TIRUCHY/NAGAPATTINAM: Bullets have failed to stop them, but a new bill adopted by the Sri Lankan parliament could. After going through phases of conflict and relative peace, the troubled life of fishermen from Tamil Nadu has entered new waters, thanks to the Sri Lankan Fisheries and the Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Bill that was moved this day last month.
According to official figures from the State government, Lankan navy firing has resulted in 128 dead and 283 injured, besides hundreds of detentions. These have, however, become part of everyday reality for the fishermen here. But the bill adds a new dimension. It focuses exclusively on banning ‘bottom trawling’, a method so destructive that experts warn it could deplete the vast marine resources of the world in just three decades from now.
These trawlers use twin-fold fishing nets tied to metal plates at both ends which hits the floor of the sea. Then, a boat equipped with a sufficiently high-powered engine drags the net along the floor.
Making matters worse, many fishermen here use nets that are banned for being too closely knitted, which traps everything along the way indiscriminately – big, small and tiny fish; aquatic animals that are crucial for the ecosystem but have little commercial value for humans; plants, planktons, and coral reef. The method is rudimentary in design and devastating in effect.
The Lankan ban has brought about a crisis, as a good majority of fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, and indeed their brethren in all parts of the world, use bottom trawlers. What the amendment has done is to make it prohibitively expensive to use trawlers — more so for foreign vessels. In the absence of a clear legislation, retrieval of fishing vessels and equipment from Lankan custody was primarily a matter of political maneuvering.
That fluidity has changed to clear and specific penalties. The Lankan media reported that the Ministry of Fisheries there has increased the fine for foreign vessels to Sri Lankan Rs 100 million (about `40 million). The owners on the shore may be prepared to wait to get the boats and men back, but the penalty makes things unviable for them.
It thus comes as little surprise when many fishermen from coastal districts like Rameswaram and Nagapattinam tell Express they have avoided deliberately venturing into the Lankan side of the sea since then. Bottom trawling has been identified as the root cause of the strife between Indian and Lankan fishermen — fast depleting marine resource in the sea between the two countries that has served their forefathers for centuries.
Fishermen from there, mainly Tamils from the Northern Province, have been repeatedly asking those here to give up bottom trawling so that juvenile fish could grow bigger and sustain their livelihood for the years to come. However, with about 90 per cent of the boats engaged in bottom trawling, it was not an easy decision to take.
In 2014, the fishermen from the State had requested a three-year moratorium for phasing out bottom trawlers. That deadline is ending, but little has changed.
“Ninety-nine per cent of fishermen are concerned only about that day’s catch, not about sustainability. Deep-sea fishing is the only solution, but they have not shown any interest in switching to this. Instead, they are asking the governments to bear the whole expenses,” said a fisheries department official on condition of anonymity.
The reluctance of the fishermen, however, does not present the full picture. While a usual mechanised bottom trawler boat costs about Rs 50-60 lakh, a deep-sea liner could cost twice as that. It also requires specific skill sets that most fishermen here do not have.
“Fishermen are neither scientists nor experts. It was the State government that introduced bottom trawling technique some decades ago and even gave us training. If we are to shift to deep-sea fishing, we need similar assistance,” noted P Rajendra Nattar, a fishermen representative from Keechankuppam.
Deepening their skepticism, fishermen say the subsidy offered by the government to convert fishing vessels into deep-sea liners has not reached the few who were brave enough to attempt the switch.
“One of the fishermen here has spent about Rs 80 lakh for converting his boat into a deep-sea fishing vessel, but the Rs 30 lakh subsidy that the State government promised has not reached him yet,” said N Mohandoss, a fishermen representative from Akkaraipettai in Nagapattinam, when asked why they were hesitating to adopt deep-sea fishing.
In the near future, however, it may no longer be a choice. Fishermen and officials from the State Fisheries Department are on the same page on the concern that marine resources have drastically fallen in Indian waters. A fisherman now has two choices: go farther and deeper, or stop being one.