Ebb in the Sea The indian fishermen and sri lankan army conflict

“You cannot completely ban trawling in the Palk Strait. We can regulate it as other countries like Hong Kong and Chile, but we cannot do away with it completely. It is necessary”, says Roosevelt Fernando, a fish merchant at his small office/storehouse in the fishermen market of Rameshwaram. However, he is quick to state that trawling is also an environmentally harmful and unsustainable way of fishing.

Bottom trawling is a method that involves throwing weighted nets in the sea and dragging them across the sea using diesel powered motors. In this process, though the fishes are caught in large quantities, the sea bed gets destroyed. The government has allowed the fishermen to conduct trawling for only three days a week.

Trawlers bringing in their haul at Fishermen's Harbour, Rameshwaram.

Such an unsustainable method of fishing has its repercussions. Not only does this result in over-fishing, that leaves little fish for other fishermen to catch, but also destroys the fish’s habitat. It is a concern that has allegedly forced the Sri Lankan army to resort to violence, killing and, confiscation of boats and fish of Indian fishermen since the past ten to fifteen years.

A country boat approaching the shore. Country boats use traditional methods of fishing that are not at all harmful to the ocean.

Over 2000 fishermen have migrated to Karnataka from Tamil Nadu in search for alternate waters for fishing. Here in Rameshwaram, they fear getting caught by the Sri Lankan army. The Lankan army is particularly infamous for torturing and killing fishermen. There have been reports where fishermen were killed in secrecy and their bodies left in the sea.

“What do you want us to do? We fishermen need to feed our stomachs”, says Roosevelt.
Fishermen making nets

The Palk Strait is a rich source of different types of cash fish, i.e, fish that fetch them a good amount of money. The strait’s name seems as the result of the colonial hangover; named after Robert Palk, the governor of Presidency of Madras during 1755-1763 during the British Raj. It serves as natural division between Sri Lanka and India. Stretching around 53-82 kms in width, the Palk Strait has been the reservoir of one of the tastiest fishes in the sub-continent.

Map showing the Palk Strait

“If you go to Bangalore and Madurai, you will find special shops that specifically sell Rameshwaram fish”, giggles Roosevelt.

The Indian fishermen risk their lives to fish by crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). “Our shores are shallow. They only go as deep as 30 feet, which is not good for fish breeding. Traditionally, we have done fishing in that area (near Sri Lankan borders) only as it is rich in fish”, says Roosevelt.

Fishermen waiting for another fishermen who was being released by the Sri Lankan Army. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mvt_6Evivhw

A recent incident was of a fisherman who was being returned to India, on January 7, at the Fishermen Harbour in Rameshwaram, by the Sri Lankan army. After crossing the IMBL he apparently met with an accident. A fisherman said, “They tortured him.” He was being brought to shore by fellow fishermen. His boat had a huge gaping hole on one side. He was unable to walk and was in tremendous pain.

An activist working for emancipating Tamilian fishermen caught by the Lankan army, U Arulanandam, said, “We don’t know what happened. Let’s wait and see what the fisherman has to say.” While an ANI reporter said,” The fishermen would not tell the truth. It happens so that the fishermen are charged Rs. 1000 for crossing the IMBL, Rs. 5000 for crossing it for the second time, and their license is revoked if they cross it the third time.” There has not been any clarity as to what actually happened with the injured fishermen.

Country boats waiting at the shore near the Pamban Bridge

In picturesque Rameshwaram there is a silent despair of the fisher folk who are torn between the pangs of the stomach and the obnoxiousness of borders. Joseph Rodriguez, a fisherman working with Roosevelt says, “I had left the shore after spending Rs. 8000 on diesel, ration and other supplies. I came back the next day with only Rs. 700 worth of fish.”

S. Natarajan, the district collectorate of Ramanathapuram, shrugged off the issue by saying that they are providing the fishermen ‘alternate job opportunities’. These include sea weed cultivation and ornamental fishing.

“You are journalism students, right? What if tomorrow the government decides to shut all media outlets and ask you to take up a different profession? How would you feel?” asks an indignant Roosevelt.

These fishermen have fishing in their blood. All they know is fishing. As a drunk and old man walks unsteadily into Roosevelt’s humble office, Roosevelt exclaims as he hands out some money to him, “He is hopeless drunk, but a puccka fisherman. Does fishing for more than 50 years!”

Fishermen are captured, tortured, killed, robbed and the government seems to be complacent about it. “Once, a fishermen is captured, the Indian ambassador will go for talk only after 3-4 days”, says Roosevelt. Many fishermen rot in the jail for 6-8 months. “Neither does the central government nor does the Tamil Nadu government come and talk to us and hear our problem. They have only appointed useless association leaders and officers”, says Roosevelt.

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