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Kadalamma—Mother Sea—that’s what Xavier Peter calls the Arabian Sea. His own mother gave him life, but Kadalamma gave him purpose, a livelihood. She has provided for him, offering up enough fish to feed his family and sell at the market. And she has protected him, sparing him thrice from cyclones and once from a tsunami.
Xavier has been trawling for shrimp and fish off India’s southwestern coast for more than three decades, his whole adult life. But lately, when he casts out his nets, he often comes up with more plastic than fish.
“Pulling the nets out of the water is extra effort, with all this plastic tangled in them,” he says. “It’s a bit like trying to draw water from a well—your bucket is somehow being weighed back down.”
He and his crew of six then spend hours separating the garbage from their catch.
For Xavier, the whole ordeal is a regular reminder that Kadalamma is sick, and that he and his community have made her so. “This is India’s greatest failure,” he says.
He used to just sigh and chuck the plastic back overboard. Not anymore.
Since August last year, he and nearly 5,000 other fishermen and boat owners in Kollam—a fishing town of 400,000 in India’s southernmost state, Kerala—have been hauling back to land all the plastic that they find while they’re out at sea. With help from several government agencies, they’ve also set up the first-ever recycling center in the region, to clean, sort, and process all the sea-tossed plastic bags, bottles, straws, flip-flops, and drowned Barbies that they fish out. So far, they’ve collected about 65 metric tons (71 short tons) of plastic waste. (Learn more about the plastic pollution crisis.)
Waves of Frustration
It doesn’t take much to persuade coastal communities of the dangers of plastic, says Peter Mathias, who heads a regional union for fishing boat owners and operators. For years, he says, fishermen have been complaining to him about plastic getting caught in their gear.
And that isn’t even the worst of it. A decade back, a small crew like Xavier’s could easily pull in up to four tons of fish over the course of a 10-day expedition. These days, he’s lucky to get a fifth of that. Although many factors, including climate change and overfishing, are affecting fish stock, plastic is the most dramatically visible culprit.
Many types of fish easily mistake plastic for prey, and studies show that they can die of either poisoning or malnutrition as a result. Other sea life gets caught in and strangled by abandoned nylon fishing nets. Large patches of plastic on the sea bed are also blocking some species’ access to their breeding grounds.
“It is affecting our work,” Mathias says. “So in this way it’s our responsibility, and necessary for our survival as fishermen to keep the sea clean.”
Upholding that responsibility, however, proved to be a bit more complicated than Mathias initially anticipated. Fishermen were dredging up plastic without even meaning to; asking them to do so on purpose was an obvious next step. The problem was, their region had no system for municipal waste collection, let alone a recycling program. When a nearby village of clam divers in Kerala tried to start a similar program to clean up Kerala’s backwaters, they realized they had no way to dispose of all the garbage they scooped up. They were effectively just transferring litter from lake and riverbeds back to land.
A Surge of Support
Last summer, Mathias approached J. Mercykutty Amma, the state minister of fisheries, and a fellow Kollam native, for help. “I said, if we take it upon ourselves to collect plastic from the sea and bring it back to land, can you help us do something with it?” he says.
She said sure, but she probably couldn’t make it happen on her own. So, about a month later, she roped in five other government agencies, including the department of civil engineers, who agreed to help build a recycling facility, and the department for women’s empowerment. That agency is tasked with improving employment opportunities for women, in an area where many fields, like fishing, had long been dominated by men. So the agency helped hire an all-female crew to work there.
For the past several months, a group of 30 women have been working full time to painstakingly wash and sort plastic that the fishermen collect. Most of it is too damaged and eroded to recycle in traditional ways. Instead, it’s shredded into a fine confetti and sold to local construction crews who use it to strengthen asphalt for paving roads. The proceeds—along with government grant money—cover the women’s salaries, about 350 rupees ($5) per day. The system isn’t completely self sufficient, but it will be by next year, Mathias hopes.
“We’ve roped in so many groups, so quickly for this effort,” he says. But he’s proudest of the fact that “this comes from us, it comes from the fishermen.”
They’ve already helped a couple of nearby fishing communities, including the aforementioned clam collectors, procure funding to start up their own plastic collection and recycling programs. Soon, he says, fishermen “through all of Kerala, all of India, and all of the world will join us.”
It’s a strong statement, but his confidence isn’t necessarily misplaced, says Sabine Pahl, a psychologist with the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. Pahl, who researches how to convince people to take better care of the planet, says involving fishing communities in the fight against ocean pollution makes sense, and has worked in the past. Since 2009, the northern European environmental group KIMO has been recruiting fishermen in parts of the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden, and the Faroe Islands for a similar program called Fishing for Litter.
Spreading the Word
The Indian program may have even wider potential, based on “the fact that it’s the fishermen taking the initiative,” Pahl says. In her research, she’s found that the most effective environmental initiatives are community-led, and “intrinsically motivated”—meaning motivated by altruism and a love for nature and wildlife.
“It’s truly powerful, because the fishermen are also in the best position to convince the rest of the community-—their families, their neighbors—of the dangers of plastic,” she says.
That’s exactly what they’re doing. Many of the fishermen at Kollam harbour say that nine months into the program, the amount of debris that gets caught in their nets has markedly reduced. But ultimately, they’re hoping to altogether stop the flow of plastic into the ocean. To that end, all 5,000 of them have pledged to reduce their personal use of plastic, or at the very least make sure it ends up at the recycling plant rather than in the ocean. Mathias and Xavier say they also aren’t opposed to strategically using guilt to stop people from littering.
“I tell them, ‘If you keep polluting the ocean with plastic… as fishermen, our livelihoods will cease to exist,” Mathias says. That, he says, gets through to them almost every time.
Maanvi Singh is reporting from southern India on a National Geographic Society storytelling grant.