Zed and I were traveling through India a few years ago (before children) an stayed on a beach in the town of Kovalum, which is near the southern tip of the country. The land in that part of the country is an immense network of canals, lagoons, rivers and lakes, giving the state hundreds of miles of coastline. One can travel for days through the “backwaters” (basically a system of waterways). Needless to say, fishing is an important aspect of the local economy and culture (there are over 1 million fishermen in the little state of Kerala). Where we were staying commercial fishing was conducted right on the beaches, using long, narrow, wooden boats, so we could sit and watch the whole operation from a comfortable distance.
To get the boats into the water the fishermen would lay out boards on the beach and a couple dozen men would gather and push the boat, little by little, along the skids. These boats are ridiculously heavy and it would sometimes take the men an hour just to get the boat in the water. If the fishermen struggle for long, locals and tourist will usually lend a hand and a whole hoard of workers and onlookers will develop, some people pulling on ropes, some pushing from behind and lots just watching.
After getting the boat in the water, they would leave one end of a long net at the shore and row the boat in a giant arc, setting out the net, and bring the other end back to shore where they started. At this point the fishermen would gather on the beach and begin pulling the net in by hand. We sat and watched this for a while, but I don’t remember exactly how long it took, I just remember how laborious it looked. When end of the net came within sight, one or two boys would stand in the water on the inside of the net and smack the surface of the water with their hands, scaring the fish into the back of the net (at this point we were thinking, “I hope there aren’t any sharks in that net”). Eventually the net would reach shore and they would haul the whole thing up onto the beach and sort through their catch.
As soon as the catch was sorted, restaurant owners and cooks would run out onto the beach, buy their fish and run it back into the restaurant. The biggest fish would always be on display on a tray outside the restaurant, near the sidewalk, to lure in potential customers. We ate seafood for most meals while we were on the coast. Mussels and fish in a creamy curry sauce was popular there, as well as fried fish with sides of rice and relishes. We also had fish steamed with spices, wrapped in a banana leaf.
The men in this photo here caught painfully few fish for the time and effort they put in, but it must be worth their while. I remember hearing at one point that the average fisherman in that area makes about 20 rupee (at the time that was worth a little under 50 cents US) per day, but that fishermen on the more modern boats, that go farther out to sea, make more like 40 rupee per day.
On the same beach, these young kids were jumping off this rock into the water to scrape mussels off the side as they got smashed around by the waves. In the brackish canals we watched kids diving underwater to gather clams out of the muck. And in the freshwater lakes, fishermen pulled out giant prawns, closer in size to lobsters (and mighty delicious too!).
It was great to see how important seafood was to this part of the world–how much it was a part of their identity. And interesting to see the excitement (and shock) of the locals when Zed told them that he is also a commercial fisherman. I’m not sure they really believed us when we told them that fishing in the states can be a lucrative occupation. To someone barely scraping by, we must have seemed like millionaires.