Just as a cricketer picks up his bat, a fisherman picks up his net before heading out to sea. But nowadays there is another thing that he can’t afford to leave behind: his hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) device. Fishermen have forever relied on water and air for guidance. Traditionally, they used intuitive knowledge on water currents, its temperature, wind direction, and humidity levels to lead them to the fishes. Now, GPS does the work for them.
“The government gave 700 fishermen in our region walkie-talkies with built-in GPS in 2018,” says P. Ethiraj, a fisherman who owns a fibre boat in Pulicat, 54 kilometres from Chennai in Tamil Nadu. “The authorities have also fixed an antenna inside our market to support these walkie-talkies. In the past, most of us went by our instinct to a spot for fishing. But that didn’t always promise us a good catch. With GPS, however, we are often rewarded,” said the 50-year-old.
How technological advances are helping fishermen
GPS is a satellite based navigation system that enables people to pin-point their exact location. This technology is owned by the United States government. Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR) technology lets a boat ‘see’ what is ahead of it by emitting radio waves and waiting for the signal to be reflected back. Echo sounding technology, which also shows spots where there are schools of fish - works by transmitting sound waves into water to determine its depth. Fish-finding technology helps to locate fish by detecting reflected pulses of sound energy. Fishermen can connect with other fishermen on nearby boats over walkie-talkies and share their knowledge. Ethiraj stated, “We’ve been making good profits, thanks to this technology.”
Apart from enhancing their business, these GPS-enabled walkie-talkies have also saved lives. Ethiraj said, “One night, fishermen from my village called for help as they were stranded at deep sea and we rushed to rescue them.” These systems can also be used to contact the coast guard or bigger vessels in case of emergencies.
According to author R. N. Joe D’Cruz, who has written extensively on the fishing community, “Boats over 80-feet long, which are involved in deep-sea fishing, use RADAR, echo sounding, as well as GPS. Their economies allow them to invest in such technologies.”
A small section of the community is still untouched by technology. Artisanal fishermen who use non-motorised boats and fish at near-shore waters (around eight to 10 nautical miles from the shore) rely on lighthouses, stars, and city lights, and of course, on their intuition. However, such traditional knowledge is fast disappearing. According to D’Cruz, “Some 30 years ago, fishermen would secure their nets at one spot at sea and return the next day to collect it. This was when GPS was unheard of. They used landmarks on lands. Now that GPS has taken over, there is risk of such practices and the associated traditional knowledge of not being passed on.” However, there is need for combination of technology and traditional knowledge. Additionally, the government must invest more in technologies that can forecast weather with greater clarity.