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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