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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: Beneath the Surface - Fishers, Nets & Livelihoods

Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of National Geographic Society's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys & water-air-sediment sampling. Written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

My alarm went off at 4:15am. Fifteen minutes later, the Fish Team and I were in a van driving to the nearest village, the sun still sleeping.

As we drew closer to the river, scores of vehicles and people filled the streets, saris and scarves flowing in the breeze like colorful streamers as person after person after person walked by, the continual current of humanity punctuated by the occasional 7-Up bottle and watermelon.

Portrait of a Fisherman. Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Today was Ganga Dussehra, the day Goddess Ganga descended to earth, a day celebrated with the traditional rite of bathing in the river. And while we’d heard about the festivities and crowds, we didn’t consider it might keep us from actually getting to the river.

The car slowed to a stop--crowds and brake lights everywhere, the water’s edge nowhere in sight.

Crowds celebrating Ganga Dussehra. Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

As the sun rose, Gawsia, Sumit, Emily (the Fish team) and I decided to turn back to the hotel, and I got a crash course with the Fish Team about their work.

“[Our] goal is to understand species diversity at each site and the potential impact of plastic pollution on the fish,” Emily began. She was referring to the pollution caused the accumulation of trash on and in the river.

“Speaking to fishers helps us understand the health of the fisheries at each site, which links to the Socioeconomic Team’s work on understanding the relationship between plastic and poverty,” she went on.

The team does this in two ways:

  1. Understand what plastic pollution is generated by the fishers from fishing activity--such as torn nets being thrown into the river.
  2. Discover the impact of plastic pollution on the different species of fish in the river.

Only after a sediment sample collection yielded plastic bags, cigarettes, and fishing nets from the riverbottom did the Water Team realize what might be sinking out of sight--and what that might mean for fish and fishers. Thus, the Fish Team was born.

“If plastics are smothering the bottom,” shared Imogen, “then it affects the bottom-dwelling plants and animals.”

#Fishy Situations

And with fish, things get a little complicated. First, there is the scientific reality: The bigger the female fish, the more offspring she will produce. But that requires time and space for her to grow and reproduce.

Fishing is fiercely competitive in Bangladesh and India, and fishers are forced to decide whether to catch something and sell it for the day, or wait, and adhere to the government catch regulations. Bangladesh has regulations in place--including a ban on fishing for one species for eight months out of the year--in hopes of restoring future fish populations. But because of a lack of manpower and resources, such regulations are rarely enforced.

The challenge is that the river is “open source,” meaning any time a fisher needs money or to feed their family, they can go fish.

Since people 'keep fishing until the last fish is gone,' this results in a negative cycle of diminishing returns; it becomes harder and harder to catch fish, and the fish come up smaller and smaller.

Heather, the leader of the Fish Team, continued to explain: “In the West, there’s a backup plan--alternative livelihoods, which is a big narrative in conservation.” But that’s not as easy as it sounds, especially in under-resourced communities.

“For fishers, there is a higher level of risk to switch to agriculture because crop yield over the year is uncertain,” she said. Fishers are like hunters and gatherers, who “get a bit of money every time [they fish],” she shared. Farmers, on the other hand, receive a “windfall of cash over the harvest season” and manage that money through the year. “Switching livelihoods is very hard.”

Fish in a box. Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

# Net Gain - Net Loss

Overfishing isn’t the only problem.

“The fisherman are finding plastic stuck in the gills and fins of the fish,” Gawsia said. “Plastic is tearing their fishing nets...they use the nets 1-2 times then throw them away and get new ones.”

Emily explained to me that nets are so cheap and tear so easily, it's easier to get a new one instead of trying to repair the old one.

But this problem is at least partially the fault of the fishing industry itself.

Lines, floats, and fishing equipment are some of the most dominant forms of plastic pollution found in the ocean--fishing nets alone make up [46% of the trash found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest collection of floating trash.

Imagine “35,000 fishers in one site, [each] dumping a plastic net into the river every 3-6 days,” said Heather. “It’s like the refillable water bottle theory. [The fishers] continue to buy disposable nets because they don’t have capital to buy higher quality ones made from traditional fibers…[it’s] all driven by cost and time.”

Fishers with fishing nets. Photo by Ekta Sharma.

The next day, we returned to the village and met the fishers. A group gathered as Sumit explained what we are researching, while Gawsia drew several columns in her notebook to prepare for the data collection. A worn styrofoam box was placed on the sandy bank, and Sumit bent down to see what fish were inside.

Ailia Coila,” he said to Gawsia, as he pulled out a metal measuring rod to determine the fish’s length. “14.1 centimeters.”

All the fishers moved closer, curiosity driving them to form a tighter circle around us. Sumit snapped a picture of the fish and then thanked them. Our work was done.

In the distance, drums began to beat in a festive rhythm--wedding preparations. Imogen asked if we could go listen, and the next thing you knew, we were on a raised tarp bed in front of the village listening to two professional musicians. The fish (and the festivities) had brought us all together.

Wedding Celebrations. Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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