Malice and grief in Southern waters

Menakhem Ben-Yami writes on the dangers fishermen face in Southern waters.

Fishing is a dangerous occupation – worldwide. But while in the northern part of the world we keep detailed records of every casualty occurring onboard and overboard, our press and other media devote much less space to the gloomy conditions of the safety of fishermen in southern waters and the consequent tragedies. Vessels and crews in artisanal craft and in rusty, unsafe vessels keep dying in bad weather. Fishermen also get caught in politically controversial areas and in war zones or are mistaken for pirates or enemy.

There are at least two sorts of pirates: those of Somalia and those of the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, take over large commercial vessels (super-tankers included) for ransom money; those off the coast of West Africa and the Bay of Bengal hunt small, mainly fishing craft, for an outboard engine and a fishing net, and often murder their crews. Recently the Bangladeshi coast guard recovered the bodies of 20 fishermen floating with hands and feet tied near Kutubdia island off Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, reportedly dumped alive by pirates who had taken their boats and equipment. According to the three escapees, they were murdered having identified the pirates as coming from some neighbouring coastal villages. Allegedly, the police are bribed by pirates and not taking any real steps to protect the fishermen, despite knowing the identity and the whereabouts of the pirates.

Also in the Middle Eas, pirate activity is making the life of commercial marine fishermen as dangerous as elsewhere. The search for fish has taken Egyptian boats far to the Gulf of Aden, where piracy is a real threat. At least a dozen Egyptian fishing vessels have been attacked or hijacked since 2005. The Red Sea is equally perilous, say boat skippers. Earlier, Yemeni gunmen stormed aboard an Egyptian fishing boat, shot and wounded a fisherman, looted its equipment and cargo, and took its crew hostage. The incident was sparked after local Yemeni fishermen claimed that the Egyptian vessel had attempted to ram their trawler. Most incidents go unreported.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea 
According to other reports from Egypt, dozens of Egyptian fishermen have been held for ransom, abused, or even shot at and killed. The background is that a significant portion of the rather steady Egyptian marine yield of some 125,000mt comes now from distant waters. With 40,000 non-motorised craft fishing along the country’s 2,500km coastline, local catches have been decreasing.

The standard explanation is that it’s due to overfishing and pollution in Egyptian waters, but one official claimed that the problem is that the fishing effort is concentrated in a very limited area, within five kilometres from shore. Also, unstable conditions in the country have caused a great leap in prices of everything from gas and fishing gear to basic food items. This forces the fishermen into more distant waters, for ‚Äì they say – fishing is very difficult in Egypt and often doesn‚Äôt cover the cost of fuel and supplies.

Many commercial fishing vessels go fishing as far as Malta, Turkey and Djibouti. They sail westwards across increasingly dangerous Libyan territorial waters. According to Egypt’s foreign ministry, hundreds of Egyptian fishermen have been detained and their boats taken away with some reportedly beaten up and humiliated. In September 2012, the Tunisian coast guard shot dead two Egyptian fishermen and wounded two others when their boat entered Tunisian waters. In May, a Libyan patrol boat opened fire on an Egyptian vessel after it allegedly drifted into Libyan territory. Four of the boat’s 12 fishermen were seriously injured.

Shot at sea
In Kenya, at least seven fishermen are feared dead when shot at sea, after being mistaken to be either Al-Shabaab Islamist terrorists or pirates off the coast of Somalia. The fishermen were attacked by Kenya’s Navy military personnel in an area opposite the Somali border. This, according to survivors, despite of alerting a Kenyan Naval patrol that they had drifted and had to anchor, to wait for assistance. The accidental killing of Indian fishermen taken for pirates by Italian guards on board a cargo ship has made much bigger headlines.

In the Arabian Sea fishermen have to go into deeper waters due to coastal pollution, while large-scale destruction of mangroves and upstream dams obstructing fresh water flow into the sea affected fish-breeding habitats. To cover their expenses, fishermen have to fish at least 50km instead of 10-12km offshore, risking capture by Pakistani marine forces.

In June last year 311 fishermen were released from Karachi’s Malir jail. They were held for months for fishing in uninhabited marshlands between Sindh and Gujarat on the wrong side of an unmarked Pakistan-India border. The creek serving as a border between both countries has changed course so much over the years that it now bears little resemblance to the snaking border line on the map. Most Pakistani and Indian fishermen arrested by either country’s force for trespassing lose their boats and equipment.

Few of my readers would remember that five years ago a cyclone named Nargis hit Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta with 120mph (190km/h) squalls and a murderous surge. At least 10,000 people died in Bogalay alone, 90km off Yangon. In one fishing village of 2,000 people, just 40 survived; fishing boats were washed away. After three years out of about 16,000 at least 600 raft-fishermen were lost, when radio predicted 56km/h winds that made them anchor, expecting to weather the gale. Winds, however, reached over 100km/h destroying rafts and sinking fishermen. The repeating disasters underscore the need for an effective weather warning system, and for equipping fishermen with mobile phones in Myanmar and elsewhere in the Bay of Bengal, says a U.N. source.

I can’t get rid of that feeling that in the Southern Seas fishermen are sometimes considered expendable and their life cheaper.


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