For fish­er­men, life is notwhat it used to be

Un­pre­dictable weather and dwin­dling catch have made fish­ing more dan­ger­ous and less rewarding for fish­er­men in West Ben­gal, writes Namrata Acharya

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Un­pre­dictable weather, dwin­dling catch have made fish­ing dan­ger­ous and less rewarding in West Ben­gal . NAMRATA ACHARYA writes

The calm coastal line at Kakd­wip fish­ing har­bour de­fies the fe­roc­ity of the sea it lim­its. It also de­fies the an­guish of Drubadi Das, who lost her hus­band to a sea storm. A year back, the trawler in which Das’s hus­band had gone out fish­ing along with 10 other men in the deep seas of the Bay of Ben­gal tum­bled when it was struck by cy­clonic winds. The fish­er­men got en­tan­gled in their own fish­ing nets in the rough wa­ters and died. Das now sin­gle­hand­edly sus­tains her six chil­dren by weav­ing fish­ing nets.

In the last six months, 37 fish­er­men have lost their lives while fish­ing in the Bay of Ben­gal. In the last 10 years, the death toll from fish­ing stands at 165. Most of the deaths took place in Au­gust and Septem­ber. Af­ter a se­ries of such mishaps, the West Ben­gal gov­ern­ment made life jack­ets com­pul­sory for fish­ing, but jack­ets alone aren’t enough to pro­tect the fish­er­men and their fam­i­lies.

There are three schemes to com­pen­sate fish­er­men in case of death dur­ing fish­ing. While the fish­ing trawler owner pro­vides ~2 lakh life in­sur­ance cover, the gov­ern­ment pro­vides an­other life in­sur­ance cover of ~2 lakh to fish­er­men. This apart, in years with high ca­su­alty, like 2018, the state dis­as­ter management depart­ment gives one-time com­pen­sa­tion of ~2 lakh to the fam­ily of the de­ceased. How­ever, in case the bod­ies are not re­cov­ered, the com­pen­sa­tion is gen­er­ally not given, and claim­ing in­sur­ance gets dif­fi­cult. In a num­ber of fish­ing mishaps in 2018, bod­ies of sev­eral fish­er­men could not be re­cov­ered. This year, out of 37 fam­i­lies of dead fish­er­men, only 12 have got in­sur­ance claims from the gov­ern­ment so far.

A man-made dis­as­ter

The in­ten­sity of storms in the Bay of Ben­gal has risen sig­nif­i­cantly over the years—the pri­mary cause of deaths.

“Over the past decade, we have wit­nessed in­creas­ing num­ber of se­ri­ous cy­clones in the Bay of Ben­gal. Nor­mally, it is seen that af­ter a storm makes land­fall, its in­ten­sity falls. But over time, we have wit­nessed that this in­ten­sity has not been slow­ing. The over­all size of the cy­clone has also in­creased. As oceans be­come warmer, they con­serve more en­ergy to sus­tain a cy­clone,” says Prasad Ku­mar Bhaskaran, head of Ocean En­gi­neer­ing and Naval Ar­chi­tec­ture at the In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Kharag­pur.

Al­though weather pre­dic­tion tech­niques have im­proved vastly over the last decade and storm pre­dic­tions are made five days in ad­vance, the fish­er­men often fail to re­ceive warn­ings in time. Last year, in most cases, by the time weather alerts reached the fish­er­men, they were al­ready in the midst of a storm in the sea. The res­cue boats could reach the site only af­ter al­most 36 hours past the mishap.

Ac­cord­ing to Bi­jon Maity, sec­re­tary, Kakd­wip Fish­er­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, fish­er­men in West Ben­gal were de­pen­dent upon weather pre­dic­tions from Bangladesh un­til last year, as weather fore­casts from In­dia came very late. How­ever, the In­dian gov­ern­ment has stepped up ef­forts to­wards timely re­lay of weather in­for­ma­tion af­ter the re­cent deaths, and fish­er­men are now get­ting weather alerts on time, says Maity.

GK Das, di­rec­tor of the Re­gional Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Cen­tre, at Kolkata, says weather re­ports are now be­ing sent to gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and fish­er­man as­so­ci­a­tions through What­sapp. It is an­other mat­ter that fish­er­man often ig­nore the warn­ing and ven­ture into the sea any­way, he adds.

No­tably, be­tween 1 April and 14 June ev­ery year, there is a ban on fish­ing in the Bay of Ben­gal as the like­li­hood of storm dur­ing this time is high. But in 2018, at least 10 fish­er­men died dur­ing the ban pe­riod.

The state gov­ern­ment has in­stalled panic but­tons in about 2,500 trawlers, and ex­pects to have the alarm but­ton in all the 4,000 trawlers in the re­gion by the end of this fi­nan­cial year, ac­cord­ing to a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial.

“Most cases of deaths last year were on ac­count of care­less­ness. There are panic but­tons in­stalled in trawlers but the fish­er­man are often not both­ered to check its func­tion­al­ity,” says Chan­dranath Sinha, fish­ery min­is­ter, West Ben­gal.

The panic but­tons, how­ever, are of lit­tle help in the case of a dis­as­ter. Often the ac­ci­dents in the sea un­fold so swiftly that the fish­er­men hardly get any re­ac­tion time to press the panic but­ton. Even if they do, the res­cue team often takes a long time to reach the spot, ac­cord­ing to fish­er­men in the re­gion. Also, the au­to­matic track­ers often do not work prop­erly, hob­bling the res­cue op­er­a­tion.

An­other ma­jor rea­son for the high num­ber of deaths is high sil­ta­tion in the creeks lead­ing to the sea. As a re­sult, the ves­sels can­not nav­i­gate, caus­ing ac­ci­dents.

“This year, many ac­ci­dents took place at the mouth of the sea, where creeks have high silt con­tent. As a re­sult, the ves­sels got stuck and stum­bled dur­ing stormy weather. We have asked the gov­ern­ment for mark­ing nav­i­ga­tion routes for ves­sels,” says Maity.

A large num­ber of ac­ci­dents take place at Chan­nel Creek, a nar­row dis­tribu­tary of the Hooghly river be­fore it meets the sea. The Kolkata Port Trust last week in­vited bids for dredg­ing the site. The pro­ject, ex­pected to be­gin this year, will last for about eight years, in­volv­ing a cost of ~120 crore, ac­cord­ing to a gov­ern­ment doc­u­ment.

Stress in the fish­ing econ­omy

De­spite the risks in­volved, fish­ing is the back­bone of Kakd­wip’s econ­omy in the ab­sence of al­ter­na­tive liveli­hood op­tions. On an av­er­age, yearly earn­ings from fish­ing varies be­tween ~1 and 2 lakh, and the earn­ing dwin­dles af­ter re­tire­ment.

Well past the re­tire­ment age of 60, Nakul Das works as a fish­ing net weaver at Kakd­wip port. Das lost his son in a fish­ing ac­ci­dent a few years ago. He no longer ven­tures into the sea, as it in­volves more risks than re­wards. While about 7000010,0000 fish­er­men are di­rectly in­volved in fish­ing, an­other 10,0000 are de­pen­dent upon the trade through an­cil­lary in­dus­tries like net weav­ing, trans­porta­tion and dry­ing fish at Kakd­wip .

Fish­ing ac­tiv­ity is at peak in the Bay of Ben­gal from June till Oc­to­ber. From Novem­ber on­wards, as the num­ber of fish in the sea starts to de­plete, large scale fish­ing starts to slow as well. How­ever, this year, the de­ple­tion has been so se­vere that al­most 80 per cent trawlers at Kakd­wip Port are not op­er­at­ing for the past two months, say fish­er­men.

Mean­while, with the ris­ing cost of fuel, the cost of fish­ing has al­most dou­bled in the last five years, say fish­er­men. At present, the av­er­age cost per trip to the sea in a big trawler is about ~80,000, while the av­er­age catch from a trip has not been worth more than ~30,000 in the last two months.

At the same time, the num­ber of fish­ing boats and trawlers in West Ben­gal has in­creased man­i­fold, lead­ing to over­fish­ing, says Sati­nath Pa­tra, sec­re­tary of a fish­ery work­ers as­so­ci­a­tion in Kakd­wip. At the be­hest of fish­er­men unions, the state gov­ern­ment has now stopped is­su­ing fresh li­cences for fish­ing trawlers.

“Gen­er­ally, around this time, fish­ing ac­tiv­ity is muted. But this year has been ex­cep­tion­ally bad. Due to over­fish­ing, the sea bed is get­ting de­stroyed and sev­eral plank­tons, a source of food for ma­rine crea­tures, are get­ting washed away. All this has dras­ti­cally re­duced the amount of fish in the sea,” says Pa­tra.

At present, about 11,558 fish­ing ves­sels, in­clud­ing small boats and about 4,000 trawlers, are reg­is­tered with the gov­ern­ment in West Ben­gal’s South 24 Par­ganas dis­trict, where Kakd­wip is lo­cated and bulk of the fish­ing in the state takes place. The num­ber of fish­ing ves­sels has in­creased by 2040 in a span of two years, ac­cord­ing to data from the gov­ern­ment. Re­quests for about 300 new li­cences for trawlers are on hold with the gov­ern­ment due to con­cerns about over­fish­ing. In 2017, West Ben­gal’s fish pro­duc­tion was about 1,702 thou­sand met­ric tonnes, a mar­ginal 5 per cent growth over the pre­vi­ous three years.

Over­fish­ing is lead­ing to near ex­tinc­tion of a va­ri­ety of fish in the Bay of Ben­gal. “Salin­ity and sil­ta­tion have in­creased mostly in the cen­tral part of the Sun­dar­bans. One of the most com­mer­cially traded fish, Hilsa, is get­ting scarcer be­cause the fish pre­fer to breed in fresh water and not in saline water. Many fish va­ri­eties have be­come rarer,” ac­cord­ing to Abhijit Mi­tra, fac­ulty mem­ber, Depart­ment of Ma­rine Sci­ence, Cal­cutta Univer­sity.

“A lot of ju­ve­nile prawns are be­ing caught in the re­gion, which is banned in other states. In do­ing so, at least 56 va­ri­eties of fish, per net/per day, are be­ing thrown away due to their lim­ited shelf life. All this is put­ting a lot of stress in the ma­rine ecol­ogy and fish econ­omy of the re­gion,” adds Mi­tra.

This year, as the fish­ing trade has slowed in Kakd­wip, Hri­doy Das, a young fish­er­man, has mi­grated to Ker­ala in search of em­ploy­ment. Apart from fish­ing, the south­ern state has earn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in the con­struc­tion sec­tor, says Das. While young peo­ple pre­fer mi­grat­ing, for older peo­ple like Sricha­ran Das, who earns about ~250 by weav­ing fish­ing nets for seven hours, there is lit­tle es­cape from the hard­ships that comes with the fish­ing in­dus­try in West Ben­gal.

Al­though weather pre­dic­tion tech­niques have im­proved vastly over the last decade and storm pre­dic­tions are made five days in ad­vance, the fish­er­men often fail to re­ceive warn­ings in time

Fish­ing boats at the park­ing bay in Kakd­wip; (above) re­tired fish­er­men who earn a liv­ing by weav­ing nets, earn­ing ~250 a day

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