Over A week after American tourist John Allen Chau (27) was allegedly killed by the protected Sentinelese tribe in the North Sentinel Island, a part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there is a new sense of fear among the fishermen here. While some admit that they have often fished near the protected areas in the past, they are wary of talking about it.
With seven persons, including five fishermen who allegedly took Chau near the North Sentinel Island, being arrested, they are afraid of police action. More so since some of them have, by their own admission, often strayed into these waters, either to fish or at the behest of foreign tourists wanting to photograph the protected tribes. At the Janglighat jetty near Port Blair, rows of fishing boats are lined up, along with rows of fish left out to dry.
“The fishing motorboats are allowed to fish within six nautical miles of the shore. But we now need to go further, to at least 14 nautical miles, as there’s no fish near the islands. The waters near the restricted areas are a good place to fish, because they are untouched,” says M Raju, general secretary of the Fishermen Welfare Association. He admits that some foreign tourists use them to venture into protected areas. “It is true that some foreigners take advantage of this situation. Poor fishermen are lured by easy money. Also, there are no boundaries or walls in the sea, so fishermen are often not aware which area is restricted,” he says.
“I have not been near the North Sentinel Island. But a few years ago, when we passed one of the islands, we saw Jarawas sitting along the shore. We do not fish there, but some of the others do,” says B Papa Rao (32), whose family has been fishing in these waters for generations. “Why do you think some fishermen go near these restricted areas? Because there is fish there. Five to ten years ago, a six-hour journey into the sea would yield 600-900 kg of fish. Now, it takes two weeks to get the same catch,” he says.
Who are the Sentinelese in Andaman island?
“No one will tell you they go there, but some certainly do. Small motorboats evade the Coast Guard and Navy patrol teams to fish near the restricted areas. However, they can do this only when the weather is good… They cannot, under any circumstances, land on such islands. Sometimes, foreign tourists go near these islands and take photographs, but they never land on them,” says another fisherman who does not want to be named.
“The Navy and Coast Guard keep vigil, but it’s not as strict as it was in the past. We have heard that there are fewer restrictions. If a tourist wants to take a small detour and go near a restricted area, some fishermen will comply while others may not,” says B Pariah (42), another fisherman.
“Hutbay (South Andaman) is a 13-hour boat ride from here, another three-four hours into the open sea will yield a good catch. On the other side, it is a 24-hour boat ride to Diglipur (North Andaman). From there, we need to go another four hours into the sea. Fishermen are venturing so far into the waters to get a good catch these days,” he adds.
Rao and his three brothers own two boats, which are taken for fishing trips at least twice a month. Each boat has six-seven crew members. If they get a good catch, they get Rs 3,000-4,000 each per trip; otherwise, they get Rs 1,000. The boat owners have to provide food and fuel.
“The price of diesel increases our operational cost. Earlier, a two-week fishing trip would cost us about Rs 15,000. Now, it costs about Rs 40,000-50,000,” says Rao’s brother, Ghoraiya B (34). “There is no accident insurance or life insurance for the fishermen. If one dies at sea, the government sometimes gives some money. The banks don’t want to lend money to fishermen. Big trawlers are another problem as they catch even the small fish, forcing the smaller fishing boats to venture into dangerous waters,” says Dilesh A B, who gave up fishing and is now a wholesaler for fish.
“We have been trying to meet the Lieutenant Governor to raise our problems, but are yet to get an appointment. We sent a memorandum two months ago, but nothing happened. We need to do some serious thinking on this matter and focus on awareness drives,” says Raju.
According to the fishermen, there are over 150 small boats and motorboats and seven trawlers at the Janglighat jetty. Besides Janglighat, the other areas where fishing boats are moored are Wandoor, Mayabunder, Diglipur and Chidiya Tapu. It was from Chidiya Tapu that Chau boarded a fishing motorboat to make his way to North Sentinel Island.