Wildlife & Biodiversity

Plight of marine fishermen in Odisha’s turtle zone

The seven-month-long fishing ban and the perpetual bad weather are making life difficult for state fisher folk

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Tuesday 29 January 2019
Photo: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava/CSE

A seven-month-long fishing ban near a 20-kilometre stretch of coastline at Gahirmatha marine sanctuary in Odisha‘s Kendrapara district — imposed to protect the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles — has created a conflict between environmentalists and local marine fisher folk.

While conservationists support the fishing ban — imposed between November 1 and to May 31 every year — to protect the turtle species, marine fisher folks launched a protest demanding protection of their fishing rights.

Ranjan Behera, 30, was among six fishermen who were arrested by the forest guards on January 7, 2019, for fishing near the marine sanctuary. Their boat was also seized. The fishermen were released on January 14, 2019, after spending a week in jail.

“I was released from jail, but forest officials are yet to return my boat. I had taken a loan of Rs 2 lakh last year to purchase the boat. I have been running from pillar to post to get it back,” says a worried Ranjan.

Another fisherman, Banaambar Rout from Ramanagar village, adds, “The large capital required to build a fishing vessel is beyond the means of many persons, as one trawler costs around Rs 20 lakh to Rs 35 lakh. I purchased a trawler two years back with a loan of Rs 20 lakh. But last month, forest officials seized my trawler in Gahirmatha, and now I am in deep trouble.”

Like Ranjan and Banaambar, the fates of many fishermen — hailing from Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Bhadrak and Balasore districts —hangs in balance.

“A gloomy future awaits around 50,000 marine fishermen every time the authorities impose the seven-month-long fishing ban,” says Narayan Haldar, a leader of the fisher folk and secretary of Odisha Masyajibi Forum.

“Since the ban, fishing has been very hard… But what else can I do? It's all I know. There's nothing else to do here,” says Ashok Mandal, a fisherman from Batighar village.

Double whammy for fisher folk

Fisher men complain of losing their livelihood as they’re neither catching enough fish, nor are they getting paid enough for what they catch.

The ban along with perpetual bad weather, due to low pressure in the sea, is further adding to their woes. “Many fishermen don’t send their children to the boats. There is no future for them in this business,” says another fisherman Arjun Mandal, 62.

"How many fishermen have left the business till date is difficult to say. Reliable figures are hard to come by.  However, around 10,000 marine fishermen had been forced to leave their traditional occupation after our fishing area was declared as a marine sanctuary in 1997. The financial situation is bleak for a majority of traditional marine fishermen,” says Harekrushna Behera, a fisherman from Batighar village.

Gahirmatha marine sanctuary is also known as the world’s largest rookery of the sea turtles. It’s a prime feeding area for sea turtles that nest all the way up to the Nasi-1 and Nasi-2 islands of the marine sanctuary.

“Trawlers and boatmen have been directed not to fish within 20 kilometres from the coastline in the sanctuary areas, covering a length of 1,435 square kms from Aagaranasi to Dhamara,” says Srirampada Arabinda Mishra, a forest range officer at the sanctuary.

In a bid to protect sea turtles, the government in 1997 declared Gahirmatha as a marine sanctuary. Each winter, the magnificent Olive Ridley sea turtles start their long journey to Gahirmatha to lay eggs. The turtles repeat the trek every year, always to return to the same beach in order to lay their eggs where they were born.

“We have already arrested 460 fishermen and seized 84 fishing vessels, on charges of illegally fishing in the marine sanctuary, since November 1. All the arrested fishermen had been actively fishing in prohibited areas designated only for the rookery of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles,” says Mishra.

“We found that most of the accused fishermen go fishing in the night without turning their boat lights  to avoid being caught. The forest department deployed two interceptor boats to protect the sea  turtles by preventing fishing vessels from entering the  marine sanctuary,” he says.

Mishra adds, “The government, under the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Programme (ICZM), has been providing alternative livelihoods to traditional marine fishermen.”

A record number of 6,64,549  turtles laid eggs between March 8 and 12 last  year on the Nasi-1 and Nasi-2 islands of the marine sanctuary. They broke the nesting record of last 16 years due to strict imposition of the fishing ban, adds the forest officer.

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