Hardly two months for the annual clam harvesting ban to begin, the rows of makeshift sheds in Dalavapuram wear a deserted look.
A solitary woman sits in front of a heap of black clams, opening the shells and segregating the meat.
“Last year this place was buzzing with activity, all the women were working day and night. The stock in the lake has hit an all-time low and most of the clam collectors are now looking for other options,” she says.
Clam collectors from Dalavapuram, an area known for the short-necked clam (Paphia malabarica), the only Marine Stewardship Council certified fishery in India, say they started noticing the difference in the month of May.
“Earlier we used to collect four to five baskets a day, nowadays we count ourselves lucky if we mange half a basket. There has been a 70% dip in the catch which has also affected the export as we have no quantity to meet the minimum requirement,” says Udayan, clam collector.
Experts point out climate change, back-to-back floods and unscientific practices as factors contributing to the shrinkage of clam beds that once extended over Ashtamudi with a dense settlement of Paphia malabarica.
“In many places sand deposits have covered the clam bed and clams cannot settle in pure sand as they need certain amount of clay as well. Continuous rain is another factor as a certain change in temperature is needed for the clams to form and so we can say that the spawning process could have been affected,” says Dr. K.K. Appukuttan, marine fisheries expert and former scientist with Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).
While the flood influx, presence of moss and the recent changes in water topography can be other factors, overexploitation of the seed resource is one major reason for diminishing stocks.
“Last year they harvested a lot of juvenile clams, so obviously there is a dip in the number of spawners. Nearly 100 tons were taken from the protected area and without spawners it’s not possible to replenish the stock,” says Mr. Appukuttan. Dredging to remove the sand bars and proper conservation measures would be the first steps to salvage the situation, he added. While there has been a steep decline in the stock of export-oriented Paphia malabarica, some other varieties like njavala kakka (Marcia opima) have been missing for a while.
“The unscientific practice of hand dredging has destroyed the clam beds in many parts,” says B. Yesudas, president, Clam Collectors’ Union.