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Arokiaraj Francis, a 40-year-old fisher, felt the weaves of his plastic net tighten as his trawler puttered around India’s Pamban Island, a mere 29 kilometers from Sri Lanka. It was 11 p.m. and the swirling waters were dark. Only after he’d heaved the net into his boat did he realize what he had caught: an olive ridley sea turtle weighing as much as a bag of cement.
A third-generation fisher, Francis says there was a time during his childhood when fisherfolk like him would eat the olive ridley without a second thought. “I’ve cooked and eaten sea turtles on countless occasions,” he says. “Our fishing community believed that sea turtles would enrich the blood and strengthen the bones. But today, it’s different.” Today, Francis cut a significant portion of his own blue net to release the turtle, even though he knew it would cost him two hours of labor on a swaying boat and INR 2,000 (US $27) to mend it. “I know that these are endangered animals that are of great value to fishermen—I heard about it on the radio and felt such a joy that I could save its life,” he says.
For the past two years, he’s been tuning into a program called Samudhram Palagu (Learn about the Oceans) aired by the local radio station Kadal Osai (Sound of the Sea) and that, he says, has changed his perspective. The show has taught him to value the lives of sea creatures and better appreciate what the ocean provides.
Sound of the Sea has broadcast programming designed for fishers and their families since 2016, its airwaves reaching a modest audience of 50,000 people from 30 fishing villages within a 15-kilometer radius of the station’s headquarters on Pamban Island. Twelve radio jockeys now maintain the airwaves 24 hours a day, covering everything from climate change and how it’s affecting local communities, to first aid at sea, to the best way to preserve dried fish. The programming is a lifeline for fisherfolk, helping them make sense of their rapidly changing world and allowing them to share information that strengthens their community and supports their own well-being.
Armstrong Fernando, the 43-year-old former fisher who established the radio station, says Sound of the Sea is evidence that communication can transform the lives of fisherfolk. He created it to warn them of extreme weather events, which are common in the region. “I believed that the right information at the right time can save lives,” says Fernando. “Fisherfolk would rarely heed storm warnings issued by authorities, because they are so used to battling the elements. But when these warnings are issued by their own people—their sons, daughters, friends, and neighbors—it’s harder to ignore.” The station soon grew in popularity and scope.
Today, Fernando runs a stone quarrying company in Chennai, a 10-hour drive from Pamban Island—his parents had worried about declining fish stocks and long hours at sea, so convinced him to give up fishing. But he never lost touch with his roots. He grew up in a fishing village on Pamban Island, and the need to give back was at the heart of his broadcasting project, he says. Even before he established the radio station, Fernando had worked to help the community. In the 1990s, when fishers from the state of Tamil Nadu, which includes Pamban Island, were arrested and jailed for trespassing in Sri Lankan waters during that country’s civil war, Fernando found ways to bring them medication, donations, and provisions as they fought for freedom. “Fish know no boundaries, and neither do fishers,” he says. “But countries don’t always understand this.”
Launching the radio station took an initial investment of US $270,000. Various fishing unions came up with roughly half; Fernando contributed the rest. Much of the money went toward state-of-the-art studio equipment and soundproofing. Since the station functions near the maritime border between two countries, it took Fernando four years of wading through extensive red tape to get the license. He also covers expenses where needed every month. The deep investment is worth it, Fernando says, when he sees the change it is creating.
Many fishers tune into Sound of the Sea, both on land and out on the water, with old-fashioned, handheld transistor radios. Away from shore, they add antenna coils to improve reception. Fishing boats in this part of the world—often simple canoes, sailboats, and motorized trawlers—are seldom equipped with built-in radios.
Zeenath Rabiya joined Sound of the Sea in 2018 after her father, a fisherman, told her how much he loved listening to the station during long hours at sea. Radio came into her life at a stressful time; she was six months into an English literature degree at a local university when she married, but her in-laws saw no value in her studies. Dropping out was painful, 27-year-old Rabiya says, because she wanted to do something meaningful. When she was hired by the radio station, she was overjoyed.
Her first show didn’t even have a name. “I was in training and my sole objective was to connect with the community,” she says. For the three hours she was on air, Rabiya would give her listeners weather updates and keep them abreast of the news. “I’d read three to four papers a day, especially the evening papers, scouring them for news that would apply to the fishing community. If there were scholarships for students, government schemes, and loans that fishing folk or women could avail of, we’d make sure they knew about it,” she says.
Rabiya lives in Mandapam, a small coastal town to the west of Pamban Island with a population of about 18,000 people, mostly fishers. Her daily commute takes her across a picturesque bridge overlooking Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, which together form a fiercely protected and ecologically fragile zone between India and Sri Lanka that’s vital to her listeners. The area contains rich biodiversity within coral, seagrass, and mangrove ecosystems. The shallow waters of the gulf alone are carpeted with 15 species of seagrass and are the feeding grounds of dugongs. They are also home to 450 of India’s finfish species, at least 79 species of crustaceans, roughly 108 species of sponges, and five species of sea turtles (four of them endangered). In these busy waters, Pamban Island’s fishers chase sardine, deep-sea lobster, pomfret, butterfish, murrel, and prawn.
While most fishers in Pamban Island’s communities are male, in recent years, many women have started taking to the sea to supplement their family income. Some gather seaweed; others harvest pearls for local industries. Rabiya interviews many such women on air, bringing to light hidden struggles. One of the fisherwomen, named Suganthi, who goes only by her first name, told Rabiya recently how gathering seaweed is more difficult than it sounds. Suganthi described how she stands in neck-deep water all day, and how her hand is often laced with cuts from sharp rocks. Shocked, Rabiya asked if she stops to treat her wounds and Suganthi laughed. “Who has the luxury to stop for first aid?”
Listeners, many of them wives of fishermen, also call in with tips on health, nutrition, cooking, and even beauty.
Some callers just want to reach out to be heard. Six months after Sound of the Sea was up and running, 51-year-old Mukesh Sridharan, a former fisher, recited his poetry on air. He had written the poem in the early hours of December 27, 2004, the day after the Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 16,000 people in coastal India. He had been alone in his hut in Mandapam, sleeping on a wooden cot, when the disaster struck. The tidal wave didn’t reach him, and he didn’t sustain injuries, despite the roof of his hut being severely damaged by wind. But the sorrow he found when he emerged has no parallel: parents washed away, separated from their babies; bewildered children alone and crying on the shore; people who had lost their loved ones, their homes, and every single possession. He put those searing images in his verse. “We experienced so much terror, so much pain and loss, but we rarely talk about it,” he says. “I wanted to change that.”
On air he read, “You are the powerful waters that rule our lives; we are your family. You are both our blessing and our curse. We live and die by your will. A prayer for peace, as we enter a new dawn.”
As the radio station’s impact grew, the discussions the hosts held on air became more nuanced. Climate change and marine conservation were at the forefront of many discussions in 2019. “The intent is to help listeners realize they need to care for the environment, if only to protect their own livelihood,” says Gayathri Usman, the 36-year-old station manager. “These are problems that we have seen these communities grapple with for a long time.”
The radio jockeys gain a deeper understanding of the issues affecting their listeners by hosting informal meetings with community members. Last year, Rabiya spoke to 25 fishermen, asking how climate change was affecting their lives. The sessions provided startling insights. “They said they were aware of the rising temperatures and tides, but surprisingly, it wasn’t something they were too concerned about,” she says. The fishers saw climate change as inevitable, and battling the elements was something they had always dealt with. They were more concerned about overfishing.
After commercial trawlers began operating around Pamban Island in the 1960s, local fish stocks drastically declined. Rabiya holds on-air conversations with fishers who voiced those concerns publicly, claiming the fine nets of mechanized trawlers catch even the smallest fish. “The focus of the show shifted to destructive fishing practices, how many fish were moving away from shallow waters, and how sustainable fishing could benefit everyone,” she says. “And a scientist came on the show to explain how the migration of fish was also a direct result of global warming and climate change, especially seen in the dwindling numbers of parrotfish and clownfish, species affected by rising water temperatures.”
“It’s different when members of our own community talk about these issues,” says Francis, the fisher who cut his net for a turtle. “I know they’re not just repeating facts they’ve memorized—they really understand what I’m going through and how it affects me. And that makes me want to listen.”
For Learn about the Oceans, the show that shifted Francis’s perspective, 27-year-old radio jockey Lenin Raj often welcomes guests from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute based in Mandapam to provide expert insight on issues related to the effects of marine conservation on fishers.
For instance, swarms of invasive jellyfish surrounding Pamban Island have been a cause for concern since 2013. “We told our listeners that saving sea turtles would help,” says Raj. “Scientists explained the food chain—how sea turtles ate the invasive jellyfish, keeping their population in check. Saving sea turtles would allow fish to thrive, which would benefit the fishing community.”
Another issue Raj regularly touches on is plastic waste. In a study published in the Research Journal of Environmental Sciences in 2011, the fishing industry was found to be the largest source of marine litter in the Gulf of Mannar, much of it plastic. But in conversations with fishers both on and off air, Raj realized that “people aren’t aware of how bad the situation is.”
After single-use plastic was banned across Tamil Nadu in January 2019, Raj reminded his listeners of the tremendous scope of what they were dealing with. “We have 5,000 fishing boats in the Gulf of Mannar,” he said on air. “Everyone packs their meals in plastic bags. Can you imagine how much plastic waste that can generate every single day?” Many listeners called to tell him they’d never considered how all that plastic could add up.
A willingness to change is most evident in younger generations, says 28-year-old Mari Selvam from Keelakarai, a fishing village 45 kilometers west of Pamban Island. When he’s at home, he can’t tune into Sound of the Sea because he’s outside the broadcast zone, but he listens during the 10- to 12-hour stints he spends at sea, fishing with his father and brother. “Earlier, we did dump a lot of plastic into the waters,” he says, most of it from snack foods. “It was just a mindless habit. … But today, we think twice before we even throw out a packet of crisps. I feel bad if I see other boats littering now. The elderly fisherfolk sometimes find it hard to change their ways, but I’d say overall, there’s progress.” His family avoids using plastics now, he says, and brings their garbage back to shore for disposal.
Every aspect of marine conservation impacts lives here directly, says Raj, and that’s why educating listeners matters—there’s a lot at stake. “We don’t just warn our listeners about rising temperatures in a warming world, we alert them to rising sea levels that are a direct result of it, and caution them against building huts or setting up shops in these areas where flooding from high tides is increasing,” he says.
Around the end of July, Sound of the Sea faced one of its biggest challenges—COVID-19. Despite their efforts at creating awareness and despite taking all precautions, the radio station had to shut down temporarily after three radio jockeys tested positive. “We’ve addressed rising sea levels, changing climate, how to cope with a gradually warming world, even coral rehabilitation, but masks were our undoing,” says Raj. Not everyone in the fishing communities agreed about their use. Hospitals and quarantine were regarded with suspicion. And so, COVID-19 began to tear through the neighborhood. It is something that they are now addressing on air, partnering with UNICEF in a series of programs they call Mission COVID.
“I’ve seen that when it comes to the health of one’s own body or of the seas, you need to show people how their actions matter, and to gradually ensure that they embrace the cause willingly,” says Raj. “Nothing can change overnight, so we keep reinforcing these messages. At some point, we believe it will become a way of life.”