Cyclone Ockhi: Increasing number of rough sea alerts worry fisherfolk

For the daily bread:  Fisherwomen waiting at Sakthikulangara, Kollam, for the boats to return with their daily catch.

For the daily bread: Fisherwomen waiting at Sakthikulangara, Kollam, for the boats to return with their daily catch.

Justin was all set for his routine sortie when the loudspeaker crackled to life. It warned of a storm brewing off the Trincomalee coast, wild waves that could grow very tall, and high-velocity winds. Within a few hours all fishing activities came to a halt, trawlers were called back to the nearest shore and fishermen were strictly directed to stay off the sea. He says the ‘farce’ continued for two more days, taking away three precious working days. “We all stayed back observing a calm sea from the coast. With five mouths to feed I was in deep distress. The authorities say they are keeping us safe, but they are not protecting us from the attacks of hunger,” says the 48-year-old.

While the entire fishing community in Kerala is outraged over the increasing number of rough sea alerts restricting them from venturing out into the sea, the officials insist they are just being ‘cautious’. Berley, another fisherman from Neendakara, says this trend started after Cyclone Ockhi that caused widespread destruction in 2017.


“That time the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority and the Indian Meteorological Department failed to issue timely warning and now they are trying to cover up their mistake through never-ending alerts. Currently if the IMD forecasts the possibility of even a drizzle, they will not let us work and it’s doing more harm than good,” he says.

Thresya, a fish vendor, agrees, “On the days of such warnings, the catch that comes to our harbour is priced high. But when you take it to your customers on a sunny day and try to explain that the exorbitant rate is due to ‘bad weather,’ they do not believe you. Many people have stopped buying from us.”

Big boats, bigger losses

National Fishworkers Forum general secretary T. Peter says most of these warnings have been of little help while they generate needless panic. “The scientific community should show more sensitivity and customise the alerts based on the region. Every month they make sure that we don’t work for a minimum of four days and it has created much resentment among fishers,” he says.


While it’s a matter of daily bread for traditional fishers, mechanised boats incur huge losses when they miss a trip. “We venture into the deep sea with the fuel, ice, and provisions needed for a week. Dropping everything half way and coming back means mounting debts. We invest ₹2 lakh to ₹3 lakh for every trip and need an average return to survive,” says Peter Mathias, president, All Kerala Fishing Boat Operators Association.

Storm in SL, ban in Kochi

Over 100 working days were lost in the last year due to IMD alerts. “The authorities are just trying to play safe. There is a visible surge in the number of weather warnings post-Ockhi, but no steps have been taken to address its fallout,” he says. The fishers also find many alerts illogical. “When a storm was formed near the Sri Lankan coast they instructed boats from Kochi and Kozhikode to stay back. These crafts usually move in another direction towards the high sea and were in no apparent danger.”

Traditional fishermen believe experience and indigenous knowledge are very crucial in gauging the sea’s temperament. “A whole range of indicators forewarn us. We have been weathering the sea for decades and we know when a threat is taking shape. Ockhi couldn’t harm anyone in some fishing villages as they all returned that day sensing something unusual. A traditional fisherman can feel the pulse of the sea,” says Andrews, an elderly fisherman.

Mr. Mathias says they want the authorities to categorise the warnings and prohibit boats only if the situation is very grave. “There are times when we can venture into the sea with adequate precautions. But now they are issuing these standard alerts most of which are not accurate.”

Experience counts

While wind speed of 40 kmph is considered risky by the officials, even some traditional crafts are equipped to wade through such weather. “We will just hoist the sails and move forward. We know how to navigate through choppy waters. Remember, it was fishermen who rescued many of their folks during Ockhi.” The fishermen add they also want the department to act more rationally. “They force the same rules on small boats with outboard engines and huge trawlers, which can withstand rough sea conditions.”

Then came Fani

Loss of working days along with the dip in marine wealth has left the community in dire straits and the fishers say they can’t afford to lose more days. “These days we are getting minimal catch due to rising temperatures and climate change. When Fani alert was sounded we lost nearly a week,” says Sabu, a fisherman. And with the annual monsoon trawl ban around the corner, fishermen in the mechanised sector are wary. “Every year we have to go through this idle period. But this time it will be harder as the entire sector has been struggling for months. We have very few days left before the ban and if these unchecked weather warnings steal one more day from us it will be very difficult,” he adds.

During last year’s floods, the entire world celebrated them as heroes. Now the glory has vanished and they demand financial aid when denied the chance to work. “Their job ends with making announcements and bringing the boats back. They hardly think about our starving families. Both the Centre and State should provide a small compensation. What they offer now is free ration which means a mere ₹57 a month. We want a reasonable amount,” says Mr. Peter.

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Printable version | Oct 6, 2022 11:34:12 pm |