Fishermen call for an end to the ‘invasion’

22 October 2013 05:14 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The poach­ing on Sri Lan­kan wa­ters by In­di­an fish­er­men is an is­sue that has strain­ed both the po­lit­i­cal and dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions of In­dia and Sri Lan­ka, how­ev­er, un­known to many and de­spite the heavy at­ten­tion laid on both the po­lit­i­cal and dip­lo­mat­ic fronts on the is­sue, the tale of the fish­er­men who are di­rect­ly af­fec­ted by the poach­ing is one that calls for at­ten­tion on ‘hu­man­i­tar­i­an grounds.’

As the sunr­ises on the coast of Wan­ka­lai­pa­du, Pe­sa­lai we ex­pec­ted a hive of ac­tiv­i­ty. We were told that the vil­lage which al­most en­tire­ly de­pends on the in­dus­try is one that faces one of the most daunt­ing chal­leng­es of fish­ing for their live­li­hood due to what the vil­lag­ers termed as the ‘in­va­sion’ of Sri Lan­kan wa­ters.
With the back­ground in­for­ma­tion we made our way to one of the most scen­ic fish­ery vil­lages in the coun­try. To our sur­prise how­ev­er, we on­ly found a hand­ful of fish­er­men get­ting ready to sail on the wa­ters to make ends meet.

A few hun­dred small fish­ing boats and trawl­ers were parked on the shores and on the sea banks, with no signs of the ‘ac­tiv­i­ty’ that was ex­pec­ted.
Cu­ri­ous, we in­quired as to the rea­son from one of those ready to set sail.

“There are no fish in the sea, we can’t even af­ford to cov­er the cost of fuel af­ter go­ing to sea” Thas­leem the Chair­man of one of the as­so­ci­a­tions told us.
And we plod ask­ing him if it isn’t the sea­son for fish­ing, “Its not that, we used to be able to fish 365 days a year be­cause our ocean front is placed in a unique lo­ca­tion. We could cir­cum­vent the two mon­soons be­cause we have a coast both in the west and the east,” he re­plies.

There­after he de­tails what ac­cord­ing to him was an ‘in­va­sion.’“2000 to 3000 large trawl­ers come here around three days a week. They all come in clus­ters and use mas­sive boats. We can’t even think of com­pet­ing with them, but these are our wa­ters that they come to day in and day out,” he says.

“They come as close as this (he rai­ses his hand and shows us), they come close to 500 me­tres in­to the sea and we are help­less; the Na­vy is al­so help­less and all we could do is watch while they plun­der ev­ery­thing that we have,” he says, his voice ris­ing with each sen­tence.“ You can see these boats three days a week, mas­sive trawl­ers and they have no qualms about it while our kith and kin re­main in hun­ger,” Thas­leem con­tin­ued.

He goes on to ex­plain that all fish­er­men in Wan­ka­lai­pa­du are tra­di­tion­al fish­er­men who use the re­sour­ces of the sea for their day to day sus­te­nance.

“The fish­er­men from Tam­il Na­du work for in­dus­tries, they are paid work­ers who do this for a dai­ly or month­ly wage and whose boats are owned by big play­ers. But we aren’t like that; we go to the sea and feed our chil­dren with what we bring from the sea day in and day out,” he add­ed.

An­oth­er pas­sive ob­serv­er to this con­ver­sa­tion joins in.“This is the big­gest prob­lem we have. Dur­ing the war we had se­vere re­stric­tions to fish but now all these re­stric­tions have been tak­en away, but it serves no pur­pose. For the past year we have been suf­fer­ing as a re­sult of this is­sue,” Sha­fraz tells us.

The fish­ing com­mun­i­ty pre­dom­i­nant­ly com­pri­ses Mus­lim fish­er­men with a small num­ber be­long­ing to the Tam­il com­mun­i­ty, but the is­sue has no such ra­cial bar­ri­er.
“ These peo­ple en­gage in bot­tom trawl­ing, ev­ery­thing on the sea bed in­clud­ing the eggs, the food with which the fish sur­vive, fish that could not be con­sumed are all tak­en away to In­dia,” con­tin­ues Sha­fraz.

We ask them how sure they are that these are in fact In­di­an boats. The meth­od of ver­i­fi­ca­tion that the boats are not Sri Lan­kan?

“We don’t use the type of boats that are used, none of us in Sri Lan­ka en­gage in fish­ing the way they do. Be­sides the num­bers on the boats are the best in­di­ca­tor and they con­tain li­cence num­bers which are not Sri Lan­kan,” they as­ser­ted.

A crowd of fish­er­men grad­u­al­ly gath­ered around us; we are not sure wheth­er this was due to cu­ri­os­i­ty or with the urge to share their story.
“We are fac­ing the big­gest prob­lems of our lives and we have done ev­ery­thing that we could, in­clud­ing go­ing on strike and bring­ing our boats to the road. But noth­ing has hap­pened and this con­tin­ues una­ba­ted. If you come in the eve­ning at around six you will see a ple­thora of boats with lights on. You can see them very clear­ly from this very spot we are stand­ing on now,” they add­ed.

Thus, re- as­sert­ing that we did not re­quire a deep sea mis­sion to lo­cate the poach­ing boats and the cross­ing of the Sri Lan­kan mar­i­time boun­da­ries. In­stead we are in­formed that the boats come as close as 500 me­tres from the shore clear­ly visi­ble to the nak­ed eye.

“ On the days that they come, none of us go to sea be­cause there is no point, and even on the days they don’t we are com­pel­led to fish in shal­low wa­ters be­cause we don’t find any catch by go­ing deep in­to the sea,” the crowd said in uni­son.

We in­quired as to wheth­er there have been clash­es be­tween the two groups and they re­ply in the af­fir­ma­tive.

“ It’s hard to iso­late one boat but when this star­ted hap­pen­ing we used to cor­ner one sin­gle boat and pelt stones or what­ev­er we had at these peo­ple. But ob­vi­ous­ly we are no match; these are mas­sive boats and we gave that up,” the lo­cal fish­er­men re­cal­led .All they can do is to use dia­logue to vent their plight be­cause their pre­vi­ous ag­i­ta­tions have fall­en on deaf ears.

“All that is nee­ded is to write these seas to In­dia, at least that will make it le­gal. Please try and write about this and get some­thing done. We are help­less and there is noth­ing more we could do ex­cept to just watch while ev­ery­thing that is ours is tak­en away with no one con­cerned what­so­ev­er of our plight,” they plea­ded.
The coast­al belt in Wan­ka­lai­pa­du is not alone. Wan­ka­lai­pa­du is one of the many fish­ing vil­lages in Pe­sa­lai. Man­nar and Tha­lai­man­nar which are al­so pre­dom­i­nant­ly fish­ing towns al­so fac­ing the same threat, and they beg­ged for some re­solve.

The Bish­op of Man­nar Rayap­pu Jo­seph seems ada­mant in his stance to call for an end to the poach­ing.

“This is not a po­lit­i­cal is­sue and should not be seen as one; this is a hu­man­i­tar­i­an is­sue af­fect­ing the very ex­is­tence of these peo­ple,” he says. “This has noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics. It is a hu­man­i­tar­i­an is­sue which needs to be re­solved. In­di­an boats come as close as 500 me­tres from the coast­line and they come in their thou­sands. On the days these boats come our peo­ple do not go fish­ing be­cause they are fright­ened of do­ing so,” the Bish­op told the Dai­ly Mir­ror when we vis­ited him sub­se­quent to meet­ing the fish­er­men in Wan­ka­lai­pa­du.

“These fish­er­men come here ev­ery day and tell me their sto­ries. They have no means of ex­is­tence as a re­sult of this and find it hard to feed their chil­dren be­cause they don’t go to sea on the days the In­di­an boats come,” he sta­ted. “These boats can be spot­ted in the eve­ning from the coast be­cause they come so close to the shore. The use of bot­tom trawl­ing by In­di­an fish­er­men has re­sul­ted in the en­tire sea bed be­ing de­stroyed. Our fish­er­men do not en­gage in such il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties be­cause they are not in­dus­tri­al­ised. They of­ten re­turn emp­ty hand­ed,” he add­ed.

The Bish­op who wields much pow­er in the re­gion and be­yond it gives us an in­sight in­to the op­er­a­tion. “These poach­ing fish­er­men are paid work­ers and the more they en­croach in­to the Lan­kan wa­ters the high­er they get paid be­cause they bring back good prod­ucts to their own­ers. That’s how this works so we can’t blame the men be­cause they al­so earn a liv­ing through this, it is the own­ers against whom ac­tion needs to be tak­en,” he says.

There­after we pro­ceed to Delft, Sri Lan­ka’s larg­est Is­land of which the econ­o­my is al­so de­pend­ant on the fish­er­ies in­dus­try. A group of around 20 men who we are told are the lead­ers of dif­fer­ent fish­er­ies as­so­ci­a­tions gath­ered in a house and due to pri­or no­tice they seem hell bent on tell­ing us their prob­lems. Over 600 fam­i­lies en­gage in fish­ing in the is­land and all of them are tra­di­tion­al fish­er­men, who earn their dai­ly wa­ges through their trade. “This is­sue af­fects all of us fish­er­men who en­gage in this in­dus­try in Delft, Nan­da­thee­wu all the way up to Wa­da­mar­ach­chi, Then­mar­ach­chi and Point Pe­dro,” one of them told us.

“You can see these boats if you flash a torch light from the shore; they come that close to the is­land,” they all say. The lead­ers speak­ing fur­ther as­sert that their lives are at stake due to the con­sis­tent and con­stant poach­ing by In­di­an fish­er­men.

“We don’t go to the sea on the days that they come be­cause we ei­ther have no catch or we are chased out of the place. We can’t bat­tle with these boats be­cause ei­ther our boats or our lives are at risk” they tell us, sound­ing not too dis­tant in their sen­ti­ments with those of the fish­er­men in Wan­ka­la­pa­du. “What you find most in our wa­ters are In­di­an trawl­ers, none of our fish­er­men have trawl­ers as big as theirs. They use il­le­gal nets to bot­tom trawl and take with them ev­ery­day the en­tire­ty of the re­sour­ces avail­a­ble on the sea bed and what’s above it,” they say.

They al­so ex­pressed the same opin­ions as their neigh­bours in the coast­al belts be­low. “This is­sue af­fects the very ex­is­tence of our lives, we don’t have a catch and we can’t sus­tain or give our chil­dren to eat be­cause of the poach­ing, sir,” they sta­ted.

 Some of them al­so stressed that even if they go to sea they don’t find enough catch to make ends meet and have to re­sort to oth­er modes of em­ploy­ment for sus­te­nance. There are some days we go to sea and come back with noth­ing, on these days we are com­pel­led to find some work as la­bour­ers to keep our home fires burning” they said.

Speak­ing fur­ther they re­cal­led they pli­ed their trade dur­ing the height of the war with no in­ter­fer­ence. “We suf­fered dur­ing the war but we had our wa­ters to our­selves. Af­ter the end of it we be­lieved that we could do our job and live our lives peace­ful­ly. Un­fortu­nate­ly that is not to be be­cause of these In­di­an fish­er­men who come here day in and day out and plun­der what is right­ful­ly ours, and through which we feed our fam­i­lies” was the com­plaint made by all of the fish­er­men we met.

  Comments - 1

  • The Fourth Horsement Wednesday, 23 October 2013 01:42 PM

    But it has to work both ways!

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