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Tracking wind and waves with fishers and forecasters
By: Maxmillan Martin
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
By Max Martin
Seen from the air, the capital city of Kerala state looks like a magic carpet of sorts. Long strips of golden sand border a vast green canopy of coconut palms and the turquoise shimmer of the Arabian Sea. These sandy shores are home to the largest concentration of artisanal marine fishers in this part of the world – 42 villages spread along a48 mile coastline, living on the edges of the mainstream society and its resource politics. Many of these fishers are poor. Marine fishing in the tropical seas of Thiruvananthapuram (8° 31' N 76° 56' E) is an adventurous affair, especially during the monsoon season that begins on June 1 on the dot and lasts till September with its high waves, winds, swift ocean currents, thunderstorms, and low visibility. Still, regular marine weather forecasts are not easily accessible for the local fishers.
Our research here seeks ways to make marine weather forecasts more accurate, accessible and actionable in line with the risk culture of the fishers. We work in collaboration with state officials and forecasters, mainly our research partners, the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) and the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS). Our team led by Prof Filippo Osella, an anthropologist, comprises another senior anthropologist, an integration design expert and two of us geographers. We design model forecasts and weather alerts with the local fishers and help them disseminate these bulletins over many media such as mobile phones, radio and loudspeakers. It is a trial an error process and we call it ‘Co-production of knowledge and communication tools for safe and sustainable artisanal fishing.’
We focus on two fishing villages, Anchuthengu in the north of the district, part of a barrier island, where the British East India company built one of its first forts in 1695. It is a thin strip of land between the Arabian sea and a lagoon. It is losing parts of its seaward edge especially after the groynes built for a fishing harbour built on a local estuary change wave and current patterns and worsened coastal erosion here. In bad weather, fishers find it risky to enter and exit the sea mouth with high waves overturning their small craft or hurling them against the granite structures. People have died in such accidents and the fishers consider it as the biggest risk they face.
In our risk communication workshops, Anchuthengu fishers preferred to address the harbour-related risks first. So they focussed on visual communication, designing a set of signals marking safe channel for navigation to the harbour. While the fishers negotiate with the district authorities to install this signal system, they are also requesting SDMA to provide another set of signals to give foul weather alert. Experts of the Kerala State Institute of Design in the nearby Kollam district are helping the fishers in the process.
Anchuthengu fishers are also exploring better ways to share marine weather forecasts – through different media and technologies, including mobile phone calls, social media and loudspeaker announcements. A small group in the nearby Puthukurichy village called Radio Monsoon is offering marine weather bulletins in Malayalam over phone lines and WhatsApp, based on an INCOIS service. The fishers like to hear it over small loudspeakers along with other useful information such as availability of fish and market trends. They are trying to set up a small studio to record audio programmes at a local Jesuit institution called theSneharam Centre of Social Work. The legacy of St Francis Xavier, an early Basque Jesuit, who travelled along the south Indian coasts in the 1540s building churches and baptising fishers, continues in this region with a powerful Church and large communities of practicing believers. Thiruvananthapuram is named after a mythical giant snake called Anantha on which the Hindu god Vishnu reclines as an idol in the city’s landmark temple depicts him; it is an inclusive place for its sizeable and vocal minorities, mostly Christians and Muslims, migrant workers from across India, and foreign tourists.
Our other field study site is Poonthura, close to the city centre, about 20 miles south of Anchuthengu, connected through a canal built by a queen of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom in the early 19th century. The canal, once a trunk route, is now in disuse, but fishers frequently move between these two villages by road and sea and find partners in business and life. Poonthrua was one of the worst-hit places in a cyclone last year with many fishers dying, or missing in the sea. The storm system that traversed the southern Bay of Bengal and caused damage in Sri Lanka on November 29 intensified on November 30, sinking dozens of boats off the coasts of Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu state further south. As the storm gained strength rapidly, fishers who were already in the sea were unable to access forecasts. As such forecasts were not disseminated effectively on land-based services as the event was not classified as a cyclonic storm (that is faster than 34 knots or 39 miles per hour) till November 30, warranting elaborate responses.
In the face of marine weather-related risks, the local fishers of Poonthura are demanding two interventions. First, they need a clear forecast dissemination system accessible on the sandy seashore and a local estuary where they launch their boats. They prefer loudspeaker announcements and voice calls over currently available text messages that INCOIS provides. Second, they want a system that works reliably while they go fishing offshore. Fishers here often go 25 nautical miles or beyond (29 miles) offshore, moving north or south, where the wind patterns can be dramatically different from what they experience closer to home shore. Younger fishers already share weather, fish and navigation information over their own informal networks of mobile phones (up to 10 nautical miles offshore) and wireless sets. What they want is a wireless base station that can give round-the-clock weather information and a way to connect it with formal weather forecast systems. Another idea is setting up their own community FM radio station that can beam forecasts, songs and talk shows.
As part of our research, we join the discussions amongst fishers, technologists and regulators looking at the feasibility of various locally-owned risk communication options. In our workshops, the fishers said that marine weather forecasts need to be more local, accurate, and timely with a clearer focus on offshore changes when the weather bulletins available over radio and television are largely land-based. Offshore wind patterns are of particular interest to the fishers. However, they have no access to services such as Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) that informs ships over specialised equipment and the internet. Ongoing experiments such as Radio Monsoon include GMDSS information.
At the same time, the government agencies are listening to the fishers and offering support to some of their local, last-mile communication initiatives. In March, the SDMA and India Meteorological Department issued warnings over loudspeakers to the fishers when a storm system gained strength off the coast, and banned fishing. Fishers welcome such alerts, though they are concerned that fishing restrictions cover a large swathe of the sea and affect livelihoods. They demand more precision in terms of time and space.
As the fishers and forecasters continue their debate and dialogue, soon they will have to start preparing for the rough sea season of monsoon. On our part, we plan to conduct more co-production workshops and field trials of various modes of risk communication measures from May. We will be tracking small fishing boats and mapping their forays with the aid of Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS) that many fishers carry, and compare these tracks with potential fishing grounds shown in satellite images. Once they return, we will share notes on the accuracy of the forecasts at different points. The idea is to look at better and novel ways of risk communication for safe and sustainable fishing. We share this data with the forecasters, contributing to better models and future research. Still, our in-house understanding is “save one life and it will be worth it.”
Max Martin is a research fellow engaged in field work in Thiruvananthapuram as part of a Sussex Sustainability Research Programme study aimed at better risk communication for local fishers. His earlier work focused on climate, environmental hazards and migration in Bangladesh.