Deep blue sea for Tamil Nadu fisherfolk

A bill passed by the Sri Lankan Parliament banning bottom trawling affects the state’s fishers, but could boost sustainable catching methods
Deep blue sea for Tamil Nadu fisherfolk

TIRUCHY/NAGAPATTINAM: After several phases of conflict and relative peace, the troubled life of Tamil Nadu fishermen has now entered new waters, thanks to the Sri Lankan Fisheries and the Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Bill moved last month.The bill focuses exclusively on banning ‘bottom trawling’, a fishing method so destructive that experts warn it could deplete the world’s vast marine resources in just three decades from now.These trawlers use twin-fold fishing nets tied to metal plates at both ends, which hit the sea floor. Then, a boat equipped with a high-powered engine drags this net along the floor. Many fishermen use the banned closely-knitted nets, which indiscriminately trap everything along its way.  

The ban has brought about a crisis, as a good majority of fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry use bottom trawlers. What the amendment has done is to make it prohibitively expensive to use trawlers—more so for foreign vessels. The Lankan media reported that the Ministry of Fisheries has increased the fine for foreign vessels to 100 million  Sri Lankan rupees (about `40 million), intending to make the penalty unviable for its owner. 

It thus comes as little surprise when fishermen from coasts of Rameswaram and Nagapattinam tell The Sunday Standard that they have deliberately avoided venturing into the Lankan side of the sea. The fast-depleting marine resource in the sea between India and Sri Lanka, owing to bottom trawling, has been identified as the root cause of the strife between fishermen of the two countries.

Fishermen from Sri Lanka, mainly Tamils from the Northern Province, have been repeatedly asking those in India to give up bottom trawling, so that juvenile fish could grow bigger. However, with about 90 per cent of the Indian boats engaged in this technique, it had not been an easy decision to take. 

In 2014, the Tamil Nadu fishermen 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 interest in switching to this. Instead, they ask the governments to bear the expenses,” said a fisheries official requesting anonymity.

The reluctance of the fishermen here has another side to it. A usual mechanised bottom trawler boat costs about `50-60 lakh, while a deep-sea liner could cost twice as much. It also requires specific skillsets that most  of these men do not have. “It was the State government that introduced bottom trawling to us 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 representative of fishermen from Keechankuppam.They also say the subsidy offered by the government to convert fishing vessels into deep-sea liners has not reached the few who attempted to switch. “A fisherman here spent about `80 lakh for converting his boat into a deep-sea fishing vessel, but the `30 lakh subsidy that the State government promised has not reached him yet,” said N Mohandoss, a representative of fishermen from Akkaraipettai in Nagapattinam.

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