The above two topics are not related although both of them deal with fish. They are clubbed together for the sake of convenience.
The Chinese Fishing Nets are unique to Kerala and are not found in any other seaboard state of India. Even in Kerala they are confined to Ernakulam-Alleppey-Kollam belt. There are two theories about how they landed here. One is that they were introduced by the Chinese fleet of Zeng He who visited Kerala in early 14th century. The other theory which is more plausible is that they were brought in by the ‘Casado’ Portuguese settlers who came from Macao. If this later theory is correct, the nets have a comparatively more recent history. In any case, they are a part of the south Malabar landscape for at least 300 years.
They are called CHEENA VALA, localy.
Why did they become popular as against the traditional fishing methods? The nets take less effort to operate compared to the more traditional method of hauling the net through the sand on the shore. It also requires lesser number of people to operate. On the flip side, it is not a very efficient method of fishing. The yield is quite low. The operation of these nets requires tidal waters. They catch fish only at the high tide when the seawater enters the creeks and the ’backwaters’. That explains their geography. You cannot operate them in the open seashores where most of the commercial fishing takes place.
We first encountered the nets at Vypin island. I guess they are found another fifty kilometres or so up north in the Kodangallur area.
It is perhaps on the Vypin island in Erankulam district that they are economically important even now.
The fishing nets are a sort of factory. It needs a platform, staff, storage space etc. depending on the level of activity.
It is generally thought that these objects are made of wood. Not true. Although considerable amount of wood is used the main cross members of the beam are made of steel and bear most of the stress. In mechanical terms the nests are easy to lower into the sea and raise above after the catch with minimum efforts made possible by use of levers. They don’t require any other electro-mechanical inputs. Maintenance of the components appears to be the major source of expenditure in the operation.
Skilled workers are required to lower and raise the nets.
In terms of the fish caught, they appear to be insignificant in the overall fisheries scene of the state. Insignificant in terms of quantity of fish caught and its value. The major fishing method is of course the motorized trawling.
Apart from the estuarine areas around Cochin, the southern backwaters also have the presence of these fishing nets. On the Ashatmudi lake, they seem to be operated at night and use electrical lights to attract the fish. You can see the lamp on the top of this net.
Whether economically important or not the nets add a lot of beauty to scene. No visitor to Kochi will return without the photographs of the nets.
At many places I think the nets are used as a piece of decoration, as here at Kumarkonam.
At Kochi a particular section of the town is called Fishing Nets area. I need to caution people about an activity caried out here.
A few people sell a lot of fish and crabs here. The selling point is that the fish is fresh off the Chinese Nets and you can have it coked instantly by the service provider on the pavement. They never say in so many words that the fish is off the nets. It is implied and we take it for granted, most of us. We establish a connection between the two.
This story has two parts, the source of the fish and the availability of cooking facility instantly. The first one patently untrue and the second part is absolutley true.
Look at the wide variety of fish sold which includes Pomphrets.
Many of these are deep-sea fishes and cannot be caught here in the creek.
This is all about the Chinese Fishing Nets that I could observe.
Whilst at it, allow me to share a couple of other traditional fishing methods of Kerala.
The pictures below show a large net being used on the seashore at the receding tide. This method needs huge manpower and is a collective efforts by the fishermen community. The pictures below were taken at Kovalam in southern Kerala. This is not unique to Kerala. It is practiced in Maharashtra, Goa and presumably in Karnataka although I have not seen it. This provides the freshest possible commercial catch and is sold at a premium.
We have covered this in an earlier post in this blog. It is called Rampon or Rampan in Maharashtra and Goa. I need to find out what they call it in Malayalam.
There is another fishing expedition we could observe at Varkala in southern Kerala. Very interesting and Varkala being a cliff, we could observe it clearly but not at a close range.
Two boats venture into the sea. One is large, the other small. the larger one is carrying the net.
They spread the net in a circle.
A third boat provides some assistance or perhaps some supervision.
They are now closing in, bringing the entire net to the larger boat. In a short while the net is dragged on to the boat.
The whole operation took about 90 to 100 minutes. The boats return to the shore with the catch.
PART II- Distribution.
OK, the fish has been caught and it has to reach the plates of the customers. Let us see how they do it.
Practically everyone in Goad’s own Country eats fish. To feed this vast population with fresh fish is a challenge that has spawned various ingenious delivery methods.
The traditional roadside shop exists as it does everywhere else. They could be small makeshift kiosks or more elaborate structures which allow storage of unsold stocks.
They also exist at the wholesale market places like the one below.
Fish is sold at many places with the sellers seating on the ground with a basket or two arranged in front. This is particularly true when women are selling.
More commonly it is a raised platform where the sale is completed standing up.
Carts with bicycle wheels are also used in smaller places.
In Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka selling of fish is women’s monopoly. In Kerala I guess the men do not trust the women with the money. I did not see many woman selling fish.
In most cases the sale is by weight but in many cases the age-old method of selling on the basis of a ‘portion’ prevails.
The ‘portion’ system’ works well for odd items like the squid above or the Blue crabs below.
At times the larger items are sold on ‘piece’ basis , like these rays below.
This ‘numbers’ method is also useful for certain kind of shellfish like mussels. You can buy a 50 or a 100 of the delicacies below.
Do they sell cleaned (dressed) or as it is found in the sea? The popular method in Kerala appears to be as it comes from the sea. The person cooking appears to be the deciding on the method of cleaning.
Delivery on bicycles is still going on but looks like a dying institution but still exists all the same. The pictures below are in the heart of Kochi town. .
The motorbikes are a more viable proposition and they have been adapted very well for this activity. Look at this bike.
It has the provision to fix the box with the fish and the ice. The melting ice water has to be drained. Provided for. The smelly water is drained on the road to burn the nostrils of the vegetarians passing by.
You will find this scene in many small towns and villages in Kerala.
Frozen Fish does not appear to find favour with the Malayalis with most of the folks looking for fresh fish but use of ice appear to have gained acceptance. My friend Ibrahim at Ponnani does not use ice at all.
On the Ashtamudi lake and other ‘Backwater’ areas fish is sold door to (wet)door by the small boats or canoes.
For movement of medium quantities, autorikshaws particularly the larger ones (6 seaters) are used, as are the ‘tempos’, the small trucks.
Use of saloon cars is not prohibited.
There is an interesting phenomena we could witness not very far from Trivandrum. We entered a large fishing harbour called Muthalapozhi. It was empty but for a couple of stray latecomer. The fishing auctions were completed very early in the morning and the fish had gone to the smaller markets. Here we see a boat with fish. This is not a fishing boat. It is a ‘transport’. It brings the fish from the Trawlers when it is fresh and sells it here.
A Trawler is at sea typically for 2 to 3 weeks and use ice for storing the catch. The quality of the fish after the three weeks is not the same as fresh fish. Many people do not buy fish from these trawlers. As a via media, these enterprising people buy fish from the trawlers, presumably mid sea and bring it to the shore-fresh.
The above information is from a buyer I met on the jetty and was willing to pay a higher price to this fish as compared to the one sold in the market.
If you really enjoy yourselves at a ‘market’, I recommend you a visit to a fish auction on the seashore when the small boats bring the catch ashore. And what better place for it than Kerala?
Small lots are laid down on the beach one by one in quick succession and the bidding takes a minute or so for each lot.
Believe me, women are at their ferocious best when they are bidding against each other.
Text and Pictures : Suryakiran Naik