebrates that are of little or no commercial value, such as sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals, have focused attention on the ecological impacts of incidental take, or bycatch, in global fisheries. In spite of the recognition of the problem of bycatch, few comprehensive assessments of its effects have been conducted. Many vulnerable species live in pelagic habitats, making surveys logistically complex and expensive. Bycatch data are sparse and our understanding of the demography of the affected populations is often rudimentary. These factors, combined with the large spatial scales that pelagic vertebrates and fishing fleets cover, make accurate and timely bycatch assessments difficult. Here, we review the current research that addresses these challenging questions in the face of uncertainty, analytical limitations and mounting conservation crises.