After tsunami, fishermen enter a new sea

For many people along India's Tamil Nadu coast, stepping into a boat is key to getting back on their feet.

Before dawn, when the sea and sky are a seamless black expanse, four fishermen push their boat into the water and hop aboard with wet, bare feet. Two of them pick up poles and punt away from shore as a third starts the motor.

If the routine takes longer than usual, it's only because they are heading out to sea after more than a month's break since the tsunami.

A stone's throw away, eight fishermen have just landed from two fiberglass boats. They've been going out fishing for the past week. Today's catch was paltry: one skate. They say they decided to go out because they didn't get any "tsunami money" and had to make ends meet.

All along India's tsunami-damaged coastline, fishermen are beginning to return to the sea. Many would prefer to ply a different trade, but know no other work. Tamil Nadu state is the chief contributor to India's fishing industry, accounting for $6.9 billion in sales. For these men, stepping into a boat is key to getting back on their feet.

As dawn breaks, the four fishermen - R. Jalendran, M. Babu, K. Selvadurai, and G. Arumugam - are focused on their work. While Mr. Arumugam steers the boat, the other three sit on the sides, surveying the sea for fish movements and directing the helmsman. They used to know all the contours of these waters, but now, they say, the tsunami has caused shifts in the seabed. They can't tell depths and sandbars anymore. But they still navigate by sun, moon, and instinct.

Two miles from the shore, they decide to cast their fishing net. Arumugam slows the motor and they trail yards of a nylon net into the sea. Then Arumugam kills the motor, and they wait.

When they drag the net back into the boat, they've caught only one measly fish.

The reason fishing has been so bad is a topic of much speculation. "The fish have moved to the bottom of the sea," says Mr. Jalendran. His nephew, C. Velu, who works as a sign painter, has a different take: "The chemicals used to disinfect the area have seeped into the sea and killed the fish."

According to P. Ravichandran, director of the Central Institute of Brackishwater Aquaculture in Madras high concentrations of disinfectants can kill fish. But, in his view, any disinfectant would have become very diluted in the ocean. Mr. Ravichandran doesn't rule out changes in the sea. "If the bottom has changed, maybe then the fish have shifted and recolonized. They may come back after things settle."

When Jalendran and company decide to return to shore, the sun is up in the sky. As the boat cuts across the choppy sea, it pitches dangerously. "This is nothing. On the day of the tsunami, the waves were so big," says Mr. Babu, who was out at high sea on the morning of Dec. 26. The destruction was all on the shore, he points out.

According to Velu, fishermen considered the sea their god before the tsunami. "We still think of it as God, but with destructive powers we didn't know."

Babu admits that if he could find a job paying at least 100 rupees ($2.50) a day, he would give up fishing. Before the tsunami, fishing was very lucrative: paying hundreds of rupees per day.

This area, called the Fishing Harbor, is one of the biggest fish markets in the region. It was moderately affected by the tsunami with around 50 fatalities and just a quarter of its 1,000 boats damaged or lost. More fishermen would be going to work if it weren't for the solidarity their affected friends demand. Apparently, the worst-hit fishermen are afraid the government won't give them the aid promised if fishing activities begin normalizing. None of the bigger boats is being taken out. Other than a few fiber boats, only catamarans currently ply the sea.

Catamarans are easy to build because all they need are a few logs tied together. For this reason, they are also more treacherous. But fishermen are driven by their immediate needs. "Hunger," is K. Jaykumar's motivation, he says. "At least we'll get 50 to 100 rupees per day if we go out," he adds, shoving his catamaran to the sea.

Before docking his boat, Jalendran pulls up to the fish market to see what others have caught. Some baskets have come in from earlier boats, but business is sluggish. "Only a few from outside are coming to buy. Most of the fish is bought within the community," says S. Lalitha, one of the fish sellers.

"We used to have a turnover of 10 million rupees [$232,558] per day, now it's not even 100,000 rupees [$2,326]," says A. Jayendran, honorary president of the fishermen's association.

R. Sathyadas, an economist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Cochin, says that even before the tsunami, fish exports were declining due to the WTO and other factors. "The tsunami will aggravate the situation," he says.

Dasnavis Fernando, chairman of Victoria Marine and Aqua Exports, has a different view. He says pre-tsunami factors could have only contributed to a "marginal fall."

"Export from marine fishing has gone down 95 percent after the tsunami. It's likely to pick up in a month," says Mr. Fernando. "In five to six months, there will be recovery."

Velu recalls the pre-tsunami days when the market would bustle with jostling buyers, competitive retailers and wholesalers, and fishermen auctioning their catch. "Of course, it'll be the same again when the fishermen start going out as before."

Tsunami's toll on fishing


Around 2,000 fishing boats were lost


In one Aceh province, 70 percent of small-scale fishing fleet destroyed


80 percent of coastal fishing vessels were destroyed, including 19,000 boats


4,500 fishing boats and gear have been lost or damaged

SOURCES: AP, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ESRI

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