Upset at Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s remarks that his government will not free the trawlers in its custody, fishermen fear his stand will crush their livelihood and want the Centre to intervene.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s remarks, made in an interview to The Hindu, have come as a rude shock to the fishing community. Fishermen leaders have appealed to the Centre to prevail upon Sri Lanka to free all 72 trawlers and 78 fishermen in its custody.
On Mr. Rajapaksa faulting bottom-trawling in the Palk Strait and the Palk Bay, the leaders say they have been using the method for more than four decades after the Indian government introduced it in the 1960s, and they can’t be asked to abandon it overnight.
“If the fishermen of Ramanathapuram and Pudukottai districts were to be asked to stop bottom-trawling, they would have to give up fishing as no alternative method is immediately available,” says U. Arulanandam, president of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF).
If bottom-trawling method destroys the marine resources, the authorities can impose restrictions on fishing, but the fishermen can’t be asked to stop fishing in the Palk Strait. They should be given adequate time to switch over to other methods such as Tuna long liner and deep-sea fishing, he argues.
The fishermen had used Valai-Thattu-Madi, Karai Valai and Vazhi Valai when they were fishing in Vallam (country-boat) and catamaran till 1964, when the Indian government gave them small mechanised boats under the Indo-Norwegian Project, Mr. Arulanandam recalls.
The small-sized boats had low horse power engines; but over a period of time, the fishermen improvised the boats after finding the shallow Palk Strait best suited for bottom-trawling. The fishermen can’t return to the traditional method as the space in the Palk Strait is too small for gill net fishing, he says.
Pointing out that fishermen never intend to destroy the marine resources, he says they keep to bottom-trawling in the Palk Strait as they have no other option to make a living. “They have no wherewithal to switch over to alternative fishing methods, and it is very unfortunate that the Central government has remained silent all these years or made no effort to help the fishermen adopt alternative methods,” Mr. Arulanandam says.
Rejecting Mr. Rajapaksa’s suggestion that the boat owners are rich, P. Sesu Raja, another leader, says 80 per cent of the owners set sail in their boats. If the owners are aged, their sons go for fishing. Almost all of them are in debt, and they can’t switch to an alternative method without government support.