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
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