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The hard life of South India’s fishermen

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Heya-ha-heya-ha-heya-ha…

The sound of chanting got closer and closer as we rounded the corner in Fort Cochin. We had arrived at the famous Chinese fishing nets on the water of this ancient port town. Fisherman stand in small groups on each of the wooden piers, as it takes a team to raise these nets. Little did we know that I would soon be part of one of those teams. More on that in a bit.

fort kochin chinese fishing net
Fort Cochin FishermenWorking on a sort of pulley system, the nets are installed at the shore and operated by sinking them into the water for three minutes at a time and then pulling them out of the water again, catching fish in the process. Big, heavy stones hanging from ropes serve as counterweights at the other end of the nets.

Fort Cochin Chinese Fishing NetsThe huge constructions are around 10 meters high and hold nets 20 meters across. The nets are held by a cantilever that reaches all the water out over the water, and this cantilever is lifted up by a team of five to six fishermen by hand.

fort kochin chinese fishing netThe Chinese fishing nets in Fort Cochin were actually some of the most interesting structures we have seen during our travels. When they were first built in the 14th century, they were entirely made of wood, but some parts on some nets have been replaced by metal. The total weight of what is pulled up and down weighs one ton.

fort kochin fishermenBecause of the intense weight, the fishermen need to be 100 per cent focused every time they pull down the robes. Even between five or six of them, the weight is still around two hundred kilos per person. In total, these fishermen pull down the robes to lift the nets about three hundred times a day. Three hundred times a day!

Fort Cochin Fishermen at sunsetOnce the net is lifted, one of the fishermen walks to the front of the structure and leans far into the net, fishing out what’s in there with a smaller net, and brings it back to the end, where the catch is put into boxes.

Fishermen in Fort Cochin IndiaWatching the fishermen for a while we were shocked to see how little they were actually fishing out of the water – there were barely any fish in the nets, and if there were any, most of the time they were tiny!

Fishermen in Fort Cochin KeralaThe fishermen of each net form a cooperative that shares the money they make every day. The fish is sold on the fish market right behind the nets, and several restaurants even offer to cook any of the fresh catch that you might want to buy.

Fort Cochin Fish MarketThe fishermen are all very welcoming and don’t mind it if you stand by their net for a while and watch them. Some even invite tourists to join them and help pulling the ropes down – for a little tip of course. So I tried my luck, and realized how heavy these ropes are. It is unbelievable that the fishermen do this hundreds of times every day for so little fish. Understandably they are thankful for any tourist tips, which seem to have become a second little income for them.

Dani and the fishermen in Fort CochinHow did these Chinese fishing nets end up in South India, you ask? It was actually the Portuguese who introduced them to India when they settled the country, having settled Macau earlier.

Chinese fishing nets in Fort CochinA few days later, we made our way further south in Kerala, and we stopped in a little beach town called Kovalam. It being off season, there were barely any tourists around, but just like in Cochin, there were lots of fishermen – here, they were using an entirely different fishing technique.

fishermen kovalamEvery morning the fishermen would assemble in their traditional Keralan lungis – kind of a sarong that is worn by the men here – and pull the fishing nets that had been in the ocean overnight, out of the water.

fishermen kovalamA few hours earlier, just about as the sun rises, some of the fishermen would head out in a couple of the simple wooden boats that are lined up on the beach, put the net in the water a few hundred meters off the shore. They then float the net and head back to the beach, each boat hauling a long rope from each end of the net.

Kovalam fishing boatsThese huge nets are so big and heavy that it takes about 30 fishermen to get them on the shore in a joint effort!

fishermen kovalamThe fishermen form two groups, one for each end of the net.

fishermen kovalamWith a similar rhythmic chanting that we heard from the fishermen in Cochin, the men start their sing-song and pull the nets in, moving closer to each other the nearer the net comes to the shore, so that the net forms a circle.

fishermen in kovalam keralaSome of the men are back on the beach, but others are all the way out in the ocean, fighting the waves.

fishermen kovalamThe current is strong, and wave after wave rolls over the fishermen.

Fishermen in the wavesThe closer the net comes to the beach, the louder the fishermen chant. Toward the end they are pulling the heaviest part of the net, holding all the fish.

fishermen kovalam

fisherman kovalamIt takes about thirty minutes until the nets are back on the shore.

fishermen in kovalam indiaCurious, we move closer to see the catch – and are surprised once again to see that there is almost nothing in the nets!

kovalam fishermenSo much work for such little return. The biggest fish is a big blowfish that collapses back on itself after a while. The rest are tiny little fish.

Kovalam blowfishA few shrugs, some disappointed looks, and the fishermen go home, knowing they will be back the next morning repeating this very same ritual.

fish market kovalam

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19 Comments

    1. Thanks, Andi. It was mind-blowing to see how hard these men worked for such little return. I wonder how much money they make every day but it can’t be more than $10, if it’s that much at all!

  1. Being a fisherman is definitely one of the hardest jobs. It is very unfortunate that climate change and overfishing is making it almost impossible for those men to earn a decent living. Beatiful pics as ever!

    1. Tammy – that’s what we have heard too, that pollution and overfishing basically ’emptied out’ the places where these fishermen have been fishing for centuries. In Fort Cochin there were several industrial plants right on the river and so many big ships passed by the nets every day… no wonder that there’s no fish left! 🙁

  2. I loved this post . It took me back to when I was standing on the beach and watching these guys work so hard for such a small return. We also clung to the rope hoping our strength helped them bring in the nets! It’s a beautiful corner of India.

    1. Thanks, Jenny! We were watching these guys three mornings in a row because we were so fascinated by their technique – and we couldn’t believe how little they caught!! And I agree, Kerala is a truly beautiful place 🙂

  3. Tough task! Interesting that I have heard of these but never read about them in such detail. The photographs are quite amazing, narrates their whole day in pictures!

    1. Thanks Shalu. It was really eye-opening, especially the way we viewed it. First we watched all the hard work and our respect for them grew so much, and then to see this tiny result, we could only imagine the disappointment they feel after so much hard work!

    1. I think the stocks have definitely become depleted, like you say. This is something I noticed a few times in India, that there is this habit of putting so much manpower behind a process that yields a limited result. I don’t know if it’s because India is a collectivist culture where teamwork is most important (many cultures are like this) or if it is just because there is no other work in the area and so people cling to this even if returns are diminishing over time?

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