On November 30, 14 days after they set off from Thoothoor on the southern coast of Tamil Nadu, the 10 men aboard the 70-foot-long fishing vessel were sailing east off the coast of Lakshadweep. It was a routine fishing expedition that would have lasted up to 45 days in the deep seas. Around 3 pm, says Antony Dasan, 33, a crew member, the weather began to turn.
“The boat began to careen towards one side. Around 7 pm, all the CFL lamps and two wireless sets got damaged. It was completely dark when the boat began sinking,” says Dasan. By 10 am, December 2, only Dasan and a migrant worker were alive, having clung onto the 25-odd plastic cans tied together. A Navy chopper airlifted them to safety.
There were 3,000-odd fishermen out at sea off the Kanyakumari coast at the time. Most fishing vessels like Dasan’s that undertake deep-sea expeditions are equipped with an Eco Sounder, to measure ocean depth, a GPS navigator, and one or two wireless sets. The wireless sets can access alerts only within a 20 nautical mile (nm) radius; by the time the first alerts came, the men had already moved beyond 60 to 100 nm.
Additionally, Dasan’s vessel had an SOS Box, a device handed out by the Kerala Fisheries Department on an experimental basis to help fishermen reach the Coast Guard in distress. There are about 24 such boats with SOS Boxes. Dasan’s was destroyed in the first few minutes of the storm hitting the boat.
V Romanse, 65, leader of the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen at Chinnathurai village, pegs the total number of those missing people from the Thoothoor zone at 350 men. They left in 75 boats in early November. “We are anxious as it is time for them to return. Maybe by December 22, we will get an exact number of those missing,” says Romanse.
The fishermen of the Thoothoor zone and coastline further north of Colachel enjoy a reputation for being the most adventurous among India’s traditional fishermen communities. They fish in the deep seas and spend over a month in the ocean, and instead of trawlers, rely on long-liners with hundreds of hooks to catch fish.
Deep-sea fishing here took off in the ’80s, when mechanisation allowed boats to have more storage and fuel capacity. Most fishermen here deal in Tuna and shark.
In medium-size vessels, they put up to 1,500 baited hooks — and then wait. “Sophisticated ships use automatic long-liners with up to 5,000 hooks while we work manually, checking each and every hook. If there is no catch, we go deeper into the seas,” says C Ensilone, 55, of Vellavalai village.
Lack of adequate harbours in the region mean that a majority of Thoothoor boats also ply under Kerala registration.
According to Ensilone and A Christians, 51, another boat owner, a fishing trip costs a minimum Rs 5 lakh — Rs 50,000 for food and provisions; Rs 3.5 lakh worth of fuel; and Rs 60,000 spent on buying 500 to 600 pieces of ice blocks, kept in special chambers, to preserve the fish. The profits — around Rs 7-9 lakh — are divided, with 45 per cent going to the boat owner and the remaining shared equally among the crew.
These fishermen often land in foreign waters and, sometimes, run into pirates. Ensilone admits getting into trouble off the Mauritius coast and Oman, but laughs that they are mostly let off as they are deemed harmless due to their smaller boat. “We also meet foreign fishermen, mostly Iranian, and share food,” he says.
Some of them have gone as far south as Diego Garcia atoll, some 1,800 km south of the Kanyakumari coast.
Like they always do in times of trouble, the fishermen have again turned to their Church. Andrews Kosmos, forane vicar of Thoothoor vicariate, a zone comprising nine fishing villages, says, “The Church is always there to intervene if they need help or face problems.”
He also talks about how because of the fact that this region is seen as closer to Kerala, it has been neglected by the Tamil Nadu governments. This alienation was evident when local MP and Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan, who belongs to Kanyakumari, faced protests recently for a proposal to build a Rs 25,000-crore trans-shipment harbour project in the region.
There are other challenges at play. Peter Darwin, a senior fisherman, says about 10 per cent of crew members in boats now are migrant workers, easily available in Kochi, from where most of the boats set sail, changing the nature of the earlier traditional, family oriented business. “All our children now want to become engineers,” he says.