Eight young men from the local fishing community in Malvan, coastal Maharashtra, knew for years that abandoned fishing nets criss-cross the underwater area just off their village, but never gave the subject much thought. Now, having obtained scuba diving certification through a government initiative, these boys not only spent their mandated underwater post-certification diving hours removing these ghost nets but have also resolved to rid the entire Indian coastline, starting with Maharashtra’s 720-km coast, of these abandoned nets that pose a hazard to delicate marine ecosystems.
Bhushan Zuwatkar, 30, a resident of Tarkarli village in Sindhudurg district, says, “Belonging to a fishing community, I know it is my people who have left these nets in the sea. But I never realised the damage they do to the marine life underwater.”
In 2016, Bhushan was one of a group of 20 local youngsters, all belonging to fishing villages in Sindhudurg district, who began undergoing scuba diving training. The training was provided by the Indian Institute of Scuba Diving and Aquatic Sports (IISDA) at Tarkarli, while the certification is from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), an international certification body. The decision to train the youngsters as scuba divers was part of a project implemented by the Government of India in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the mangrove cell of the Maharashtra forest department, with the aim of skilling the local community for tourism-related employment.
“Currently all tourist activities are concentrated around Malvan, an area rich in corals. So to divert the concentration of tourists, we identified four other locations. We trained the local youth so that they could contribute in the development of these areas,” says N Vasudevan, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (CCF) in charge of the mangrove cell.
With support from an NGO called the Global Environment Facility, the 20 youth, including one girl, underwent the course, paying Rs 50,000 each for a course that costs Rs 2 lakh. The mangrove cell paid Rs 1 lakh while the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), which runs the institute, waived the remaining sum. After completion of the course, the students were mandated to complete 60 diving hours. During this, they were instructed to remove ‘ghost fishing nets’ from the sea. These nets are abandoned by fishermen and remain in the sea for years.
“Often, turtles, fish or other marine creatures get trapped in these nets and hurt themselves while struggling to get out. If they do not manage to free themselves they end up dying of starvation. We asked the students to use their diving hours to help us remove these nets and they managed to collect 1.5 lakh square metres of abandoned fishing nets,” says Vasudevan. Bhushan and seven others were so inspired by their success in those 60 hours of diving that they decided to take their assignment further.
While the others in their batch of 20 hope to become scuba guides for tourists, these eight want to focus on the problem of ghost nets. “It is during the course that we realised how much harm these fishing nets and plastic waste is doing to the marine ecosystem in the sea. While all of us got jobs as scuba divers with private groups we knew our call was in working to preserve the marine life. I even rejected an offer from the Andamans, instead staying with this group and its commitment,” says Bhushan.
They began their independent cleaning of the underwater area behind the Sindhudurg Fort in April. With the onset of monsoon, they have had to restrict their work to beach cleaning activities. Bhushan feels the government should crack down on gutka and plastic bag manufacturers to curb the menace of littering. “In all the litter we collect we find gutka packets and plastic covers to be the most predominant. Instead of harassing the sellers the government should put an end to their manufacture,” he adds.
Beginning with Maharashtra, Bhushan eventually wants to clean the entire coastal waters of the country, but are currently struggling to raise funds for the effort. As underwater cleaning is an expensive affair they need support from a funding agency to sustain their project. For now, the eight are struggling to even raise the small sum they need to get registered as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), though they have a name and plan ready for the proposed Indian Scuba Diver and Aquatic Life Saving Foundation, Malvan.
“The equipment needed are expensive and we are currently renting them. In the last four months we have spent over Rs 16,000 from our own pockets to conduct these activities. To register as an NGO we require at least Rs 6,000 and currently we do not have it. In the monsoon we have no source of income with both our fishing activity and tourism taking a hit,” he rues, adding that they are currently looking for various agencies who may be interested in partnering with them.
Meanwhile, Harshali Manjrekar, the solitary girl among the 20 youngsters in Sindhudurg who underwent scuba diving training last year, is basking in the success of being the first girl from a fishing community in Maharashtra to be a certified professional scuba diver. “After I completed the training I joined MTDC as a diving master and I now assist women tourists who visit Sindhudurg district for scuba diving. When I find time I also join the boys in the beach cleaning activities,” says Harshali.