Tamil fishermen fear ‘starvation deaths’ caused by poaching

By Siva Parameswaran

Selliah Yogendrarasa moves his head to his right often as he weaves his casting net to ensure his false leg doesn’t fall down and get damaged due to the strong sea winds blowing across the Nandhikadal lagoon from Sri Lanka’s North-Eastern Sea along the Mullaitivu coast.

Thousands of fishermen like him and their families are facing a bleak future due to poaching in the lagoon and the sea coupled with the Covid-19 lockdown.

Having lost all his property during the brutal civil war, he lost his left leg and right eye in an air attack by the Sri Lankan Air force in 2009. The bombing also left one of his upper limbs paralysed.

From being an employer offering sustainable careers to hundreds, he now sits in isolation under a tree besides a thatched hut, weaving cast nets, for use by the local fishermen. And, now that’s the only source of livelyhood to support his family. Covid-19 has made his life still worse.

‘’Outsourcing raw materials and selling finished cast nets has become impossible. Government has given us 5000 rupees and nothing more which is not enough for a huge family like mine to sustain during the lockdown,” says Selliah with a deep sense of anguish.

Fishing is the main occupation and the only source of livelihood for people living around the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Damage to the ecosystem

The lagoon too is losing its resources due to lack of maintenance and neglect by the fisheries department officials and fisheries officials not taking action to stop illegal fishing, according to the local fisher folk.

Vadduvakkal village on the banks of the lagoon has become a ghost town with everyone confined to their houses due to Covid lockdown and depending on the support offered by the family members living abroad apart from the paltry handout paid by the government.

Illegal fishing using banned gillnets and dragnets has wiped out aquatic resources from the lagoon.

“It takes around ten days to weave one net that do no damage, which will sustain the aquatic resources in the lagoon. We are afraid the illegal fishing activities by people coming from outside and using banned nets will change the eco-system of the lagoon and cause irreversible environmental damage”.

Thousands of disappearances

Vadduvakkal Bridge stands a silent testimony to the final days of the war, for it was here that tens of thousands of Tamils were handed over or surrendered to the Sri Lankan forces. Many have gone missing whose loved ones continue with their search for more than a decade with hope against hope of discovering their fate.

For many villages like Vadduvakkal and Nayaru, fishing is the only source of livelihood. Now the local fishermen fear that their only source of income has come under threat forcing them towards a bleak future.
Appeals to the government have not yielded any results, say leaders of the fisherfolk community.

Illegal activity seems to have become the norm in the fishing industry in the lagoon and the Mullaitivu Sea.
“The traditional fishing using cast nets is being pushed out as illegal and the banned illegal nets have become the norm and legal,” according to Kamalesh Kumar a member of the Nayyaru fishermen’s association.

Dynamite is being used on a regular basis, which systematically destroys the eco-system and the marine life in the Mullaitivu lagoon and the sea. And, the situation has become worse due to the Corona crisis.

The fishermen are facing an existential threat and say their ‘lives are in danger on a day to day basis’.

‘’Minister Douglas Devananda assured us recently that he will end the menace of the drag net and illegal fishing, but unfortunately it has only increased,’’ regretted Karuppana Ganesamoorthy, the Nayaru area fishermen’s association president.

The trawlers with their drag nets and trawl nets operate very close to the shore, which directly affects the livelihood of the local fishermen. Locals feel that they wont be affected if the trawlers operate in the deep sea-around 25 to 30 Km from the shore.

Five thousand families

Boats travelling from other districts like Puttalam to kokkilai and pulmoddai use drag net and fishing light which directly affects the livelihood of more than 2000 fishermen on a day to day basis, Jude Nixon, Mullaitheevu fishermen association president told media people recently.

“This completely destroys the hatchlings and the small fishes, thereby destroying the marine life. Some large owners for their selfish motives and profit, do this jeopardising the livelihood of over five thousand fishermen family, he says.

'The illegal fishing activity is a direct assault on the fishing community in Mullaitheevu. Around five thousand fishermen and their families depend on the lagoon and the sea for their survival. They are already affected due to the Covid-19 lockdown and stare at starvation deaths”.

Jude Nixon says that the local fishermen will be left with no option but to protest on the sreets if immediate action is not taken by the government to stop illegal fishing using banned nets and ensure their livelihood through sustainable fishing methods.