Cleaning The Seabed : Fishermen Are Turning Into Scuba-Divers To Clean The Ocean Bed Of ‘Ghost Nets’ Which Are Killing Marine Life

Images Credits: Temple Adventures

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For most of us, scuba diving is merely a vacation activity, bringing out our adventurous side. But, for Puducherry fishermen Desapan, Karthi or Ravi, scuba diving has transformed their lives, giving them more identity and recognition than ever, aside from ensuring a better income and better livelihood. Thanks to professional scuba diver SB Aravind and his team ‘Templa Adventures’, these fishermen are now engaged in clearing the ocean bed of ‘ghost nets’, plastic waste, aiming to restore the marine biodiversity in the region.

“It took us years to convince the fishermen about this activity, as they felt underwater diving is driving their fish away. They were not very fond of us, needless to say. See today, many of the fishermen have changed their profession into full-time divers and piloting ocean bed cleaning drives in Puducherry, Chennai and Kanyakumari coast,” reveals SB Aravind, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

The ‘ghost nets’ which killed the fish

There was a time when fishing was limited to small boats and daring fishermen who braved the stormy seas for their families. Now they can only be found as protagonists of yellowed novels. Since the inception of big trawlers and large nylon fishing nets, survival has become challenging for individual fishermen, as well as the marine aquatic life.

The fishermen who spend their whole day in the sea rarely think twice before throwing plastic carry bags or bottles into the water. Rainwater also washes away plastic waste from landfills and dump yards into the ocean.

“While sailing through narrow coves, the big fishing nets hanging from trawlers often get caught in the reefs. The fishermen are left with no choice but to cut the nets and sail forward. These nets, called ‘ghost nets’, end up spanning kilometres of the sea bed. Fish, aquatic animals and even live corals are left stuck there to die,” explains Aravind.
In addition, climate change and heating up of the ocean water is also harming the biodiversity manifolds.

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Aravind’s Temple Adventures is working since 2012 to get rid of these ghost nets and save the marine life stuck in these unintended traps. Initially, the fishermen felt that the scuba diving and water sports in the sea is harming their fish. Unaware of reality, their littering activities continued. “We made them realise it was not the scuba-divers, but the plastic bottles, plates, cups, fishing nets and other debris which is killing the fish. Their trust grew when our team rescued a group of fishermen following a boat accident mid-sea,” shares Aravind.

Fishermen-turned-scuba-divers

Soon, the fishermen underwent training in scuba diving and how to rescue the trapped creatures. For most of them, the experience served as an eye-opener. “Once I saw the helpless fish struggling inside the ghost net, I felt that fishing was cruel,” shares Desapan, one of the scuba- diving captains who gave up his family occupation of fishing. “I am living a better life today. I am earning way more than I did through fishing as well as saving the ocean,” he adds.

The change that called a whale shark

At present, Aravind’s organisation has a team of around 30 fishermen-turned-divers across different coasts in Tamil Nadu who partake weekly ocean bed cleaning operations. Every time, they excavate around 100 to 200 kg of waste. Sometimes, the quantity reaches even 500 kg. Though slow, the progress has really started to reflect in these six years as the rich biodiversity is regrowing in the once-deserted underwater zones. In fact, the team even spotted the rare whale shark recently, which was hardly ever found before in the area.

Awareness is the keyword for all what Aravind does. He wishes to scale up ocean clean-up initiatives and involve volunteers from among the public as well. “We hear about the success of beach cleaning operations, I want a similar response for ocean clean-up as well,” he reveals. “Again, please stop littering the ocean if you want the planet to survive,” he insists with an appeal to all.

The fish and the fishermen are not the only lives Aravind has impacted. He conducts a range of training courses – be it for marine police or coastal guards. He is also the first instructor from India who gives scuba-diving lessons to the differently-abled at a nominal fee.

Efforts For Good take

At a time when a lot of stakeholders are taking actions to curb plastic pollution on land, marine plastic pollution is a neglected domain. At the same time, the fishermen are perhaps the people most closely associated with the ocean. Aravind has realised the incredible concept of joining the two together for a noble cause. In the quaint coasts of Puducherry, these new divers are working day and night away from the limelight to restore the ocean. Efforts For Good applauds the first-of-its-kind initiative by Puducherry fishermen and hopes their counterparts all over India follow suit.

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It's not how much we give
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- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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