On a windy afternoon last Monday, just a few hours after Chennai had been doused by a short spell of early November showers, a group of fishermen played a game of cards on the sands of Marina beach under a small makeshift shelter. Scores of fishing boats were docked securely in the distance. Bad weather did not allow them to fish that day.
These fishermen face the prospect of several such idle days over the next seven months. While the November-January period is the time of the North East monsoon when fishermen venture out only if the weather is good, a state government notification banning fishing from January 1 to April 30 is likely to ground the fishing community for a longer period this time. And they are not happy.
Vulnerable sea turtles
The November to April period is when thousands of vulnerable olive ridley sea turtles come from the ocean to nest on vast stretches of the Tamil Nadu shore. However, as a result of mechanised fishing, hundreds of these migratory turtles get trapped in the vast nets of fishing trawlers, and drown.
To prevent this from happening in the upcoming nesting season, the Tamil Nadu government, on September 27, passed an order announcing the “prohibition of fishing by any kind of fishing vessels in a radius of five nautical miles [approximately nine km] around potential nesting and breeding sites of sea turtles in the coastal areas under Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act 1983”.
The government order has identified over 100 stretches of coastline across eight districts in Tamil Nadu, including Chennai, where the ban will apply to mechanised fishing vessels, motorised country crafts and mechanised fishing techniques
This order has raised a flurry of protests from artisanal fishing communities – small-scale fishermen – who use motorised fibre boats that usually do not venture beyond the zone incorporated in the ban.
“Our livelihood will be destroyed if we don’t fish for these four months,” said V Gowrilingam, the head of a fishing community in Kancheepuram district to the south of Chennai. “This is the period which is good for fishing when the sea is calm. In addition, there is a 45-day fishing ban from mid-April to May-end during the fish breeding season. What will we do if we can’t fish for so long?”
Harm to artisanal fishing
While olive ridley turtles are often trapped in fishing nets, conservationists said that a relatively low number are harmed due to artisanal fishing, which is done on a small scale. They add that a blanket ban on fishing vessels in the demarcated zones will harm conservation efforts instead.
“Including country boats in the order is very wrong and makes no sense – they cause very minimal harm to sea turtles,” said Akila Balu, coordinator at Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, a volunteer group working to conserve and create awareness about olive ridley turtles. “It is the big mechanised trawler boats that cause most of the damage. Artisanal fishermen are already struggling for survival. Their catch is very low nowadays, with so much competition and so little fish available to them due to over-fishing in recent years.”
K Bharati, the vice-president of Mylai Nochikuppam Fishermen’s Cooperative Society, said that his entire village had invested around Rs 5 crores for its 150 boats. “If these boats are docked for four months and not taken out to sea, they will rot,” he said.
Turtle conservationists are worried that the ban will cause tensions between conservation groups and fishing communities, who have worked well together in the past.
“By putting these restrictions on them, you are making an entire community enemies of conservation,” said Kartik Shanker, of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and Dakshin Foundation. “In other parts of the coast such as Odisha, the misapplication of regulations to artisanal fishers has driven a wedge between conservationists and communities that is very hard to reverse. This helps neither the turtles nor the artisanal and marginalised fishermen on the coast. This kind of a regulation will have the same result; all the fishermen along the coast will start to hate turtles because their livelihood is being affected by them.”
Balu added that small fishermen in Tamil Nadu are very supportive of turtle conservation efforts as they understand the need to protect them.
“For sea turtle conservationists like us who operate with volunteers, these fishermen are our best friends,” said Balu. “They stay up with the volunteers to point out the nests when the [turtle] tracks are washed away by the tide. Without their help, we could miss many of the nests.”
State offers a reprieve
The government order traces its roots to a story published in January 2015 in the Times of India titled “Murder most foul: 35 turtles washed ashore”, which mentioned how trawlers were to blame for the deaths of sea turtles. This prompted a High Court judge to file a writ petition, directing the government to ensure the safety of the endangered species.
With suggestions from non-governmental organisations working in this space and an independent audit by conservationist Shekar Dattatri, the Fisheries Department passed the order on September 27.
Although none of the previous reports suggested that motorised boats be banned, and said that fishermen be sensitised to the matter instead, the department applied the ban to all fishing vessels. In fact, the amicus curaie, a lawyer who advises the court in a case, suggested that the ban be increased to six months – from November to April – and apply to the entire coastline.
The final hearing is scheduled for November 28.
On November 4, protests by fishermen were held across 25 fishing villages in Chennai and Kancheepuram districts. Two days later, the Fisheries Department called for a meeting with the heads of all fishing cooperatives.
After the fishing communities represented their concerns, the department provided a verbal assurance that it would modify the order to exclude motorised country crafts that run at a maximum speed of 10 horse power.
The department, however, prohibited the use of ray nets, or thirukuvalai, used to catch skate ray fish, which can cause great harm to sea turtles.
Though the government order restricts fishing vessels within five nautical miles of potential nesting and breeding sites, trawlers, which are large-scale fishing vessels, are permitted to venture beyond that zone.
This is why conservationists have called for strict implementation of a law that requires these bigger vessels to fit Turtle Excluder Devices, a contraption that allows sea turtles to escape from their nets.
However, trawler operators prefer not to install the devices as they say that along with turtles, many fish escape.
Conservationists admit that it is difficult to monitor whether trawlers have installed the devices.
“Even if you fit the device on your net, when you go out fishing, you can always tie the trap door shut,” said Kartik Shanker. “It’s very hard to monitor and enforce the use. It is very easy for fishermen to subvert the usage of these devices, even if they are willing to fit them on their nets, which at this point they are not. This remains a problem even in countries like the US which have a much longer history of implementing Turtle Excluder Devices.”
Shanker said that the trawling industry in India has a very low profit margin at present, so it is unlikely that they will use Turtle Excluder Devices.
Across the world, there have been several conflicts between fishermen and authorities over the use of these contraptions because of the loss of catch they are believed to cause.
Corrections and clarifications: This story has been edited to remove an error that misstated the conservation status of olive ridley turtles.