India’s Ashtamudi clam fishery: Fishing for future generations
The Ashtamudi clam fishery in southern India entered assessment to the MSC standard in 2013. As part of the assessment, the independent auditors need to visit the fishery, so we joined them to take a look.
We travelled to Kollam, a vibrant, colourful town three hours drive from Cochin, the capital of Kerala. We navigated the twists and turns of Kollam’s coconut tree-lined streets, filled with children on their way to school and women with pots balanced delicately on their heads, and arrived at the shore where we boarded the boat to the site of the fishery.
How clams are caught in the Ashtamudi estuary
There are two types of fishing operations in the Ashtamudi clam fishery. One is the hand diving for clams, a traditional method which involves the fisher standing beside his dug out canoe using his feet to dig out the clams from the estuary bed. The second method involves the use of rakes, where the boats are slightly larger and there are often more fishermen in each. In both cases, after the clams are scooped up, they are sieved to make sure that the juvenile clams are released back into the water. Clams reach sexual maturity at between 15-20mm and it is important that they are not harvested before they have had a chance to grow and reproduce.
Fishers start work once the tide is out as their work requires the water to be as shallow as possible. They come back to shore before the tide comes in and often fish for no more than 4 hours a day. There is no fishing on Sundays or during the three month peak breeding season from December through to March.
Why pursue MSC certification?
Joseph James has been working in the fishery for 25 years since he was about 18. His father was also a fisher. He is interested in the MSC because he would like the world to recognise their efforts to keep the fishery healthy. He also hopes that certification will lead to better prices for their clams.
Joseph suggests that with better prices they could fish at even lower rates than they are currently. He believes that if they continue to fish sustainably, the resource will be available for future generations. Asked what his hopes were for the future of the fishery, he replies: “Better prices, good quality, [and] strict regulations to ensure the fishery remains healthy and a resource to pass onto the next generation.”
Fishing is a family operation
The fishery supports the livelihoods of around 1,000 fishers. Some of them live on the many tropical islands around Kollam. One of the islands, St. Sebastian, houses 27 families who are almost all related to each other.
When the fishers return to shore, processing is handled by the women in the family. Processing involves a period of depuration to purge the clams of contaminants, which is carried out in crates on site, followed by boiling and removal of the shells. Once the shells are removed the clam meat is taken to a central hub where local agents for various companies weigh the clams, cover the trays in ice and transport them to company buyers in their little white pick-up vans. The company buyers will later export them to other countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.
Risk based framework
Satisfied with their observation of the fishery in operation, the auditors proceeded with the next activity on their schedule. This is the application of the Risk Based Framework (RBF), a methodology that enables assessment of data-limited fisheries. In the case of the Ashtamudi clam fishery, this involves the assessment team organising a stakeholder workshop to collect qualitative and semi-quantitative information that can be used to assess the fishery’s status against the MSC standard.
In the absence of comprehensive stock assessment data, more informal information can be used in determining the performance of the fishery. The type of information used includes time spent fishing, spatial extent of fishing activity, fishing depth, species distribution, fishing gear size and type and species life history characteristics including number of eggs, maximum length and size at maturity. Auditors work with a diverse and balanced group of stakeholders to collect this information. The information is collated and used to arrive at a score that gives an indication of the impact of fishing activity on the species being harvested.
The RBF workshop is held at the central town hall in Kollam. About 30 fishers attend. Jim, one of the auditors starts by introducing the assessment team. He gives a brief explanation of the RBF process. Dr Appukutan, the other auditor in the team interprets into Malayalam. They then proceed with the RBF discussion in English and Malayalam.
There is a lively discussion. Generally, they seem happy with their fishery. They believe the fishery is being managed in a sustainable way. Many of the fishers are concerned about the markets and the price they get for their clams. They would like to get better prices. But more than that, they want the fishery to continue to be exploited sustainably so it continues to exist for a long time.
The Ashtamundi clam fishery will be discussed at the MSC’s developing world conference in Bali on April 15.
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- India’s Ashtamudi clam fishery: Fishing for future generations - April 10, 2014