- Date: January 21, 2015
In a sunny, laid back corner of India, everyone knows one another in the village of Dalavapuram. Trees line quiet sandy roads and vibrant colors cover the walls around people’s yards and houses. There is a strong sense of community and trust here.
Dalavapuram lies in the Ashtamudi lakes estuary on the southwest coast of India. It is home to a Ramsar Convention site where the intertwined lakes and inlets form a very important estuary system for migratory birds. This is also the home of Ashtamudi short-necked clam fishery, which in November 2014 became the first Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sustainable fishery in India.
A year earlier, Evan Walker, Fisheries Officer for the WWF, visited with the Dalavapuram community to learn more about their work to manage this fishery sustainably.
Walker was far from the hustle and bustle of the city of Kochi where he had arrived the night before. Waking before sunrise to the sound of a nearby mosque, Walker and Vinod Malayilethu, WWF India’s Senior Marine Coordinator, joined several clam fishers and others for a day of work out on the estuary.
Dressed in mundu, a type of sarong worn in Kerala, the fishers paddled in the seemingly still water, reliant on the tides to reach the clams. Their boats were dug-out wood canoes, each holding no more than one or two fishers at a time and perfect for quietly gliding through these waters.
Once in location they carefully jumped from the boats into waist deep water and began fishing, dislodging the shell fish with their feet or hands or using hand dredge nets from the canoe.
On a good day the fishers can haul in nearly 440 pounds of clams, but they only catch what they are permitted. They don’t want to damage the marine environment around them, as they are reliant on this fishery for their income and livelihood. The clam stocks have not always been healthy. In the early 1990s there was a spike in the demand for clams from Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, which resulted in overfishing. The catches of clams soon dropped in Ashtamudi, which raised an alarm. The fishers recognized the need for a solutions, and quickly several management measures were put in place, including the introduction of mesh size restrictions for fishing nets to ensure that only larger clams are caught and the younger clams can grow and thrive.
By mid-day, the bright and hot sun made the lagoon a difficult place to work, so when the tide was up, Walker, Malayilethu and the fishers headed back to shore with their catch. Back at the village dock they were greeted by women and others from the community, who together helped to unload the clams to be cleaned and boiled. The boiling rids the clams of impurities and the shells are removed and passed on to a cement maker. Nothing here is wasted.
After weighing the crates of clams and settling on prices, mounds of ice were shoveled over the crates of clams to keep them fresh and they were loaded up onto trucks and driven to a nearby plant to be processed for export. Valued at $220,000 a year, the fishery is the main source of income for the community. Ensuring the long term health and sustainable growth of the fishery was part of the community’s decision to apply for MSC certification.
The MSC process was championed by key members of the community who worked with Kerala State Fisheries Department, researchers at the Molluscan Fisheries Division of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, local leaders, and WWF India. These local champions are also a voice for sustainability for the community. They helped establish open lines of communication about the fishery and the process, including hosting town hall meetings.
As the day ended community members shared tea with Walker along with their hopes to build a permanent shaded landing to keep the clams from the sunlight as they are weighed for sale.
They also hope the new certification unlocks markets for clam sales, beyond Asia. They only want to do this in a way that protects their livelihoods and the health of the waters and the clams around them.