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Wading the rough tides of climate change

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30 Apr 2019
Wading the rough tides of climate change

Researchers study how fishermen respond to extreme weather warnings and adapt to ill-effects of climate change.

Climate change, the resulting extreme weather events and rising pollution significantly reduce fish population in the oceans and seas. If this trend continues, you may not only miss your favourite seafood, but the livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk would be at risk. So, how do the fishermen cope with climate change and the resulting challenges? In a series of studies, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) shed some light on the strategies they adopt to maintain their fish catch and income, and how they respond to weather warnings, including the factors that affect these decisions.

India has 3288 marine fishing villages in the nine coastal states and two union territories. Fisheries and aquaculture contribute to 1.07% of the national gross domestic product (GDP). Hence, understanding the dynamics of the fishing community not only helps secure the thousands depending on it for a livelihood but also frame policies for their betterment.

The researchers collected data through previous studies on fisherfolk communities, exploratory fieldwork, focus group discussions and a household survey of 601 fisherfolk from urban, semi-urban and rural fishing regions of  Maharashtra. Based on the data gathered, the researchers explored the factors that affect how the fisherfolk respond to weather warnings as well as how their adaptation strategies vary. Unlike previous studies, this research looked at the variations in behaviours across urban, semi-urban and rural fishing communities towards adaptation strategies and reactions to weather warnings.

In summary, the researchers found that the following factors play a significant role in how the fisherfolk adapt and respond to weather warnings: a well-connected community, trust on the authorities disseminating weather-related information, the perceived reliability of the weather warning, perception of risk and education level of the fishermen. The researchers also observed that rural fishing communities with strong social bond circulated risk-related information and avoided the loss of life, while urban fishermen adapted to climate change by shifting to mechanised boats. Factors like trade competition and pollution influenced urban and semi-urban fishermen in deciding their adaptation strategies.

Towards a sustainable livelihood

From their analyses, the researchers identified that fisherfolk use six main adaptation strategies against the changing climate and dwindling catch. These are the use of better fishing gear, like improved boats, use of different types of nets, working extended hours, going farther into the sea than earlier, paying for boat insurance and pursuing other jobs to complement their livelihood. Factors like education, experience in the profession, savings, credits and assets, perception about changes and risks affecting livelihoods, social network and support, and pollution played vital roles in shaping these strategies.

The study found that education among fisherfolk provided access to information on fishing, boat insurance and mechanised boats. “It is found from our study that highly educated fishermen are better equipped to perceive the changes and also the impact. Education plays a role in fishermen’s perception of changes in temperature and rain”, says Prof Trupti Mishra from IIT Bombay, who led the study.

In all the three groupings—urban, semi-urban and rural—subsidies provided by the government helped adaptation since formal credit is out of reach for most. Hence, the researchers advocate subsidy and credit schemes by public institutions to support the fishing community.

Social bonding through friends and community support was strongest among the rural fishing community and acted as a catalyst in designing adaptation strategies. The researchers say that planners and policymakers need to consider this aspect in their schemes for adaptation. The study also found a decrease in the fishing communities’ trust in the authorities.

Interestingly, urban fishermen, who ventured farther into the sea than their rural and semi-rural counterparts, wanted their children to pursue a different livelihood due to the risks associated with fishing. However, the rural and semi-urban fishing communities believed that fishing reflected their cultural identities than just livelihoods, and were reluctant to consider other options.

The researchers found that the fishermen recognised marine pollution in terms of plastic waste, various solid debris, oil spills, sewage from nearby cities and effluents from industries. Since solid and sharp debris harm fishing gear and nets, pollution influenced the decisions on using different types of nets and motorised boats. Urban and semi-urban fishermen used multiple nets and motorised boats than their rural counterparts.

Trade competition was another decisive factor in shaping the adaptation strategies, the study found. Those who perceived increased competition were more likely to use multiple nets and insure their boats. Compared to rural and semi-urban fishing communities, those in urban areas thought such competition affected their livelihoods negatively.

“Perception of increasing trade competition is linked to the adoption of multiple types of nets and combining a greater number of strategies to improve fish catch, such as using advanced boats, fishing for longer periods and fishing farther into the sea”, asserts Prof. Mishra.

Response to weather warnings

Extreme weather events, like torrential rains and storms, pose a higher risk to the fishing community as they venture into the sea. Hence, adhering to weather warnings becomes key to saving lives, albeit the fact that not all heed to it. In their study, the researchers found various drivers that shape how fishing communities respond and perceive weather warnings. Factors like the experience of storms and cyclones, the type of boat and its insurance, belief in safety, reliability on indigenous knowledge, trust in the society and local government authorities, social network, regional background, formal education and years of experience in fishing guided their response.

Fishermen, who had experienced extreme weather events, or were young, heeded weather warnings for their safety. Nine in ten rural fisherfolk used weather information, while only two in three in semi-urban communities and one in two in urban communities relied on it. Those with boat insurance also heeded to weather warnings to avert risk to property. Fishing communities without social support were more careful and responded to warnings as they did not have a mechanism to absorb the ill effects of extreme weather events. On the other hand, fishermen with years of fishing experience, or those with mechanised boats, did not follow weather warnings. The education levels of these communities did not affect their response or usage of weather information.

The study also found that traditional knowledge on cyclone occurrences, gained from experience and beliefs and passed on from generations, were thought to be more reliable and practical. Hence, warning information that includes traditional weather knowledge might make it more familiar and reliable to the fishermen, say the researchers. However, whenever the fisherfolk perceived a higher risk to life and property due to the weather conditions, they mostly heeded warnings.

The researchers suggest conducting awareness programs to help communities understand the increase in extreme weather events and the importance of heeding to warnings. Attempts to reduce the trust gap between communities and the information providers through personal interactions and workshops could also help. In the long run, education betters the adaptation decisions and opportunities to choose different livelihoods, say the researchers.

The studies highlight how individuals of different fishing communities make decisions and what factors drive these decisions. “The findings suggest the need for local government intervention in improving the livelihood of the fishermen across all regional groups. They indicate the importance of government initiatives in providing access to credit and subsidies for the fishing equipment, support in the functioning of cooperatives and provision of public infrastructure like harbours”, concludes Ms Krishna Malakar, PhD student at Interdisciplinary Program in Climate Studies, IIT Bombay, who was involved in the study. 

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, and the institution to ensure accuracy.