Climate change testing traditional wisdom, west coast fishermen failed by technology too

Studies say cyclone intensity in Arabian Sea increased by 20-40 % in recent decades.

Credit : Indie Journal

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“The sea tells us of an impending storm before the fisheries do, Accuweather confirms it for us,” the fishermen of Mumbai’s Worli Koliwada say. As climate change brings about a shift in the coastal weather, fishermen find themselves facing newer challenges of more frequent storms and intense monsoons. While they have been using traditional knowledge of the sea along with different weather forecast apps to find to face the changing weather, the coastal communities engaged in traditional fishing for livelihoods are in a dire need of policy-level support from the government. 

“Definitely, the shifts in weather patterns are so drastic that the traditional knowledge that fishermen use may not be sufficient to safeguard their lives and livelihoods,” says Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) Pune.

The month of September has been receiving excess rainfall across Maharashtra for the last few years, which is unusual for the traditional monsoon patterns in the state. This year, the state received 47 percent excess rainfall in September. Rainfall combined with winds and thundering makes it difficult for the fishermen who usually resume fishing around mid-August, expecting the intensity of the rains to decrease around this time.


Cyclone Nisarga.


“The rains and winds in the month of September, October, when we usually found good fish near the coast, are very challenging and it is almost impossible to plan ahead for them. For instance, the forecast told us that a low-pressure belt was forming which would bring rain and stormy weather on October 9 and 10. However, the weather became stormy two days before the date of the forecast, that is on Friday, October 7 itself,” Dashant Shivdikar, a fisherman from Mumbai’s Worli Koliwada said.

“The monsoons have become more erratic. Now we have short episodes of strong wind bursts and heavy rains which are less predictable. Some of these short rain spells like cloudbursts occur in a small region for over an hour or so, which is challenging to even monitor, let alone forecast. There is some information about these rain storms over land, but we do not have much clue for these events over the ocean,” adds Koll further emphasising that we need better monitoring systems and more research for the coastal and open oceans.

“The problem has been increasing in the last few years,” Shivdikar adds.


Increasing cyclones on the west coast

A review study of the IITM Pune, revealed earlier this year that the intensity of cyclones in the Arabian Sea has increased by 20-40 percent in recent decades. “In 2019, Cyclone Kyaar and Cyclone Maha damaged our boats for which the government gave us compensation. In 2020, Cyclone Nisarg hit the west coast, but it did not affect Mumbai much. We did not face any loss at the time. However, Cyclone Tauktae made us face a tremendous loss,” Patil says.

The fisherfolk at Mumbai’s Cleaveland Bunder said that by the time the government advisories regarding Tauktae reached them, the storm had already begun.

“Cyclones are now intensifying rapidly. Cyclones that used to take 2-4 days to develop from weak storms to extremely severe cyclones are now intensifying to those levels in less than a day's time. That means less time for even forecasting agencies and disaster management on the ground,” Koll says.

“We don’t think the government knew how much damage Tauktae will cause. The ports here were inundated, nets were drawn into the sea, boats of some of the fishermen sank as we could not go to remove water from the boats,” Patil said.

The West Coast of India is no more 'cyclone-proof', as it was once believed to be. “East coast saw more cyclones as the huge freshwater influx into the Bay of Bengal led to more oceanic stratification, which results in higher occurrences of cyclones. On the West coast now, thermal stratification is increasing surface temperature. So cyclones are also increasing,” says Grinson George, a scientist at Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) Kochi.


Cyclone Tauktae.

The intensity of Cyclone Tauktae was such that the fishermen found it very difficult to save their boats. “The government had told us that they would help us with anything that we need. We had requested them saying we might need cranes to elevate our boats in case the storm intensifies and threatens the boats. The storm got worse, but at the time, our corporators and everyone who had promised to help said it was not possible to provide a crane,” Patil says.

On being asked if the government is conducting any study on mitigation measures to face storms like these, Patil says at least he has not seen it happen.


Impact on fishing days and catch

“We were finding good fish for the last few weeks. White Prawns, Red Shrimp, and Lobsters were easily available near the coast and fetched us good income. And now the rains are back with winds and thundering. They will make the fish go back into deep waters,” Shivdikar says referring to the rainfall over the first weekend of October in Mumbai.

Increasing storms and unpredictable rainfall events affect the catch of the fishermen adversely, also reducing the fishing days.

“For the Arabian Sea, we also see that the frequency, duration and intensity of cyclones have increased. This means that the number of fishing days is also cut down, affecting their livelihoods,” Koll says.

The storm advisories issued by the government usually last from one or two days before the storm to a couple of days after it. “This has a big socioeconomic impact on the coastal communities dependent on the sea. Most of the traditional fishermen are engaged in subsistence fishing. It’s easy to just issue a warning, but these storm warnings lead to a loss of fishing days, impacting the livelihood of these communities,” George adds.

“Many people could not go into the sea to bring back the nets that they had cast into the sea yesterday as the rains and thundering began unexpectedly today, and we did not have any knowledge about it. All the catch in those nets will be a waste by the time they go to get it back. The fish that we caught in the last few days were fetching us good income. We were also catching Lobsters near the coast until just before Navratri. Now we are not sure what we will find when we go back into the sea after these rains,” Shivdikar says.

While our forecasting systems have improved over time, but now climate change and the intensification of storms are making it further challenging.

“Institutes like the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) are giving operational forecasts, which would be much more helpful to the fishermen. But they are not reaching these fishermen,” George adds.


Coping with the challenges

The fishermen say that they have been relying on the traditional knowledge passed on to them by their previous generations, along with apps like Accuweather and Windy to determine the condition of the sea.

“At least two-three days before a storm, the sea starts showing different warning signs. The direction of the wind is affected, current changes and sea creatures behave unusually. We also have ways to determine when a storm is coming based on the shadow of the moon,” says Nitish Patil, another fisherman from Worli Koliwada.


A fishing boat in a storm.

There are multiple ways that a traditional fisherman uses to determine how safe the sea is before entering the waters for fishing. “We determine what time to go fishing, which areas to go into, as per the traditional knowledge passed to us by our ancestors. We can look at the waves and predict. Even the moon’s position and its shadows guide us,” Patil says.

Shivdikar adds, “The khube (clams) that we usually find in the muddy waters near the coast start climbing up on the shore. That is another sign that something is wrong with the sea and there is a possibility that stormy weather might be approaching.”

The fishermen also said that the shift in the positions of the nets placed in the water for fishing and the rock holding them there also warn them about the changes in the water currents, which lead them to take precautions.

“We combine this knowledge with the technology and use the apps like Accuweather and Windy to confirm our predictions,” Patil says.

He has been using Accuweather since 2015 and has since been advocating the use of the app among his fellow fishermen, who also have followed suit. Is the forecast accurate? “Perfect!” he says.

Patil further explains, “In Accuweather, forecast of up to one and a half months ahead is available. It gives data on hourly wind speed, wind direction, rainfall updates, etc. Regular periodical updates on it help us.”

So what do the fishermen do now when they are warned of a storm? “We tie our boats more securely with extra ropes, strengthen their anchoring. We keep monitoring the boats, especially during the high tides. If water enters the boats, we keep removing it. If the ropes get loose due to the winds, tie them again,” the fishermen say.

But is that enough? The circumstances that the fishermen have been facing say otherwise. In 2019, Mumbai’s fishermen said that they had faced losses of up to Rs 500 crores due to irregular rains in the months of September and October. Last month, reports said that Rajhans Tapke, general secretary of Koli Federation has asked that Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde to form a study group consisting of experts, administrative officials and fishermen, as fishermen have been suffering financial losses due to irregular rain events.

The Indian Ocean is also the fastest warming among all ocean basins, which increased the vulnerability of the west coast to climate change. Koll says, “Our forecasting systems have improved over time, but now climate change and the intensification of storms are making it further challenging. Instead of waiting for forecasts every year, we need to have long-term policies that help the coastal communities to adapt to intensifying storms and rising sea levels.”