Cleaning the seas, one dive at a time

Photo: UNDP India

People and the sea coexist in happy harmony near the blue waters of Sindhudurg, Maharashtra, in western India. Fishermen set sail for the day’s catch as the sun gleams on the calm waters. Dolphins surface in the distance while a tour group peers to get a glimpse. The relationship between people and the sea features in myth and legend, art and literature.

Along the fishing district of Sindhudurg, thousands of people look to the sea for sustenance and livelihoods. The great majority depend on the coast for food and jobs in fishing and in tourism. But they know now that the bounty of the sea is not unending. The ecosystem, and their livelihoods, are under threat from unsustainable fishing by trawlers, an expanding tourism sector, and pollution from fishing vessels and other maritime traffic.

For 30-year-old diver Bhushan Juwatkar and his friends, this as an opportunity to do their part in preserving their ecosystem – and their way of life. Bhushan and seven of his friends from the local fishing community in Malvan knew for years that abandoned fishing nets were washed ashore along the coast and abandoned on the seabed. They didn’t do anything about it until they became certified scuba divers. These young men not only spent their mandated underwater post-certification diving hours removing ghost nets, but have now been inspired to continue the cleaning activity well beyond the training.

Their primary occupation, like of most others in the village, is fishing. “We have been fishermen most of our lives. When we saw a call for interest in the diving programme, we jumped at the opportunity. The fact that it was partially funded made all the difference. We would not have been able to bear the entire cost and would not have had this opportunity without the project’s support,” says Prashant.

Photo: UNDP India

In 2016, through an intervention by the Government of India in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, supported by the Global Environment Facility, 20 young fishermen like Bhushan and Prashant were trained in scuba diving to strengthen their connection to marine biodiversity conservation and provide an additional livelihood opportunity as diving guides for tourists. “We became more aware of the harmful effects of ghost nets and marine waste during the training. As fishermen, we too have undertaken harmful practices like discarding torn nets in the sea (ghost nets). But we were not aware that marine animals can get stuck in these nets and that the practice harms marine life,” says Bhushan.

The intervention also increased awareness about sustainable tourism practices, including conservation of corals. Sindhudurg is home to one of the few areas in India with corals. Untrained guides carelessly throw anchors over coral patches and let tourists break off coral pieces as souvenirs, causing degradation of these beautiful and delicate underwater ecosystems. Realizing the importance of corals, Bhushan says, “We didn’t make the corals, we don’t have the right to destroy them. We need the corals to attract tourists, so it is in our interest to protect them.”

Photo: UNDP India

But not everyone is on board with this approach. Some young, untrained divers mock their  advice about sustainable tourism practices. And when the group started independent beach clean ups, they faced resistance and discouragement. But they remain keen on setting an example through their actions. “We began cleaning up our local beaches and at first people laughed at us. But over time, they have seen the difference it makes to their own beaches and we have started getting calls from people who are interested in similar activities,” Bhushan explains, adding that plastic is the most collected waste in their cleanups.

The group’s knowledge of plastic pollution comes from first-hand experience. “Every piece of plastic that has ever been generated, still remains on earth. Plastic does not decompose. This is what people should note and become more conscious about their use of plastic,” says Vijay Kolamkar, one of the divers. “Check our pockets. We all have little bits of plastic waste stored with us everywhere.” Prashant Todankar, another diver from the group, points to their motorbikes and adds, “The boot of our bikes is full of plastic waste that either we have generated ourselves or collected on the way”.

The group admits that they were not always this mindful of everyday waste. After the scuba diving training and their self-financed ocean cleanups, they have developed a new perspective towards protecting their environment. They now want to do their part in giving back to the community. “We want to fund and train the next generation so that they are involved in conservation activities from an early age. We wish we had learnt all of this earlier in our lives so we could do much more with it,” says Bhushan.