Twin fishing harbours cement crisis in Kaliveli, livelihoods at stake

Project launched by fisheries dept poses threat to Olive Ridley nesting ground and bird sanctuary, say environmentalists
Yedayanthittu island, where migratory birds congregate in large numbers. (Photo | Express)
Yedayanthittu island, where migratory birds congregate in large numbers. (Photo | Express)

VILLUPURAM: The State fisheries department has begun work on the controversial twin fishing harbours inside the Kaliveli estuary bordering Chengalpattu and Villupuram districts. Multiple access roads are being laid on the nesting grounds of Olive Ridley sea turtles to facilitate the movement of men and machinery.

The pristine white sandy beaches on either side of the Kaliveli and Yedayanthittu estuary are frequented by Olive Ridleys for nesting. As on Saturday, community volunteers engaged with turtle conservation said, there were around 120 live nests in Paramankeni, Thaluthaliyur, Panayur Chinna Kuppam, Alamparai and Thandu Mariamman Alamparai beaches and the number is expected to peak in the coming days as the nesting season extends up to April.

Roads being built across the tidal waterbody in preparation for constructing fishing harbour.
Roads being built across the tidal waterbody in preparation for constructing fishing harbour.

TNIE visited Alamparai Kuppam and Azhagan Kuppam, where the twin fishing harbours were proposed, each designed to park 110 mechanised boats and 300 motorised boats at a combined cost of Rs 235 crore. Work is going on at a brisk pace. Tonnes of construction debris has been dumped on the Alamparai beach for laying a motorable road to bring boulder stones for the construction of groynes. An area of five hectares of sandbar would be dredged to develop a 100 meters wide navigation channel connecting the Bay of Bengal and the Kaliveli backwaters.

A fisheries department official, who was on the spot supervising the works, told TNIE the road work will be completed within a week and heavy vehicles will be deployed to transport the stones. The fishing harbour at Azhagan Kuppam is coming up near Yedayanthittu island, where migratory birds congregate in large numbers. Here, a road has been already built and a container ‘work-station’ cabin set up. Red flag posts were erected for about 1 km marking the navigation channel route, where dredging work will shortly commence.

A view of a large expanse of Kaliveli backwaters where two fishing harbours are proposed.

The irony is that the majority of fishermen in the surrounding villages are against the harbour project. Based on the information gathered by TNIE, there are hardly any mechanised vessels in Chengalpattu and Villupuram districts. In Chengalpattu, there are only four vessels and in Villupuram 24.

Athiyar, a motorised boat owner from Kottaikadu, said there is no demand for such large jetties or harbours. The few mechanised vessels are currently using either Kasimedu harbour in Chennai or Puducherry harbour.“The project will displace hundreds of small-scale and marginalised fishers, who depend on abundant fish, oysters, clams and other shellfish. Once the harbours are built, the water will get polluted with oil spills and other discharges,” he said.

Saralan, one of the very few graduates from Muttukadu village, alleged that only a few big fishing villages like Kadapakkam, Azhangankuppam, and Alamparaikuppam will benefit from the harbour, while over 20 small coastal villages dependent on backwaters will be affected.

However, M Murugesan, executive engineer, Department of Fisheries, claimed there will be no adverse impact on the ecosystem or livelihood of small fishers. “The navigation channel inside the estuary will be just 40 meters wide, while the width of the lake is about 500 meters. There will be a dedicated committee, composed of officials and experts, who will monitor the disposal of waste. Chances of oil spills are minimal. Besides, we are receiving a lot of applications from the fishermen in the area for tuna longliners and conversion of boats into deepsea vessels for which the government offers 50 per cent subsidy.”

‘Protect bird sanctuary’

The recently declared Kaliveli bird sanctuary is contiguous with the estuary. Both are connected by a tidal channel. Any pollution in the estuarial waters will cause irreversible damage to the bird sanctuary, which recorded one of the highest migratory bird pollution in the State during the recent bird census carried out by the State forest department.

"We urge you to take measures to protect Kaliveli bird sanctuary and its high biodiversity by increasing its Eco-Sensitive Zone to include the creek and estuary, since they are ecologically contiguous and single hydrological system. We also urge you to appeal to the fisheries department to relocate the fishing harbours," said Madras Naturalists' Society president KV Sudhakar and its honorary secretary G Vijaya Kumar in the letter addressed to Chief Wildlife Warden Shekhar Kumar Niraj.

The proposed harbours at their present location will block and destroy the connectivity of Kaliveli lake to the ocean, which is bound to affect the food availability for both migrant and resident bird species. Moreover, fuel leaks, oil spills, wash-water, sewage and other effluents from the harbour sites, as mentioned in the EIA, are bound to pollute the Bird Sanctuary, the letter reads.

An aerial view of Yedayanthittu island where large congregations of migratory birds are found.

Also, the nearshore waters off Kaliveli and the inshore coastal waters in the region host a considerable diversity of whales and dolphins given the complex bathymetry of trenches and canyons close to shore. Some cetaceans recorded year around (resident populations), live or stranded, include Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin, Finless Porpoise, Spinner Dolphin, Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Blue Whale, Bryde’s Whale and Sperm Whale.
The presence of Sperm Whales has been reported by local people, and the area is perceived to be an important calving ground for these species. All of these species are Schedule I species and facing different levels of threat on the IUCN Red List.

The presence of mechanised fishing will threaten cetacean populations causing death due to bycatch and ship strikes. While the Bird Sanctuary is a rich habitat, so is the creek and estuary of Kaliveli where the project is proposed. 163 species of birds have been recorded at the Kaliveli estuary as compared to the low number of 49 species stated in the EIA, of which several are Near Threatened, or come under the Convention of the Conservation of Migratory

"Birds like the Whiskered Terns, Northern Pintail, Little Stint and others have been recorded in their thousands during Asian Waterfowl Censuses. This is also the location where the threatened Grey Tailed Tattler is sighted commonly, the only other place in Tamil Nadu other than Pulicat," said bird expert M Yuvan.

He said the 5,151.60 hectares Kaliveli bird sanctuary was declared after the studies for the proposed harbours were conducted. Therefore, new studies by qualified ecological scientists are required to investigate their impact on the sanctuary and its wildlife.

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