Self-imposed ban bars fishermen from entering Sri Lanka

Sanctity of maritime boundaries, depleting resources nudge them into action

When the sturdy hulls of fishing boats re-enter the waters in the small hours of Thursday, after the 45-day long hiatus, the boats would have been launched into a sea of altered realities – the reality of the sanctity of maritime boundaries and the visibly depleting marine resources.

As if to acknowledge this, the 63 fishing habitations of the two districts of Nagapattinam and Karaikal, in a recently-convened meeting, have banned the use of dragnets and purse-seines to wean out bottom sea trawling. These nets were already barred under GO.No/40(March 25, 2000) and prohibited under Section 5 of the Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1983. But, they were never enforced on a highly resistant fishing community.

In addition, the traditional fishing panchayats have forbidden fishermen from trespassing into Sri Lankan waters, and banned fishing in the south. The twin diktats were pre-emptive in nature, says Manoharan, pachayatar of the Akkarapettai habitation. The recent arrests and detention of Karaikal and Rameshwaram fishermen have prompted a rethink.

For a fishing community used to mid-sea skirmishes and attacks, the prolonged period of arrests and detention have turned out to be economically crippling. “There is no security and government has not given us an alternative – we have to secure ourselves.” However, we need subsidy to replace trawl nets with gill nets, says Mr. Manoharan.

It costs Rs. 12-13 lakhs to buy gill nets and the fisherfolk have been demanding 70 per cent subsidy to smoothen their transition to sustainable fishing operations. A few have shifted to deep sea fishing in the light of depleting resources in territorial waters.

Even before the 45-day ban came into force, the district fishermen were on a fortnight-long self-imposed moratorium, condemning the Sri Lankan attacks on Indian fishermen. Effectively, the 1,200 mechanised boats and over 5,000 fibre boats here were off the sea for over two months.

For the fishing community the end of the ban period offers both threats and possibilities. Until recently, fishermen were demanding unbridled access to cross-border fishing. “Government’s inability to provide an ‘amicable solution’ has pushed us to look for alternatives,” says Mr.Manoharan. Purse seine and trawl nets are ecologically unsustainable, wiping out juvenile marine stock by way of bycatch.

The community ban had higher force than official decree, says Kumaravel, an activist.

Reacting to the decision, a senior most department official called it a ‘wise decision’, but wondered to what extent it would be followed.

For now, the community is all set to levy a penalty of up to Rs.1 lakh and economic boycott for breach of the agreement.

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