TIRUCHY/NAGAPATTINAM: They were the sweepers of the British Navy, which helped remove mines planted on the sea floor targeting its submarines during World War II. Then, sometime in the 1970s, the government introduced the fishermen to bottom trawlers that could maximise their income. The effect was felt in just a few decades, a frighteningly short time for ecological disasters to pan out.
“That is the most destructive among all methods of fishing, which would wipe out marine ecosystem in the long run. It is already forcing our fishermen to cross the boundary and enter Lankan waters,” pointed out B Sundaramoorthy, professor and HOD, Fisheries Technologies, Tamil Nadu Fisheries University. Trawlers are indiscriminately devastating, not only catching the fishlings but also destroying the whole ecosystem and preventing breeding. Most damaging of these is the disappearance of coral reefs.
On this side of the sea, these reefs are the perfect habitat for fishlings to flourish. But a study by Madurai Kamaraj University revealed that the coral reef cover across the Palk Bay and the Palk Strait has gone down to 19.2% from 26.7%. Similarly, the reef cover across the 21 islands in the Gulf of Mannar has reduced to 36% from 48.5%. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had a role to play. But that was a one-time act. More damaging, according to experts, is relentless bottom trawling.
The damage to the habitat has resulted in depletion of fish and other marine animals. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the State’s coast is facing a 30% shortfall in Primary Production Rate — the amount of food required for fishlings to grow in the sea. In other words, there is no fish here because we kill their young, destroy their home and leave them with nothing to feed on.
The Lankan ban, while particularly terrible for the fishermen here, is equally applicable to the fishermen there. The navy has intensified patrol, and sources said the navy and coast guard detained at least half-a-dozen Lankan fishermen for pursuing banned methods.
“It is impossible for any government to prevent apprehension of fishermen from coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. But while Lankan government are arresting their own fishermen for not pursuing sustainable fishing practice, our government is not acting tough,” said U Arulanandam, president of Tamil Nadu Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen, a key person in the negotiations between fishermen from both countries.
The extensive use of bottom trawlers was felt first not by the Lankans but the artisanal fishermen here who use country boats and catamarans to fish. “These days, we often return empty handed. Such adversities push fishermen to shift jobs and migrate to work as labours,” said M Murugaiyan, a fisherman from Aarkatthurai in Nagapattinam.
Hundreds of poorer fishing families, who could not afford mechanised boats, have turned to jobs that they have never heard of, often in Middle East.