Prior to 1981, clams were rarely eaten outside fishing communities in Kerala and hence picked only for domestic consumption. Also, they had a very low economic value in comparison with fish and were seen more as recreation for daring youth than a source of livelihood. Due to these two reasons, only a few families were engaged in clam collection and selling. Traditionally clams were caught with bare hands from the shallow banks using a simple dugout canoe. The maximum depth possible for clam picking was about 15 feet.
In 1981, clam fisheries was initiated by the Fisheries Department for export and 200 tonnes of clams were landed that year for exports. When the export market picked up, more and more local fisherfolk in the backwaters began to engage in clam picking. During the peak season, about 300-400 traditional canoes engaged in clam picking in the bed. The clams have also been in great demand by the carbide industry. After the export market grew and the prices soared, the local community and some outsiders started to harvest clams in large quantities. This led to a noticeable increase in the socio-economic status of the clam pickers, as the export market could easily support them. The average annual landing from 1982 to 1992 was 6800 tonnes with a peak of 10000 tonnes landed in 1991. In 1993 the landing data showed a sharp decline with a production of only 5000 tonnes. This created concern among the clam fishermen who realized, in a very real and economic sense, the consequences of indiscriminate fishing in the estuary, especially during the spawning season.
In response to the community concerns, Dr. Appukuttan, Head, Molluscan Fisheries Division of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Kochi, explained to them the hazards of indiscriminate exploitation of this resource. The community realized the hazards of over-exploitation and conveyed their concerns to the district administration. A meeting of the fishermen, officials of the state Fisheries Department, Mining and Geology Department, scientists of the CMFRI and trade union leaders was held on 26 December 1993. The District Collector was very supportive of the need to conserve clams and made decisions in favor of the community members despite objections from some of the trade unionists.
In the meeting, the following decisions were taken for conservation of clam fishery:
1. To impose a ban on clam fishing from October to January in the estuarine zone, when spawning and spat settlement occurs (this refers to the process of settlement of the clam spawn onto the bed which later grows to become baby clams).
2. The mesh size of hand dredges and other nets used for Paphia sp. fishing to be more than 30 mm and for other clams 20 mm.
3. The annual export of clam meat should be less than 1400 kg. 4. Strict control on exploitation of undersized clams by the carbide industry in Tamilnadu.
The community of clam fisherfolk agreed to engage in other permitted forms of fishing during the ban period. To impose the ban, members of the community and the informal leaders (usually the middlemen) had to obtain the District Collector’s order every year. They patrolled the clam bed areas at their own initiative and expense, while the government machinery played a very passive role. The scientists of the CMFRI continued to provide great support in terms of spreading awareness with regular workshops and classes for the clam fishermen.
The informal leaders of the clam picking supervise the processing of the clams for export and act as middlemen between the exporters and the clam fishermen. An informal meeting is held in the month of October to decide the date of the ban. This coincides with the spotting of juveniles and all community members are informed about the start of the ban. They then obtain the order from the District Collector and hand over copies to the respective police stations. As the local police do not have any watercraft for patrolling the clam beds, the members of the community patrol the beds themselves.
Other methods of fishing are followed during the ban, like crab fishing, which takes place in the night. This opportunity is also used to patrol by night and if any boat is found anchored over the bed, the entire community is alerted. Shell miners who are from the community are difficult to deal with. Then there are costs and the trouble of getting the police to reach the waterfront. They need transport to the bank and they insist on power-driven craft, which has to be hired. The entire cost of the operations like patrolling, visiting the District Collectorate (which is about 12 km away) and informing the fishermen of the ban dates is borne by the community without any financial help from the government or NGOs.