Rutgers Climate Institute supported my preliminary fieldwork on India’s Blue Economy in the southern state of Tamil Nadu from May-August 2023. With a broad focus on the Gulf of Mannar region in the Bay of Bengal, I visited the coastal districts of Thoothukudi and Ramanathapuram to scope coastal fishing villages and approach the intersection of community economies with ecologies. This was my entry point to see how maritime activities such as industrial marine fisheries, coastal aquaculture, coastal infrastructure and marine protected areas are now integrated and produced as “sustainable” blue economy engagements – thus constituting an oceanic influence on economy. In terms of method, I spoke to a broad range of actors from fishers to aquaculture practitioners, different representatives of the state bureaucracy, environmental activists, researchers and NGOs towards a critical ethnography of coastal geographies in these two districts.
Since this preliminary fieldwork was conducted during the annual 61-day trawl fishing ban period on India’s east coast, many fishers readily conversed on issues ranging from state policy, historical shifts in coastal activities, and emerging spatial and technological conflicts with coastal aquaculture and deep sea fisheries, climate change and marine conservation. For example, a representative from the Thoothukudi District Trawl Fishers Union asked “What’s the logic behind decimating the oceans and now asking us to grow shrimp in artificial ponds?”. He explained that the steady decline in shrimp found in the Gulf of Mannar was due to unregulated trawling, small mesh-size in these nets that catch all eggs and fry in the near-shore region, using bright lights while fishing. He also pointed to other polluting industries and the presence of windmills near the shore that were altering coastal ecologies in Thoothukudi. “There’s no space for the fisherman in Indian law; we’re clubbed with agriculture instead!,” he said. In the two shrimp aquaculture businesses that I visited around the Vaippar region of Thoothukudi, I observed how massive coastal infrastructures like artificial ponds and pipes were set up to grow shrimp and draw water straight from the Gulf of Mannar. According to them, however, all environmental laws (e.g. the Coastal Regulation Zone Rules) were being followed to ensure the production was sustainable and climate resilient. To further understand how fishers were represented in other Blue Economy sectors in Thoothukudi, I also visited one private and one government-run ecotourism enterprise that focused on climate literacy and outdoor recreation at sea. While fishers were employed to some degree, what prevailed was a view of the ocean as pristine, and a static idea of fishing as an activity that needs to be controlled.
Coastal infrastructures of shrimp aquaculture in Thoothukudi
In my second study area in Ramanathapuram, a fisher in the Pamban region squarely responded to this view by responding to the fluidity of oceans and fishers: “We are like turtles; we come ashore only to mend our nets,” In the eyes of a Forest Department official I interviewed, such a dynamism was an area of concern, given how fishers are subjected to discourse of legality in the trade of protected species of sea cucumber, and how fishers would need to participate in dugong (D. dugon) and coral reef conservation at sea. However, one of my interlocutors in Rameshwaram harbour, stated that “People who [didn’t] know about the life of fishers or the oceans are making laws for fishers. Come see this ocean; come on our boats… Understand our lives.” I also observed the impacts of shrimp aquaculture in Rameshwaram island as an explicitly spatial conflict between a marginalized artisanal fishing community, freshwater and unregulated shrimp production around Ariyankundu – and in contrast to the businesses I observed in Thoothukudi. According to a local activist who guided my visit here, shrimp aquaculture had degraded the island’s water, fishers’ intimate attachments with this area, and threatened their well-being. Yet, what also existed in the island was other forms of blue economic activities such as seaweed aquaculture (by women) and marine cage culture (of sea bass, L. calcarifer, based on one site that I observed).
Seaweed culture and marine cage culture (featuring Ajith) in Olaikkuda Village, Rameshwaram
Farmed shrimp in Pamban fishmarket
Shrimp aquaculture in Ariyankundu, Rameshwaram
Apart from visits in these two districts, I also benefited from conversations with academics at the French Institute of Pondicherry (Puducherry) and Madras Institute of Development Studies (Chennai). While my summer work confirmed earlier readings on shrimp aquaculture as a “wicked problem” as referred to in the marine social sciences, my main finding was on how this is enacted on simultaneous terrains of struggle – from the environment, to water, to the seafood itself. I thank the RCI partially supporting my preliminary fieldwork, which is now helping me ground such theoretical openings towards future work on how these conflicting registers may help compose community differently, towards “other” blue economies based on conviviality.