Ashtamudi Lake

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Kollam, Kerala Wetland Ecosystem Conservation 3800 Not Available

Case Study (2009)

Background

This conservation effort has been initiated on the second largest of all the estuaries in Kerala, the Ashtamudi Estuary. This estuary is connected to the Arabian Sea through a perennial opening at Neendakara and Sakthikulangara in Kollam taluka of Kollam district. Located on the KollamAlleppy stretch of national highway 47-T, this estuary is situated about 12-km from Kollam railway junction and can easily be accessed by buses that ply between Kollam and Ernakulam.

The Ashtamudi Lake has a total area of approximately 38 sq km. It has numerous islets occupied by traditional fishermen. The natural clam bed area of short-neck clams (Paphia malabarica) is confined to the part of the estuary from the mouth to 3 km upstream with a maximum width of 0.5 m in the middle of the estuary. The communities living along the north and south banks of the Ashtamudi backwaters are the four panchayats of Chavara, Neendakara, Sakthikulangara, and Kavanad villages (Kollam district). There are approximately 1000 families from these villages who are engaged in clam picking and selling. Most of the clam pickers are fishermen and some of them living on the banks have Chinese dip-nets and normally engage in seasonal fishing in the backwaters and the sea. There is no cultivated land in this area and it is densely populated.

The important groups of marine life found in the clam bed are polychaetes, bivalves, gastropods and crustaceans. Seaweed such as Hypnea, Enteromorpha and Gracilaria sp. are also common. Katelysia optima, a potential clam resource in the Ashtamudi lake, once abundant in the estuary, is now extinct. The closure of the sluice gates of the Kallada dam, which stopped the flow of fresh water from the Kallada River, thereby increasing the salinity of the lake, is held to be the cause of the extinction.

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. 

Box 1

Some facts about clam fishing vis-à-vis shell mining

The mesh size for clam picking dredge nets varies from 30-35 mm. The techniques adopted by shell miners are the same as that of the clam fishermen except for a few changes. The mesh size of the dredge net is 14-16 mm and the beds where shells are in plenty are located further towards the estuary mouth. The area normally used by shell miners is full of shell fossils, which are buried quite deep in the bed.

Regular fishing is not done over the clam bed when the clams are being picked because the clam pickers are underwater most of the time and all other craft keep well clear of the clam bed for reasons of safety. When the clams spawn and the ban is in progress, fishermen use nets in the water over the bed. This does not harm the clams, as the fishing does not disturb the clam bed.

The ban has brought about an increase in the clams landed in the subsequent years. However, the community is still faced with many challenges:

1. The response from official enforcement agencies and the police has been poor, almost negligible, and is subject to the influences of the more powerful shell-mining lobby.

2. There is a lack of a proper law regulating the clam fishery. The current ban order in this area is only a directive from the District Collector, which needs to be renewed every year by the community.

3. The shell-mining lobby has been indulging in indiscriminate fishing of undersize clams for thecarbide industry in Tamilnadu. The demand for clamshells, which provide the raw material for welding gases, cement coatings and poultry feed, has attracted a large group of clam fishermen towards this trade. Hence there has been a division within the community.

4. The community leaders are also ‘middlemen’ who may sometimes weaken their stand under pressure from export companies and delay the start of the ban.

5. Mesh size regulations are not being adhered to strictly by the fishermen and there are instances of large-scale hand dredging of the clam beds with bag nets of small mesh sizes by the shell miners, which, if continued, will lead to depletion of the clam bed.

6. The lack of funds for conservation efforts like patrolling, holding meetings, and so on.

7. All shell mining activity comes under the Mining & Geology Department and the rest of the clam fishery is under the Dept of Fisheries.

The jurisdiction, and consequently the vigilance, is divided between two government departments. The community is apparently losing their drive and energy to conserve their resources and is on the verge of accepting that wanton mining cannot be stopped by their efforts alone.

Ashtamudi is a very good example where depleting marine resources rang a warning bell for the fisherfolk whose livelihoods were directly dependent upon the clam yields. This did bring them together to take some action. However, the action has not sustained itself as effectively as it started. Although in this initiative the concerned government departments were involved in putting a system in place for sustainable development, they have not been very successful in carrying the support through and keeping the community mobilised.

  Contributed by John Swamy, independent researcher, Kerala in 2001. Email: [email protected] com

Roshni Kutty
Kalpavriksh
Apt. No. 5, Shri Dutta Krupa
908 Deccan Gymkhana
Pune 411004
Maharashtra
E-mail: [email protected]

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

Recent Updates

Ashtamudi Lake: a shrinking Ramsar site

An update on the condition of the Ashtamundi lake after ten years of being declared a Ramsar Site and the reasons why it has not been protected yet.

Encroachments on Ashtamudi Lake affect conservation measures

Conservation efforts ay be set back by the encroachment son Ashtamundi lake.

A requiem for Ashtamudi

A article on the declining condition of the Ashtamundi lake.

Kollam’s growth linked to Ashtamudi

A new draft plan has been introduced giving importance to the conservation of Ashtamundi lake.

Related Information

Ashtamudi Wetland, Kerala: Values and Threats

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An article about the Ashtamundi lake and it's degradation after being given the status of a Ramsar site at the hands of government organizations and the town nearby.

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