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RAMESHWARAM, India — One morning in July, when 60-year-old Jesurani Anthony pawned her kite-shaped gold earrings to buy diesel for her son Tito’s boat, she extracted a promise from him. “You’d better make sure that gold is back in my ears again by the weekend,” she said. The 29-year-old twisted his mother's ears playfully and clambered onto his trawler with six other fishermen.
After launching the boat from the Rameshwaram harbor in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tito Anthony traveled 12 miles into the Palk Strait — an inlet in the Bay of Bengal that separates India from Sri Lanka — at full throttle. A little over two hours in, the GPS showed that they had crossed the maritime boundary and were nearing their destination. At the bow of the vessel, Anthony’s brother-in-law Bernard Shaw stood looking into the distance; not seeing any Sri Lankan navy vessels nearby, he called out, “It’s clear! Let’s go, let’s go!”
Anthony steered the craft into the shallow bay on the Sri Lankan side of the strait. Soon, the country’s northern shore was visible just a few hundred yards away; small boats and catamarans bobbed in the waves. Anthony and his crew unwound their nets from the motorized pulleys in silence, dropping them to the ocean bed while keeping the boat moving in an expanding circle. Like the fishermen aboard dozens of other Indian boats, they were trawling for prawns, abundant in Sri Lankan waters.
Anthony’s boat is one of more than 6,000 mechanized vessels in Tamil Nadu that regularly make the trip to Sri Lankan waters, breaching the international maritime boundary between the two countries in search of a better catch. Off the southern coast of India, the marine population has plummeted due to shortsighted government policies that promote trawling over more sustainable methods. In the Palk Strait, the distance from India to Sri Lankan waters is a mere 18 miles at its narrowest point. While fishing across the maritime boundary is an old practice, over the past decade, aggressive trawling by Indian fishermen has led to an ugly international dispute. Now, the Sri Lankan navy detains and even attacks violators, while diplomats from the two countries hold meeting after futile meeting. But, despite the risks, Tamil Nadu’s fishermen continue to cross to Sri Lanka.
Indian marine expert
At 2 p.m. the day after Anthony set sail, hundreds of boats pulled into the Rameshwaram harbor after their usual overnight expedition. Jesurani waited for Anthony on the shore, holding a steel box with his lunch: rice, buttermilk and pickle. But it was Shaw who jumped off a small boat and jogged over. As soon as she saw her crestfallen relative, she says she knew. “It’s happened again, hasn’t it?” she asked.
The Sri Lankan navy had captured her son’s boat with seven others, throwing a total of 51 fishermen in jail overnight. Shaw had jumped into the sea in the nick of time and swum to a fleeing boat; he was the only one on Anthony’s trawler to escape. The Sri Lankans had flung beer bottles at them, Shaw said, and, hopping on their boat, had beaten them with batons, torn the sails and slashed their nets. “Will you never learn, you bastards?” he remembered one of the Sri Lankan navy men saying in broken Tamil.
The last time Anthony was detained, in 2012, he spent two months in a Sri Lankan jail in the western city of Anuradhapura. Another time in 2011, he returned with a bullet wound in his left shoulder.
In the fishing harbor in Rameshwaram (which contributed a quarter of Tamil Nadu’s total marine catch last year), it is not difficult to find men with bullet scars. Until 2012, the Sri Lankan navy shot those who neared the island’s shores, damaged their boats, slashed the fishermen with sickles or tied them naked to the massive ice blocks used to store fish. Thirty-six-year-old Joshua Nishathan recalls being suspended by his shirt from a large hook used to hang nets in his trawler and being spun around. His brother says he was forced to swallow whole fish till he gagged. Pamban Veeramani shudders as he remembers his boat pilot being dragged with a rope by the neck in the sea until he passed out and drowned.
These are not isolated incidents. U. Arulanandam, founder of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, says that in just the past year, more than 1,850 Tamil Nadu fishermen were arrested — the most yet in a 12-month period. In the same period, the Sri Lankan navy also seized trawlers at the rate of one a week. After the latest spate of arrests on Sept. 11, 2014, 73 boats and 74 Indian fishermen are still in Sri Lankan custody.
The harsh treatment of Indian fishermen has sparked outrage in Tamil Nadu, and every few months, fishing communities have staged protests all across the state. After several rounds of talks between the Tamil Nadu state leadership and the Indian and Sri Lankan governments, the severity of the torture decreased, but the navy’s legal arrests and the number of boat seizures have mounted.
When fishermen like Anthony are arrested, a familiar pattern kicks in: Their families raise an alarm, the Indian media rehash the fishermen’s disingenuous claims that they did not realize they had crossed the boundary, and a few weeks later, state officials or diplomats meet, and the Sri Lankan government releases them as a goodwill gesture. But this is a mere Band-Aid: A few days later, another group is inevitably arrested.
Trawling is the issue at the center of the Indo-Lankan fishing standoff. In 1954, in a joint venture with Norway and the Food and Agricultural Organization, the Indian government invited fishermen from all over India to purchase fleets of technologically advanced Norwegian trawlers. This was to modernize the fishing sector and improve export revenue.
Trawling involves pulling nets through the sea behind a mechanized boat. Bottom trawling, which is especially promoted by the Indian government in shallow waters like the Palk Strait, drags nets with weights and floats along the seabed, scooping all marine life on the way. Though widely adopted in Europe for its ability to trap large quantities of fish, trawling has proved to be the worst enemy of the fishing industry. It is widely implicated by fisheries experts and environmentalists in the unnatural collapse of several fish species such as shark, cod and halibut. In 2006, the U.N. found that trawling has caused 95 percent of the damage to global deep-sea ecosystems. In the ’90s, Norway banned trawlers within 12 nautical miles of its own coast.
In Tamil Nadu, trawlers were introduced especially for prawns, the most lucrative species for export, constituting 64 percent of the country’s seafood export last year.
For two decades starting in 1962, when the government promoted this “blue revolution,” nearly all state investments in the fishing sector were in trawlers and the mechanized sector. “Almost 70 percent of the fishing community did traditional fishing, but it received only minimal attention, unless it was to attract them to trawlers,” says Aarthi Sridhar, a Bangalore-based marine researcher. Tamil fishermen, who until then used sail-propelled wooden and small-engine-driven fiberglass boats, were given cheap loans to buy trawlers.
V. Vivekanandan, a marine expert who has worked extensively on fishing policy in India, says that the government has always treated marine issues like agriculture, believing that more technology leads to greater production. “If the green revolution in farming meant chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds for greater production, the blue revolution meant massive trawlers and oversmart nets,” says Vivekanandan.
The government’s modernization policies spawned a capital-intensive fishing sector that has created a battleground on the coastline. As annual catch per fisherman dropped from 3.92 tons in the ’60s to 1.8 tons in the ’80s, heated protests and bloody fights broke out between artisanal and mechanized sectors, a friction that exists to date. Small-scale fishermen protested the trawlers’ disrespect for marine breeding patterns, use of nets with minuscule holes that even trapped larvae and the use of sea-sweeping methods that ruined the ecological balance.
The Tamil Nadu government, seeing the arrests as a law-and-order problem and not a call for conservation, passed laws to appease the significant voter base of traditional fishing castes, restricting the number of days in a week trawlers can go out to sea and banning them for 45 days of the shrimp breeding season during the monsoon.
Sri Lankan fisherman
Trawlers would not be economically viable without government subsidies. The state offers about 400 free gallons of diesel fuel a month for owners of mechanized boats and promotes high-capacity engines at reduced prices. Seawalls have been constructed along large parts of the Tamil Nadu coastline to create calm harbors for big vessels, and fishermen continue to use the ecologically harmful monofilament nets banned in some other countries.
Without real regulation, trawlers in Tamil Nadu cause irreversible damage. For every pound of shrimp a trawler catches, approximately 10 pounds of bycatch — fish caught incidentally — are caught as well. This can range from anchovies to sharks, larvae to juveniles. According to marine ecologists Aaron Lobo and Rohan Arthur, a few decades ago, most bycatch was dumped back into the sea as “trash fish.” In time, some fishermen began to take the bycatch home or sell it locally, and now, trash fish of even the lowest quality are not discarded anymore. With the number of big target fish plummeting, Lobo and Arthur believe that commercializing trash fish may be what is keeping the fisheries industry profitable today.
Prabhu Anthony, a fish trader in Rameshwaram, says he pays 6 rupees, the equivalent of 10 cents, for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of trash fish and sends truckloads to poultry centers in Namakkal and Udumalpet to be reprocessed as chicken feed. Much of it consists of juveniles or smaller species that bigger ones feed on, a result of “fishing down the food web,” writes Lobo — a sign of overexploitation. “This is the marine equivalent of felling forests.”
This plundering of marine populations, along with other coastal violations, has had alarming consequences. A 2010 Food and Agricultural Organization study identified 13 species that were once abundant but now are no longer commonly found in the Palk Bay area. The 2010 Marine Census from the government-run Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute found that species such as reef fish, tuna and sharks have declined by nearly 90 percent.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, remains fertile ground for fisherfolk. In the ’80s, when India’s fish production exploded, its southern neighbor was facing a brutal separatist war that would last three decades and limit fishing access and development on the island’s northern coast. Fishermen who did venture into the sea lacked modern fishing technology and instead used traditional wooden or small-scale fiberglass boats. They avoided fishing during the breeding season to allow the marine population to replenish itself, following norms that were once adhered to in fishing hamlets in India as well. Meanwhile, in southern Sri Lanka’s thriving fishing industry, the state introduced about 250 imported trawlers, using subsidies similar to India’s. Soon, however, the damaging effects were visible, and in the late 1990s, as several countries started to ban trawling, Sri Lanka criminalized the use of trawlers in its waters.
Kanthavanam Sooriyakumaran, president of the Sri Lanka Northern Province Fishermen’s Society, is livid. “First the Indian fishermen ruined their sea, and now they are ruining ours,” he says. He feels “suffocated and helpless” hemmed in by the Indian trawlers, the pressures of earning a livelihood and the Sri Lankan navy’s postwar coastal restrictions — including the difficulty of obtaining licenses and a ban on access to waters by high-security zones. A Sri Lankan of Tamil origin, Sooriyakumaran speaks emotionally of a cultural and linguistic brotherhood with the Tamil fishermen in India and condemns the Sri Lankan navy’s ill treatment of them. “But I see the light of the Tamil Nadu trawlers from my beach every other night, looting the resource I depend on,” says Sooriyakumaran. “It is a betrayal by brothers.”
Even as the governments make the issue geopolitical, traditional fishermen from both countries have long identified overfishing trawlers as the root of the problem. Small-scale fishing cooperatives from Tamil Nadu and north Sri Lanka held their first official interaction in May 2004 to discuss an ethical sharing of the common marine pool. More talks were held in subsequent years, gradually including state officials and trawler owners.
U. Arulanandam, a 59-year-old former fisherman in Rameshwaram, has spearheaded the talks from the Indian side. He believes that making Indian fishing sustainable is the only solution to the recurring nightmare of crossings and detentions.
In the 1970s, Arulanandam worked as a deckhand on a ring-net-fishing trawler. One day, he says, “We located tuna and scooped the whole school by spinning round and round, chasing like bloodhounds. Everything got caught in the net, including a dolphin. It was harrowing, like seeing the end of my centuries-old profession.”
young Indian fisherman
After the first Indian fisherman was detained by Sri Lankan authorities in 1983, Arulanandam started to keep a record of Tamil Nadu fishermen who went missing or were wounded, killed or arrested at sea. But before he knew it, the record keeper had morphed into a rescue worker. While he participated in talks about banning trawlers and adopting ecologically safe methods, he also began meeting central and local government officials in India and officials at the Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka to secure the release of fisherfolk detained for using trawlers.
In late July, the worried families of some of the 51 fishermen detained with Anthony gathered in Arulanandam’s narrow veranda, asking for his help in bringing their relatives back home. He listened, writing down names and ages in his dog-eared ledger. “You can’t keep doing what you’re doing and expect me to pull you out of trouble every time,” he scolded some of them. A few shifted uncomfortably, others nodded. A sarong-clad young man just returned from the shore and holding a plastic bag of twitching fish protested, “We don’t have a choice, uncle! We cross over because our side is barren.”
Discussions in Tamil Nadu about the Indian-Sri Lankan fishing dispute are as unavoidable as they are divisive. In a tea shop by the Rameshwaram beach, some fishermen admit to crossing the boundary and others deny it. At the local fish auction, some men empathize with the plight of the war-affected Sri Lankan Tamils. S. Alex, the district president of the traditional fishermen’s association, calls it “stealing from a man who’s just been mugged.” Others question how they can stop trawling when they’re drowning in debt.
The Indo-Lanka problem is complex, but marine experts are largely in agreement with fishermen about their proposed solution: a gradual trawler ban initiated by the government.
But this will not be easy. “In its growth story,” says Vivekanandan, “the Indian government wants to make the most of everything, and the culture of conservation is all but absent.” Where the state does conserve, fishing communities are left out of the conversation. For instance, the Gulf of Mannar, in Rameshwaram and near the Palk Strait, is Asia’s first marine biosphere reserve. Its coral reefs and rich marine life are protected by UNESCO and the Forest Department, but fishermen from the 21 tiny islands in the area are banned from fishing near the reefs.
Consultation with the myriad stakeholders, including trawler fishermen, then, is key. Sesu Raja, president of the mechanized boat owners’ association, is afraid that if the state were to ban trawling, the thousands who depend on it would be left unemployed and in debt. He suggests that the government provide real solutions, like an offer to buy back trawlers from fishermen or phase them out while providing alternate occupations.
If the state does not protect both the fisherfolk and the future of fishing, coastal communities will be forced to choose between poverty and sustainability. And for the fishermen of Rameshwaram, that is no real choice.
Two days after her son’s detention, Jesurani Anthony sat in a dark corner in her hut, trying to avoid debtors who arrived for repayments as soon as they heard about the seizure of her son’s boat. Behind her, a lone candle burned in front of framed images of Mother Mary, depicted as Kadal Matha, the Mother of the Sea.
Jesurani was descaling a fish for lunch. “Looks like mackerel, but it is half the usual size.” From 16 types of salmon her husband used to catch, only five or six can still be found in the waters off Tamil Nadu. “Some uneasy changes have been happening in the sea; strange creatures fall into our nets,” she said. “Perhaps we have not respected our mother as we used to.”