KOLLAM: Seventy-year-old Moses Abraham has heard that the ‘kallikakka’ or the yellow clams he has been scooping from Ashtamudi lake that surrounds St Sebastian’s island have made it to the tables of Europeans recently with a coveted international certification. But things have not changed for him and 24 other families in the island who make a livelihood of clam fishing even this Christmas.
“The price of clam meat I sell to the agent or middlemen for the past 40 years has not changed much even after it bagged the coveted Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) UK certification in October,” Moses said. The price is still fixed by middlemen who keep an invisible control over people like Moses with perpetual credit line. With the self-enforced ban for three months starting December, Christmas season is always a period of penury for the islanders whose only source of income is clam scooping.
According to Moses, younger generations have shifted to the mainland for they do not find clam fishing a viable occupation.
It is indeed a tough job for the 3,000 odd fishermen who make a livelihood by selling clam meat in and around the Ashtamudi lake. The day of a clam fisherman starts by four in the morning where he scoops short-necked clams from the waters. It is then boiled and de-shelled to separate the meat. While the men engage in scooping the clams, the women mostly engage in processing it.
For the meat that sells above `400 a kg in overseas market these fishermen get mere `90! When the availability of clams reduced considerably in the 90s due to over exploitation, Moses switched over to pearlspot cultivation.
He returned to clam fishing when authorities came up with a slew of measures to add sustainability to the occupation. Fishermen will have to undergo a self-enforced ban on clam fishing from December to February.
But unlike their traditional counterparts the clam fishermen do not get any incentive from the government during the ban period. The committee to oversee the sustainability has suggested some relief measures, but it has so far remained only on paper.“Our current effort is to establish the chain of custody. The benefits will slowly trickle down from exporters to the fishermen,” said K Sunil Mohamed, principal scientist & head of Molluscan Fisheries Division, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).
But the fishermen alleged that they don’t have any representation in most of the committees formed to discuss about clam fishing. Most of it had been hijacked by the agents with political affiliation, said David and his son Shibu. Another native, Tresa said she had been going to a sting ray processing export unit at Neendakara during the ban season.India exports about 784 tonnes of clam meat annually, of which over 80 per cent are from the Ashtamudi Lake. Ashtamudi short neck clam fishery was only the third fishery in Asia to have received the certification. Clam fishery in Ashtamudi dates back to 1981 and supports the livelihoods of around 3,000 fishers.The growth of Ashtamudi’s commercial fishery was driven by demand from Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia in the 1980s and 1990s. A closed season and mesh size restrictions for nets were introduced, along with a minimum export size and a prohibition on mechanical clam fishing. These measures showed immediate effects, and the clam fishery has sustained landings of around 10,000 tonnes a year for the past decade.