All you need to do to wake up Raju Narayanan, the fisherman-social activist, sleeping on the beach is to turn over a few times on the sandy bed. Just as vibration-sensitive beach crabs scurry for cover into tiny holes, Narayanan too shakes off the sand and is on his feet, instantly wide awake.

Kovalamkuppam, the tiny fishing village at Kovalam, Chennai, is fast asleep as small groups reach their boats, their silhouettes barely visible against the dim lamps far away. They will lift and drag the heavy boats to the waterline where Archimedes’ principle will make the crafts more manageable.

Narayanan walks into the village to get his team together. Soon four young men reach the fibreglass boat that will carry them out to a soot-dark sea and ferry their catch back to the shore after a few hours.

The two casuarina poles passed through a loop of two-centimetre-diameter nylon rope at each end and fastened to the cleats of the five-metre long boat will be heaved by four or more persons to the sea where the waves will do the rest. Five persons struggle to lift the boat and walk down to the water line. The boat is set down on sand after every five feet, and after six such rests the sea waves wash the bottom of the boat which instantly feels light.

After the group’s guest and Nitya, a computer science engineer and fisherwoman, climb on board first, the remaining three shove the fibreglass craft away from the shore and clamber quickly on board as the boat rolls from side to side. Velu the navigator hitches a nylon cord to the diesel engine’s flywheel and yanks hard. The outboard engine roars to life.

The fast-rotating propeller blades are invisible but audible as they slice through the pre-dawn air. Velu lifts the steel pipe attached to the engine running the propeller blades. The propeller sinks into the water with a sharp metallic hiss, like hot iron strip plunging into a bucket of water. The propeller is forced further down. The fibreglass boat gathers speed and cuts through the inky darkness. There is not even a faint beam of light. The sparse street lights in the village become yellow dots and soon disappear from sight, proving once again that the earth is roughly spherical.

After an hour of riding the waves at an angle—a direct encounter is likely to flip the boat—the propeller is steadied to a purr. Three fishermen quickly untie the bundles of gill-net and gently toss the line overboard, metre by metre, making sure that the bottom edge of the net, with weights attached, sinks below while the top edge with floats attached remains on the surface.

The darkness disappears, like a theatre stage curtain slowly creeping up. In the faint light the floats on the gill-net are visible. The first float has a light that flashes red. It tells the fishermen where the net begins. Each of the three gill-nets is tossed overboard, each opening like a curtain under the surface. The 200-metre net with squares, each roughly 2×2 centimetres, is made of nylon thread that seems to be a shade thicker than a strand of hair. At a distance it will not be visible underwater even to fish as they swim into the net and get trapped by their gills.

The shore of Kovalamkuppam is invisible and one has to guess where it could be. It’s challenging because the boat has moved forward at an angle, and the angle has been changed frequently to negotiate the waves, some of which are as high as two metres. The swerving to the left and—after a few seconds—sharply to the right, again and again, in pitch darkness has left the boat’s exact location unknown. There is no GPS onboard but the fishermen have no difficulty in instantly pointing to the Kovalamkuppam shoreline.

The sea is in constant motion and the boat bobs up and down while rolling from side to side. Any attempt to stand and balance to observe and take photographs is an instant failure. The fishermen’s bodies move instinctively as they remain on their feet, doing everything that needs to be done. None is ever reduced to a helpless heap.

Velu is asked to anchor the boat. He switches off the engine and throws the anchor overboard. The three-pronged anchor takes the thick, 20-metre nylon rope down till it hits the bottom. There is hardly any slack on the rope. The darkness has almost disappeared but the sun is invisible. The group is drenched to the bone, and sits down to relax.

The long wait begins.

Kovalamkuppam village is long but narrow, its width carved by the erosion of soil by the sea. The village edge near the shore is roughly 60 metres from the water line almost everywhere. A walk down the beach from a starred hotel nearby lasts about 45 minutes. As speed is restricted by the drag on sand, one could guess that the village is about two kilometres long with a width ranging from 300 metres to one kilometre.

The village seems to be in steady state of stupor. Young men readily collapse on the sand bed for a quick nap, preferably after swallowing some elixir to beat the fatigue of an early morning trip out to sea. Women wash clothes in the open, the suds running down the narrow lanes. Few houses have installed sewers, and open gutters lose their way on the sandy shore.

Narayanan has a strong urge to improve the quality of life in his tiny fishing village despite frequent hurdles, often engineered by those he tries to help. His approach to the problem is time-tested—motivate women to usher in change. So he meets village women, tells them what the village needs and how they can help; extends funds through self-help groups; takes up rainwater harvesting; cleans the wells so that groundwater can seep in and provide clean potable water; successfully bans the use of plastic bags long before the state government does; cleans the long beach of all rubbish months before photo sessions of the state’s who’s who on the Marina Beach get splashed across newspapers.

Narayanan and his motivated group of village women and children remain unsung, but the quality of life in Kovalamkuppam improves noticeably.

Narayanan works with other NGOs to provide services such as eco-toilets on the beach, intended to stop defecation in the open and at the shore. His self-help group experiment buckles within a few years because “people do not return the loans they take and irregular repayments affect the circulation of funds,” he says. There are no recovery agents to wring the hands of defaulters because Narayanan insists that “defaulters are still returning the loans they took years ago”. He even provides no-strings attached scholarships to children who excel in their studies.

There is no denying that the 300 families with roughly 1,200 members in Kovalamkuppam are much better off now than they were in the 1990s. Dish antennae grace the roofs of almost every home that also has colour TV sets, thanks to the state’s scheme of offering durable goods free to families with ration cards. Every adult carries at least one mobile phone and every child goes to school.

Scores of children get additional help at tuition centres set up by Narayanan who funds the teachers’ salaries from the money sent to him regularly by some philanthropists. His source of personal income is strictly from fishing. Unlike many NGOs in Tamil Nadu that record high administrative expenses each month, Narayanan’s Coastal and Rural Development Trust’s expenses are negligible. This means that the bulk of the money he gets from benefactors is used to fund development schemes in his village.

The tsunami of December 26, 2004, destroyed scores of boats in the village. Only 68 boats remain. Despite assurances from the state government and aid agencies that boats—which form the backbone of the means of livelihood for fishermen—will either be repaired or replaced, not much progress has been registered to date. The bulk of family income comes from fishing-related work. The activities include selling fresh fish, drying fish under the sun, and running fish stalls and small eateries at the outer edge of the village. The under-40 population seems large in comparison to the number of elders and children. So the economically productive population is fairly large here, where petty crimes are almost absent.

Despite cosmetic signs of progress, the overall well-being of the people in this tiny hamlet hinges critically on the success in fishing.

Fishing is not cheap. As Senthilathiban wrote in Fishery Technology, “The expenditure towards repairs and maintenance was the single largest item of fixed cost contributing to 35.6 per cent of total expenditure. Depreciation on capital items and the interest cost on capital investment were 32.9 per cent and 29.6 per cent respectively … Fuel cost was the largest component, accounting for 53.1 per cent followed by crew share (27.2 per cent) … The fixed and variable cost represented 6.7 per cent and 93.3 per cent respectively of the total cost of fishing.”

Though the calculations are for trawlers, the percentage of fuel cost for traditional fishermen will be much higher, which will be the largest part of the total cost of fishing.

The people of Kovalamkuppam have been trying to adapt themselves to a life without boats. Fishermen who were robbed of their means of livelihood by the tsunami migrated to other coastal areas for daily wage as fishing assistants. Many earn a living by repairing damaged nets, once pursued only by elderly women. Many have opted to work as daily labourers in the construction industry, and a few educated ones have managed to get unskilled jobs in offices.

Those whose boats survived the tsunami venture out to sea almost every day except during weeks of fishing ban imposed by the government, and have more hands on board than they need. The social support system for underemployed fishermen has been robust and remarkable.

The irony of the fishermen’s life is that not only has the tsunami crushed their boats to splinters, but the catch is also dwindling rapidly. Just a decade ago, on one such trip out to sea with Narayanan and his team on a catamaran—kattumaram in Tamil, a boat made of logs of wood strapped laterally with nylon rope—we found to our glee hundreds of sardines, mackerel, prawns and more dangling from the net as it was drawn in slowly from the sea.

The fishermen went on a hyper-drive, untangling fish from the nets. Soon the two woven baskets were full. Even after two hours, with four pairs of hands working at top speed, the work was far from over. The rest of the catch was kept dangling from the nets that were rolled into balls for unloading on the shore. The remaining fish was removed at the beach before spreading the nets to dry.

How can we get a decent catch when trawlers use iluvaivalai (trawling net) and surukkuvalai (purse seine net)?

“How can we get a decent catch when trawlers use iluvaivalai (trawling net) and surukkuvalai (purse seine net)?” asked 58-year-old R. Sekar. “In our village, 20 per cent of men have stopped fishing because fish are not there. We fish close to the coast but when trawlers fishing at a distance scoop up almost everything, hardly any fish can escape and come close to the shore where we toss our nets.”

Nitya, the computer science engineer and fisherwoman, says, “In addition, there is the problem of pollution. You have seen how the Ennore Thermal Power Plant lets out superheated water into the sea and the backwaters. You measured the water temperature with a thermometer (65°C is too hot for fish to survive). And you have seen how a chemical factory in Royapuram lets out effluents into the canal. You have also seen dead fish floating there. How will fishermen who have for generations fished in the backwaters and the Buckingham Canal hope for a marketable catch now? They cannot go to sea after generations of dependence on the backwaters! The impact is not restricted to the north Chennai coast but affects the fish population as far as Marakkanam to the south and Andhra border up north.”

“At Semmencherry, the next village, the fishermen have recorded low catch for months now,’’ adds Narayanan.

Trawling nets are meant to scrape the sea bed and take in whatever lies in their path. The otter board—a solid metal plate with wheels to roll over the sea bed and tethered to the trawler—is meant to keep the long net attached to it open to rake in all species of fish and other organisms in its path. The living organisms are forced to the cod end by the pressure of water as the vessel moves forward.

A standard trawling net has no trap door to free non-target fish species, so the catch usually has target and non-target species at the cod end. The absence of any mechanism to restrict the catch to the target species ruins eco-sensitive organisms and those that inhabit and breed just below the uppermost layer of the sea bed.

The exponential increase in the number of trawlers and sophisticated deep sea fishing vessels to harvest fish is driven by global demand. According to Richard Granger of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)’s Fisheries Department, “The average consumption of fish protein has risen from 2.7 grams per capita per day in 1960 to 4.0 grams today (referring to 1997) … representing 16 per cent of all animal protein consumed by the world’s six billion inhabitants … The number of fishers and fish farmers increased from 13 million in 1970 to 30 million in 1995, over 90 per cent of them in Asia.”

Vivekanandan of the Kochi-based Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) writes that the country has “3,202 marine fishing villages which are at a distance of about every two kilometres along the coastline”.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) strikes the nail on the head when it states, “The magnitude of the problem of overfishing is often overlooked, given the competing claims of deforestation, desertification, energy resource exploitation and other biodiversity depletion dilemmas. The rapid growth in demand for fish and fish products is leading to fish prices increasing faster than price of meat. As a result, fisheries investments have become more attractive to both entrepreneurs and governments, much to the detriment of small-scale fishing and fishing communities all over the world.”

The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute in a report on May 31, 2014, stated: “The world’s fisheries have remained relatively stable over the last 15 years: about 50 per cent are being fished at full capacity, 25 per cent are underfished and the remainder are overexploited, depleted or recovering. As a result, UNFAO predicts that maximum wild fish capture has already been reached.”

If that is so, then an increasing demand for fish will only further hike the price of fish because higher price cannot induce a larger supply. The fish catch, whatever it is at any point of time, will necessarily reach those consumers who can afford to pay the skyrocketing price even though BBC, in a treatise on Smart Planet, wrote “… one of five people on this planet depends on fish as the primary source of protein.”

The essay argued that, “In 2011, global fish consumption hit a record high of 17 kilograms per person per year, even though global fish stocks continued to decline. On average, people eat four times as much fish now than they did in 1950 … Catches in the tropics are expected to decline a further 40 per cent by 2050, and yet some 400 million people in Africa and Southeast Asia rely on fish caught (mainly through artisanal fishing) to provide their protein and minerals. With climate change expected to impact agricultural production, people are going to rely more than ever on fish for their nutritional needs.”

The motive force no doubt is market-driven. If you take a pot of water, toss some rice husk in, and use your fingers to pick the husk, it will represent what artisanal fishermen do when they go out to sea. If you use a tea strainer to trap the husk, it will be close to what trawlers do.

What is it that upsets traditional fishermen and environmentalists? What is the resource base that competing fishermen try to tap?

“Artisanal fishing catches half the world’s fish, yet it provides 90 per cent of the sector’s jobs … The top marine predator is no longer the shark, it’s us,” wrote the BBC in Smart Planet.

The FAO explains, “Open oceans represent the largest area and volume of marine ecosystems, although their biological and fisheries production per unit area is far less than the other ecosystems. The depth of open oceans varies from about 200 metres, where in theory the continental shelf ends and the continental slope starts, to 11,500 metres in the deepest trenches.”

A bottom trawler which drags a huge net along the sea bed causes irreparable damage to the marine ecosystem. It scrapes the benthos, the uppermost layer of the sea bed that is a breeding ground for most fish species, damages corals that protect juvenile fish from predators, leads to turbidity that takes ages to settle, and captures demersal (that live close to or on the sea bed) species, both target and non-target.

A bottom trawler which drags a huge net along the sea bed causes irreparable damage to the marine ecosystem. It scrapes the benthos, the uppermost layer of the sea bed that is a breeding ground for most fish species, damages corals that protect juvenile fish from predators, leads to turbidity that takes ages to settle, and captures demersal (that live close to or on the sea bed) species, both target and non-target.

It is obvious that selective trawling is difficult, given the present technology; therefore discards at the global level are enormous. “Discards from marine fisheries have been estimated at 27 million tonnes per year,’’ writes Granger.

Madhusudana Kurup of CMFRI writes, “On an annual basis, around 2.4 lakh tonnes of discards are thrown back into the sea from bottom trawlers operated along Kerala waters due to their non-edible nature, wrong species and size, lack of storage facilities on board, low market value etc … The edible portion of the discards is worked out to be around 0.85 lakh tonnes per annum … The discarding of edible fin fishes is mostly due to relative market price prevailing during different months…

“The present study showed that 94 per cent of the bottom trawlers operated along Kerala coast are having a cod and mesh size of 18 millimetres and less against the statutory mesh size of 35 millimetres imposed by the Government of Kerala vide Kerala Marine Fisheries Regulation Act of 1980 … Infringement into areas exclusively for the artisanal fishermen … contribute 17 per cent of the total discards from the bottom trawlers,” wrote Kurup.

Not only do bottom trawlers damage the marine ecosystem, they also fish in areas where they should not. The violation of almost every law is common but nothing seems to be done about this because one-to-one mid-sea policing of trawlers is difficult, if not impossible, and the cash penalty hardly makes a dent in the revenue earned by the trawler owners.

“Globally, shrimp trawling contributes to the highest level of discard-catch ratios of any fisheries, ranging from 3:1 to 15:1…” write Bijukumar and Deepthi in Current Science in April, 2006.

There is another unseen impact of fishing operations on the marine ecosystem—ghost catch. The nets that are lost mid-sea sink to the bottom and continue to trap and kill fish for years. Norway has a programme to retrieve lost nets from the bottom of the sea. Not many other nations do, India included.

It is not that all possible options to minimise the damage to the marine ecosystem have been lost. Various research organisations all over the world are working on trawling nets that have trap doors to free non-target species and juveniles. If you visit a fish market you will find plenty of small size fish which would have grown, if allowed. There are moves to design nets that are semi-pelagic (below the surface of the sea) or semi-demersal (above the floor of the ocean) which can be dragged without scraping the sea bed.

For the future generations to know what fish tastes like, the edible species must be allowed to survive. The adult fish must be allowed to breed and the juveniles allowed to grow till they reach a harvestable size. Depleting stocks will affect the cycle of propagation of species and all could be lost.

Two hours flit by and soon one realises that the sun’s rays are strong enough to burn a hole in the skin. Three fishermen swing into action and draw the net in, metre by metre, while the fourth begins to untangle the fish. Fish caught by the gills are few and far between. Soon another fisherman lends a helping hand to retrieve the few fish dangling from the net.

There seem to be more jellyfish than fish which outweigh and outnumber the rest. Fishermen carefully remove the jellyfish by dipping the net in the water and allowing the waves to flush them out. It is impossible to pull out jellyfish because it is almost as fluid as water. But it is heavy enough to raise the gross weight of the catch without adding a paise to the expected revenue at the auction.

After removing all fish and crabs, just a quarter of the basket is full. The unified sigh of four fishermen on board airs their silent frustration. “This won’t even cover the cost of fuel and wages for each. Leave alone the interest to be paid for the loan we took to buy the boat,’’ said Narayanan.

The journey back is in total silence. On the shore, the boat is hefted some 10 metres away from the water line. The nets are carried and dumped to dry near the fibreglass boat, and engine unhinged and carried back home.

The catch is just enough to distribute among the four fishermen who went out to sea. Hoping that the next trip out will be more rewarding the four fishermen take leave of each other.

The market of Kovalamkuppam has more fish, but some have appeared out of the local cold storage. The shouting and hawking only adds to the overall pollution level in the village. Women vendors scream and hawk their fish that are on display on wooden boards. Price negotiations hardly lead to any remarkable difference between the price quoted and the price paid. There is another group that sits, armed with knives and cleavers, to clean the fish for a price.

Far away a young mother chases her runaway toddler-daughter. People in Kovalamkuppam look forward to a brighter day. The sun has finally peeped out from behind a curtain of clouds.