Life at sea and lessons learnt

Cyclone Ockhi and AIS targets of vessels on the Kerala Coast

At the beginning of December, the Ockhi Cyclone claimed the lives of many fishermen who were out at the Arabian Sea.

Its devastating effects have left us all in grief, but also with a desire to attain justice and mend a broken disaster management system, so that this kind of tragedy doesn’t repeat. In order to achieve this, we take a look at the past to uncover precious learnings that will save precious lives in the future.

The first recorded storm in the Arabian Sea

The earliest sea storm that affected the fishermen of Southern Kerala took place during the Age of Discoveries and was recorded by the Portuguese India Armadas. The year was 1520 A.D. and the violent storm hit the Portuguese ship so hard, that the surviving sailors landed on the shores of Kollam. In memory of the perilous sea and as a gratitude sign of those who survived, a church was built in Pullichira, on the bank of Paravur Lake in Kollam in 1572.

Life at sea

From the most distant times, the lives of fishermen who plied the Arabian Sea have been shaped by the south-westerly wind and the north-easterly wind of Indian Ocean.

Until not long ago, most of the fishermen from Kerala depended on traditional fishing crafts and gears such as dugout canoes, plank built canoes and catamarans (kattumaram). What’s more, they used human power and wind to reach inshore sea within 10 to 12 km range and up to 50-meter depth. This changed when the Indo-Norwegian Project (INP)was introduced, kick-starting the mechanisation of fishing methods in Sakthikulangara and Neendakara in Kollam district.

Back in the day, fishermen passed down knowledge from generation to generation, learning all there was to know about fish, habitats, currents, waves, celestial bodies, depths and life at sea. These skills helped artisan fishermen to assess and forecast the weather conditions at sea. Thus, they could make quick decisions in the event of an approaching storm in order to avoid hazards by returning to shore or even suspending fishing operations for days, until the conditions improved.

However, with the advent of modernisation, much of this knowledge was forgotten, as mechanisation no longer required so much effort from the fishermen themselves. Fishing crafts evolved to mechanised trawlers and boats with inboard engines and outboard motorboats (OBM), which enabled fishermen to reduce travel time and increase fishing productivity hours.

In addition, the depletion of fish-stock in coastal waters forced fishermen to look for newer fishing grounds further away from the shore. To offset the travel costs in reaching the new fishing spots, fishermen increased their stay at sea from one day to multiple days or even weeks.

The newer fishing grounds impose real dangers, as the fishermen’s indigenous skills and accrued knowledge about the weather conditions at sea fall short, encompassing very little about the deep sea and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) area. Their personal skill levels cannot predict deteriorating conditions at sea beyond a day, even more so beyond two days or a week in order to ensure a safe return.

How some fishermen sensed the Ockhi cyclone

Though small in numbers, fishermen who still operate non-mechanised country crafts (kattumarams) in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam were able to use their age-old skills to observe the darkening sky on the south and increasing wind, sensing the emerging Ockhi cyclone. Thus, they decided to suspend their fishing operations and avoid the hazard. Fishermen who were operating vessels with outboard engines within the coastal waters quickly responded to the deteriorating weather conditions and chose to go back, arriving completely safe and uninjured.

Moreover, most large fishing trawlers were able to make it out without much damage, as they are more stable and reliable in rough sea conditions, unlike V-bottom boats of planked marine plywood and fiberglass laminate construction with transom mounted outboard engines.

Lessons learnt

The cyclone Ockhi killed more than 3 dozen fishermen and rumbled the notion that the Arabian Sea is relatively safe from storms. Its aftermath exposes the stark challenges in personal safety and the emerging challenges that search & rescue operators face in blue waters.

At the present moment, more than 100 people are still missing (200+as per some sources). The chances of finding them are slim, and the possibility of bringing them alive to the shore is almost non-existing. As more and more days pass, hope is nowhere to be found.

Five centuries ago, the Portuguese survivors established the church in Kollam as a token of their gratitude to Mother Mary who, they believed, saved them. Today, we pray that cyclone Ockhi will act as a firm reminder that will get us to assess our attitude towards personal safety and reconsider modern life saving appliances for the benefit of fishermen and future generations.

In the meantime, the institutions and government bodies should reevaluate the way they handle emergency response procedures and improve early warning system as to meet the requirements of all fishermen, no matter the type of boat they operate or the fishing grounds they cover; inshore, off-shore or deep sea. In the end, a 30-knot wind can mean differently to different people (and different boats). But every life matters equally.