Southern India's fishing fleets tell a tale of 'staggering' tsunami aid money

A typical morning at a fishing harbor in Nagapattinam, India. Photo by: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

NAGAPATTINAM, India —  E. Rajesh Kumar, a fisherman from Chandrapadi — a village of 375 houses in Tamil Nadu state, on the eastern coast of southern India — was eager to show off all the new tech that he and his fellow fishermen have at their disposal.

From echo-location systems to locate large schools of fish, to high-grade GPS devices and walkie-talkies, every aspect of their boat is equipped to maximize their catch. The ring seine nets they use weigh at least 3 tonnes and can be 3 km long, reaching depths of up to 800 m.

“These [ring seine] nets were an indirect result of foreign aid disbursing boats without any regulations.”

— V. Vivekanandan, former FAO consultant to the Tamil Nadu government

All the new equipment came after the deadly Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

“I lost my boat during the tsunami. I got a fiber boat in compensation, which I used for a while before selling it off,” he said.

The tsunami, which killed some 230,000 people across 14 countries, also saw a big outpouring of donations. Relief measures from the tsunami triggered investments in boats and nets all across the state, leading to overcapacity in fishing.

But in the state of Tamil Nadu, the unregulated distribution of boats changed the coastal ecology and economy forever.  

Funds pour in

Across the world, almost $6.25 billion was donated to a central United Nations relief fund to aid victims of the tsunami, with India getting the third biggest share, at $150.6 million. 

Flush with money from hundreds of NGOs and international aid, the number of boats increased dramatically — along with their catch. According to government data, in the 10 years between 2004-2013, the fish catch in Tamil Nadu increased by nearly 75%.

“Fiber boats replaced catamarans post-tsunami,” said Annie George, CEO at erstwhile NGO Coordination and Resource Center, which was working with the local administration to ensure operations didn’t overlap.

Livelihood rehabilitation began almost simultaneously with relief and rescue operations. Within a week of the disaster, the number of fiber boats in Nagapattinam increased by 60%, George said.

The state government, in its 2005 report “Tiding Over Tsunami,” estimated that more than 26,000 catamarans and 3,400 fiber boats were damaged across the state. Catamarans are simple boats made by stringing logs of wood together with ropes. While some are motorized, they cannot venture out into the deep sea. Fiber boats, on the other hand, are sturdier, have bigger engines, and can go into deeper waters.

E. Rajesh Kumar, who lost his catamaran, was a beneficiary. “The money and the boats we got from the tsunami enabled us to get these boats with ring seine nets,” he said, with his fellow fishermen nodding in agreement. “On a good day, we can catch fish worth up to 10 lakh rupees [$14,000],” he added.

A local fisherman fills up his bounty in Nagapattinam, India. Photo by: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

The arrival of predatory nets

Lack of regulation on the number of boats being donated by domestic and international NGOs has increased competition and triggered a scramble for bigger boats, longer nets, and more powerful engines to catch more fish over the last 15 years, experts say. Once a fishing hamlet, Nagapattinam now catches 900 tonnes of fish daily. The majority of this catch comes from 1,000 mechanised trawlers, 5,500 fiber boats, and around 50 mechanized ring seine boats, said sources in the state’s fisheries department.

A Food and Agriculture Organization report described the response of both national and international NGOs as “staggering,” leading to a huge collection of funds for relief and rehabilitation. This, in turn, caused competition among NGOs to spend the funds “as quickly as possible.”

“More than 400 NGOs were working to provide compensation for the loss of livelihoods for fishermen in Nagapattinam,” NCRC’s George said. Some of the big names that donated fiber boats to Nagapattinam are Salvation Army International and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The FAO report acknowledged that the number of fiber boats “proliferated” to well beyond pre-tsunami numbers, and it was difficult to ascertain the number of boats that were given out by NGOs. The report indicated that everyone in Nagapattinam became a boat owner post-tsunami. “Ideally, four people to a boat is what is acceptable,” said V. Vivekanandan, a former FAO consultant to the Tamil Nadu government, and former CEO at the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies. In the second part of the “Tiding Over Tsunami” report, in 2008, the state government said: “The number of fishing crafts has increased and the Department of Fisheries has registered 53,684 boats in various categories.”

Warnings ignored

Several multilateral agencies warned of overcapacity in fishing caused by the distribution of free boats as compensation. Months after the tsunami, more than 120 ministers, including those from tsunami-affected countries, released a joint statement at a high-level meeting. They not only called for the responsible reconstruction of fisheries, but also pledged to combat illegal fishing.

Ministers said that “improving the efficiency, sustainability, and governance of fisheries is also a priority,” and agreed “to cooperate to ensure that reconstruction does not produce a level of fishing capacity that exceeds what fishery resources can sustainably support,” according to an update from the FAO after the high-level meeting.

With increased competition, investments in boats and nets also grew. Initially, this meant spreading to wider areas, using bigger and deeper nets, and smaller mesh sizes. These methods soon became ineffective, and by 2007, ring seine nets appeared on Tamil Nadu’s shores, despite being banned by the state government, Vivekanandan explained.

“We learnt about these nets and newer technologies from our counterparts in Kerala,” said fisherman E. Rajesh Kumar. These nets, along with trawl nets, virtually wiped out all other competition, as trawl nets scrape up everything on the sea bed.

Fishermen sit on their newly-built fiber boats in Nagapattinam, India. Photo by: REUTERS / Babu VM / dh

Ring seine nets can catch fish worth hundreds of thousands rupees in a single trip. “When the competition reached saturation, the fishermen sold off their fiber boats they got as compensation and pooled together to buy ring seine nets. These nets were an indirect result of foreign aid disbursing boats without any regulations,” Vivekanandan said.

While the state government signed a memorandum of understanding with multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank for housing, there were no official policies to regulate the number of boats that were being donated by NGOs to replace damaged boats. Policy changes ensured that the state government made it easier for NGOs to receive foreign funding, but it did not get into how it was used, Vivekanandan said.

 “When tonnes of sardines are caught in one day and brought to the market, the price for everyone crashes.”

—  Divya Karnad, marine researcher and assistant professor, Ashoka University

However, a 2019 report by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute stated that the number of mechanized ring seine nets available was 117% more than the maximum sustainable fleet size.

A depleted ocean

Marine experts say that ring seine nets have both ecological as well as social impacts. “When tonnes of sardines are caught in one day and brought to the market, the price for everyone crashes. There will also be a vacuum for the next two days because of the sheer size of their catch,” said Divya Karnad, a marine researcher and an assistant professor at Ashoka University.

“In the long run, there is a risk of losing ... genetic materials as these nets deplete fish populations at a rapid rate.”

About the author

  • Karthikeyan Hemalatha

    Karthikeyan Hemalatha is a freelance journalist in Chennai. He writes on international politics, marine ecology, climate change, and agriculture. He won the Statesman awards for rural reporting and a special mention by RedInk Awards in 2018.

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