On Kings and Invaders: Kolis, Jellyfish, and Climate Change

Jelena Salmi

January 2, 2020

Jellyfish are gelatinous animals that are brainless, boneless, and bloodless. They are among the oldest animals on Earth, having been around for at least 500 million years. There are roughly 10,000 species of this uncanny animal, most of which inhabit ocean waters. They range from the commonly sighted, bell-shaped moon jellyfish to the ghostly and deadly beautiful Irukandji jellyfish found in the northern marine waters of Australia. In terms of size, jellyfish encompass the gigantic lion’s mane jellyfish with tentacles stretching up to 37 meters, and the small Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as immortal jellyfish or Benjamin Button jellyfish due to its ability to transform itself back to a polyp.

What makes jellyfish interesting for our project is their ability to adapt to rising temperatures, polluted waters, and variations in salinity, as described by Gershwin (2013). Whereas fish increasingly perishes due to overfishing, coastal degradation, and anthropogenic climate change, jellyfish bloom. In doing so, they threaten the life of other species, both human and nonhuman. From shutting down nuclear power plants by clogging their filters to endangering fish species by eating eggs, larvae, and plankton, jellyfish represent what Tsing (2019, 40) calls “auto-rewilders”; “disturbance-loving and disturbance-making […] weedy invaders.” Indeed, jellyfish are not only taking over their natural environments but also invading new areas (Needleman, Neylan & Erickson 2018)—they have even been called “the biggest winners from climate change” (Davis 2019) and “the next king of the sea” (Tucker 2010).

For the past five months, I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on climate change, environmental degradation, and artisanal fishing in Madh Island, located in northern Mumbai. Madh Island is a secluded semi-urban area that brings together a curious mix of military cantonments, luxury bungalows, Bollywood shooting locations, and koliwada fishing villages. Koliwadas are home to the indigenous Koli fisherfolk, who consider themselves as dariyacha raja, “the kings of the sea.” Kolis and their fishing activities are highly visible in the landscape and seascape of Madh Island with their decorated boats, women’s colorful saris tied between the legs, and bamboo frames used for drying the iconic Bombay duck (bombil).

Catch of the day arrives
Bamboo frames are used for drying Bombay duck and ribbonfish

The rhythm of life for Kolis is dictated by the gravitational force of the Moon and the Sun that create two high tides and two low tides within a single lunar day. Kolis of Madh practice a traditional fishing technique, which makes use of tidal currents that direct fish into their dol nets, known in English as stationary bag nets. Around the time of the full moon and the new moon, the gravitational pull—and, hence, the movement of water and fish—is peaking. This ideally results in bigger catch and better earnings according to Kolis’ traditional ecological knowledge.

However, other, less predictable, things also affect the availability of marine fauna in the Arabian Ocean. These include storms and cyclones, chemical waste, plastic pollution, and the expansion of urbanization that destroys mangrove forests. Mangroves provide an important breeding ground for fish. Blooming jellyfish also pose a threat to Kolis’ traditional livelihoods—due to their large biomass, jellyfish break fishing nets. According to Koli women, jellyfish also cause fish to migrate to other, far-away locations, even out of fishermen’s reach. The Maharasthra State territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles and artisanal fishing is only permitted within this area—provided that one has a licence. Fisheries within these limits are managed by the Maharashtra Marine Fishing Regulation Act (MFRA), 1981.

As part of my research on fisherfolk’s livelihoods amidst environmental changes, I have been participating in the work of small-scale fisheries daily. I work alongside Koli women and seasonal migrant workers coming from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. Our activities include sorting and washing commercially valuable fish such as pomfrets, prawns, golden anchovies, and mackerels, and drying up the rest of the catch by hanging fish on bamboo frames or laying it to dry on the ground. Depending on the quality, dry fish is sold as a delicacy or used as a natural fertilizer in agriculture.

This year fish catches have been particularly low whereas jellyfish have been in abundance. On many days, my coworkers have explained the absence of fish by pointing to the presence of jellyfish: “It’s all jellyfish today, no mavra [a general term encompassing fish and crustaceans].” Jellyfish are usually dead by the time the fishing boats reach the shore, and they are separated from the rest of the catch along with catfish, pufferfish, plastic, ghost nets, and venomous sea snakes.

Fishing bycatch

During my fieldwork I have observed an ongoing trend among the Koli community to opt for other livelihood options. Young people, especially men, are increasingly seeking employment outside fishing, not only because their traditional livelihood is at risk, but also because fishing is arduous and smelly work and yields meagre profits. Ambitions run high in the financial and entertainment capital of India.

Some Kolis now have university degrees and are well aware of the current global discussion on climate change. For most practicing Koli fishers, however, climate change seems to be a mysterious, slippery phenomenon. Nevertheless, Kolis do see and feel changes in rainfall patterns, wind gusts, and the catch that tidal currents bring to their nets. “Something is going on,” they say. Bottom trawlers, chemicals pollutants, plastic waste, haphazard urban development, and jellyfish are all blamed for invading the ocean and coastal areas. Indeed, Kolis are actively campaigning against environmentally destructive local development that leads to coastal degradation, such as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) coastal road project. Meanwhile, however, jellyfish, plastic bags, and other weedy invaders are slowly taking over the ocean, threatening the livelihood of Kolis, the kings of the sea.