Fishing in the seas off Kerala has been ridden with perils lately, with fishermen not just exposed to the elements, but under constant threat from callous merchant vessels as well.

Data sourced from the Marine Enforcement Wing of the State Fisheries Department over the past four years indicates an upward trend in accidents and other occurrences causing distress to fishermen operating off the State’s coast.

Responding to distress alerts, maritime agencies brought to safety as many as 3,046 fishermen in 454 search and rescue (SAR) operations from the high seas off Kerala between January and December last year (2012). While 11 fishermen had gone missing during the period, 44 lost their lives in various incidents at sea.

Ominous year

2011 was an ominous year for the State’s fishing sector with a sharp rise in the number of accidents — it saw 433 rescue operations as against 176 in the previous year. The rescue efforts saved 6,033 lives in 2011.

Sources say engine breakdown contributes the most to troublesome situations at sea. Fishermen on motorised small canoes and dinghies falling overboard while trying to cast the net is not uncommon either.

“Unease caused by engine failure is most reported at fisheries stations in Neendakara and Vypeen, where the use of motorised boats is widespread,” said a source. The fisheries stations at Vizhinjam, Vypeen, Beypore, Kannur and Neendakara operate hired boats to attend to fishermen in danger closer to the coast.

Coast Guard action

The Coast Guard says it is called in no less than 10 times a month to save fishermen in trouble in the high seas. “It is one of our key jobs. We also undertake safety and security awareness campaigns besides handing out weekly safety sensitisation capsules for fishermen,” said an officer. However, the agency is peeved about the wanton use and mishandling of the emergency ‘distress alert beacon’ issued to fishermen.

Fresh scenario

According to sources, a fresh scenario of fishermen-cargo vessel conflict came about in the wake of Somali sea pirates moving eastwards in the Indian ocean, launching attacks as close as Lakshadweep in the latter half of 2010.

The spread of piracy prompted international bodies to formulate guidelines marking the region as a risk-area for piracy, which subsequently forced ships on the sub-continental sea lines of communication (SLOC) to transit hugging Indian waters.

Besides Enrica Lexie, Prabhu Daya and Izumo, nearly a dozen incidents of fishermen-merchant ship standoff have been reported in the recent past, said a coastal security officer.

Rights of fishermen

While ships enjoy right of innocent passage even in the territorial seas, they are to respect the rights of fishermen in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where Indian fishermen have sovereign fishing rights, he said.

“Fishing net costs them lakhs of rupees. And once the nets are spread, fishermen on small boats cannot easily retrieve them. So when they see a huge vessel approaching, they do all they can to save their net from destruction, which end up in collisions, freak accidents or violence,” said a fisheries official.

The law stipulates cargo vessels to sail with three lights on — on the mast and the starboard and port sides — at night, when most accidents occur. On the part of the fishermen, they should try as much as possible to stay out of harm’s way. Fishing vessels should have sufficient illumination. They should also carry life-saving gear and communication equipment, he pointed out.