The fisherwomen in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, who enter the sea to collect seaweed as a means of earning a livelihood, are urging the Central and State Governments to increase the price of seaweed.
Those who perform such work are revered as ‘Sea Angels’ in the local community. However, the women who dive into the ocean to collect seaweed express have voiced their anguish at not receiving adequate compensation for this dangerous job. Fishing is the primary industry in Ramanathapuram district and is dominated by men while women venture into the sea to gather seaweed. This task is said to involve a life-threatening risk for the women fishers.
According to the fisherwomen, they select different types of seaweed, such as Kattakorai, Kanchipaasi, and Marikolundhu, depending on the climate and wind speed. These varieties cling to the rocks, are particularly desirable, and the women go to great lengths to gather a sackful. The Marikolundhu season in the Palk Strait sea area occurs every year throughout the summer months of March, April, and May. For over 50 years, the women from the nearby villages of Olaikada, Mangadu, Sambai, and Vadakadu in Ramanathapuram have been gathering seaweed in this way.
However, collecting seaweed using this method requires a high level of dedication as the women have to go to the sea area early in the morning and assess factors such as wind direction and speed, sea conditions, and the visibility of seaweed before entering the water to gather it.
“The process begins in the morning and continues until dusk and we will have to spend the entire day in the water for this. After collecting the seaweed, it is brought ashore and left to dry in the sun," they said.
Traders from Rameswaram and Ramanathapuram travel to purchase these seaweeds. However, according to reports, the traders buy the seaweed at a meager cost of Rs 50 per kg, while they are later sold abroad after being purchased from these traders for over Rs 1,500 per kg.
Suganthi, a woman sea diver, stated: “It makes no difference how far we travel; we will go wherever the seaweed is, even if it means going neck-deep into the water. Additionally, we are known to travel up to a kilometre from the shore depending on the wind. If the wind is strong, we bring the seaweed ashore, and if it is less strong, we travel up to one kilometre into the water to collect it. Women with strong swimming skills are reportedly able to dive deeper into the water to gather seaweed."
She also mentioned that they use only goggles to see through the water and do not rely on any other equipment. Each type of seaweed has its own specific season, and they harvest them from the seashore based on the direction of the wind. She explained that on the first day, they collect more seaweed, with some weighing up to 30 kg. However, over the next few days, they collect less seaweed as their hands begin to itch from the seaweed and rocks.
The locals said Marikolundhu seaweed has both medicinal and culinary uses. Seaweeds are used in making Jigarthanda, medical sewing thread, medications, and even ice creams.
However, collecting seaweed is a full-time and dangerous job for fisherwomen. Plucking the seaweed from rocks can be highly risky as the boulders can rip their hands, and stingray fish may bite them, as reported by the women sea divers.
The women sea divers expressed their distress over the fact that traders pay only Rs 50 per kg for the seaweed they collect, without considering the risks they take in their lives. They urged both the Centre and State governments to take action and increase the price of seaweed, they said.
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