School of Global Studies


Forecasting with fishers

Contributing to half the fish catch in the Global South, employing 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers, and selling 90 per cent locally, small-scale fishing is crucial for the world’s livelihood and food security. Still artisanal fishers face a range of economic, environmental and safety challenges In pilot research conducted in 2018 funded by the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) and its follow up supported by the Royal Geographical Society in coastal fishing villages of Kerala in South India, the research team has established that competition and conflicts over resources, high operational expenses, and increased cost of living  push artisanal fishers to go into deeper waters on longer forays, even under prohibitive weather conditions, often without adequate preparation for the risks this entails. Taken together with climatic changes making the North Indian Ocean increasingly prone to extreme, and often ill-predicted weather events, this makes accidents at sea more frequent, resulting in loss of gear and boats, often of lives.

Forecasting with fishers  At a boatyard in Neerodi village of Kanyakumari district, a multi-day
  fishing boat gets finishing touches.

In 2017, when Cyclone Ockhi hit the Arabian Sea, 60 fishers from Kerala and 42 fishers in Tamil Nadu died at sea, and another 293 were reported missing. Over 4500 fishing boats were lost, greatly disrupting coastal livelihoods.   Dramatic as these figures are, on the Kerala coast –– home to some of the largest artisanal fishing communities in Asia — accidents at sea are all too frequent.  Indeed, every year the monsoon season, when artisanal fishers can make substantial catches but weather conditions are extremely hazardous, witnesses serious or deadly accidents, the risk of deadly accidents increasing when fishing under adverse weather conditions.  Our pilot research suggests that most accidents at sea are part of daily operations, with a strong nexus with weather and sea conditions, and their sudden variation. Fishers have reported that rising wind and currents, high waves, and low visibility make fishing during the monsoon season extremely hazardous, especially at night. The most common risks include getting hit by high waves while launching and landing, capsizing, getting thrown overboard, and damaging gear when hit by other vessels; and most accidents happen during the monsoon period of June to September when the sea is rough.

Accurate, accessible and actionable marine weather forecasts are recognised to contribute to reducing accidents at sea, and to promote safe and sustainable fishing, yet in coastal Kerala—as elsewhere in the Global South—this essential information is not easily accessible to artisanal fishers.  Our pilot research revealed that whilst artisanal fishers require area-specific and timely forecasts, decisions to go out fishing or to stay back, or indeed return when the weather turns foul, are taken based on a variety of weather forecasts, observations based on experience, and information shared over social networks.  Artisanal fishers clearly know how to interpret weather forecasts, taking decisions that are contingent upon the balancing of a variety uncertainties, hazards and risks, and thus are inevitably contextual.  And yet, artisanal fishers’ socially-located evaluation of and approach to weather hazards and risks are normally dismissed by forecasters and government agencies as the reckless risk-taking behaviour of the fishers.  At the same time, artisanal fishers mistrust the accuracy of existing forecasts, the latter believed to be either too generic or altogether incorrect, delivered in a jargon which does not reflect local culture and understandings.

As indicated by research elsewhere, weather forecasters and forecast users are often motivated by different orientations, values, and interests in determining not only the point at which a weather event becomes a risk, but also what action should be taken to limit or ward off the consequences of such a risk.  Existing research has underscored a chasm not only between forecasters’ and users’ perceptions of how useful and actionable weather information might be but also, and more generally, on the way natural hazards are turned—via socially embedded technologies and practices—into risk objects, and of the relationship between such objects and people deemed to be at risk.  These studies have led to calls for weather forecasts not only to be tailor-made for user groups but also co-produced, combining  scientific observations from experts with those gathered by popular science groups, citizen observers and the users themselves.  At the same time, recent research suggests that ICT can contribute safer, more remunerative and sustainable small-scale fishing, though technology penetration amongst artisanal fishers is rather limited. 

Top banner image: Thengapattinam fishing harbour in Kanyakumari district south of Thiruvananthapuram.