Collisions involving fishing boats and foreign boats have become common these days. Five people have already lost their lives in boat-ship collisions so far this year. Four of those who died were fish workers, while 30 were injured.the most recent collision was at Beypore in Kozhikode. These accidents signal a dangerous trend.
And, Kochi, which has the largest number of fish workers, can't afford to ignore this. After China, India is the largest producer of fish in the world, accounting for 10.8 million tonnes in 2016, which forms 6.4 per cent of the global production. India exported fish worth Rs 37,871 crore last year.
A big chunk of this fish was from Kerala and this alone underscores the importance of the fisheries sector in the state.
The ship-boat collisions raise serious concerns since they affect the fisheries sector, fish production and the livelihood of thousands of people. There are about 2.45 lakh fishing vessels of various sizes in India, and, of these, Kerala accounts for 3,200 trolling boats, 450 gillnet boats, 1,200 inboard vessels and 5,000 outboard vessels.
These vessels have been registered in Kerala. In the past five years, there was no considerable increase in the number of fishing boats. But, the number of mercantile ships passing through Kerala coast has seen a massive rise.
Collisions take place when fishing boats venture deep into the sea in search of a bigger catch and ships deviate from their lanes, resulting in perilous collisions. The debate over who broke rules is never ending but ultimately the boat owner and fish workers bear the brunt of such accidents.
It is raining accidents
2013 February: A fishing boat from Munambam harbour collided with a foreign mercantile ship 40 km off Kannur's Ezhimala, injuring two
2013 April: Two injured after a ship collided with a fibre boat 15 nautical miles off Vatakara
2014 May: A foreign ship collided with a fishing boat 32 nm off Arattupuzha but those onboard the boat escaped unhurt
2014 May: A fishing boat from Neendakara was hit by a ship. All four onboard the boat were unhurt
2014 June: Eight fish workers were on a boat 11 nm off Kochi when a ship collided with their vessel. No injuries.
2014 July: A boat got damaged after its fishing net got entangled with the anchor of a ship 18 nm off Kochi estuary, injuring all on the boat.
2014: October: Workers injured after a boat-ship collision north of Kochi estuary
2015 July: A boat is damaged and three workers were injured after their vessel collided with a ship 46 nm off Kulachil in Tamil Nadu
2015 August: A worker injured after boat-ship collision 20 nm off Neendakara
2015 October: A boat was destroyed in a collision with a ship 30 nm off Sakthikulangara
2017 January: Seven injured in a boat-shop crash 65 nm off Kochi
2017 June: Three dead, 11 injured after a ship collided with a fishing boat off Kochi
2017 August: Workers escape unhurt though their boat got destroyed in a crash with a ship 13 nm off Vizhinjam
2017 August: Six injured in a boat-ship crash off Neendakara
2017 October 11: Four went missing after a boat-ship collision 51 nm off Beypore. The body of one person was later found.
What does the law say?
India's territorial water limit extends to 12 nm (one nautical mile is 1.85 km). Each coastal state may claim a contiguous zone adjacent to and beyond its territorial sea that extends seawards up to 24 nm from its baselines. Up to 200 nm, it is the exclusive economic zone where a country has exclusive right to exploit the resources at sea. Beyond this zone is international waters.
Any fishing boat can travel any nautical mile to catch fish but they can't enter the territorial waters (12 nm) of another country. This law is applicable to mercantile ships too; they can't enter the territorial waters of any country.
However, during emergencies, ships can enter the territorial water of a country provided they get permission from the authorities of the nearest port. Territorial limits are not applicable to a recognised sea route.
Who is to blame?
There is a common belief that the traffic situation on the seas has changed a lot. Though not as bad as Vytilla junction, the traffic conditions are getting worse on the seas too. Besides, most accidents happen at night. This is mainly because fishermen cast their nets at night and sleep.
Even if one person is awake they would be able to spot an approaching ship. They also need to have navigation lights from sunset to sunrise, which determine which is the give-way vessel when encountering each other at night.
Most boats don't have the navigation light systems. Inexperience of workers is another cause of concern. There are faults in night vigilance on ships too.
Due to various reasons, most ships don't have enough hands to keep vigil at night and electronic systems are instead deployed. In low visibility, ships navigate by radar, and small boats may or may not be detected.
For Kerala, the issue has become complex because the international sea route is close to its coast. For example, the distance between the Kochi port and the international sea route is just 10.8 nm, while, in general, territorial water limit is 12 nm. Accidents are mostly caused by ships deviating from their route.
Who will pay the compensation?
In case of a collision, it is the boat that suffers the maximum damage. Insurance companies are supposed to pay compensation in such cases. However, according to the Kerala Marine Fishing Regulation Act (1980), an insurance cover is not mandatory for fishing boats.
Besides, it is a costly affair too, forcing owners to skip opting for a cover. To make things worse, it is mostly a ‘hit and run’ case, since the ship doesn’t stop after an accident and in such cases there is no way to get them to pay compensation too. Compensation may or may not come, but loss of lives of workers who are the invariably the sole breadwinners of households is a bigger issue.
Such accidents also call for immediate intervention of coastal police or coast guard personnel. But coastal police force is not yet fully prepared to take on tasks. Their boats are grounded. Equipment are old and unusable.
The fisheries department provides GPRS systems and first aid kits to boats, but most of them do not use these facilities. If a boat meets with an accident, the GPRS device can be switched onwhich will alert the control room. Life jackets are to be provided by boat owners.
Kerala fisheries department's marine enforcement DYSP K. M. Sajeev has made it clear that they will carry out strict inspections to check if fishing boats are equipped with necessary navigation light systems or not.
They are also planning to introduce awareness programs for fish workers about the rules and regulations that govern maritime operations and the precautions they could take in the sea.
Workers’ unions are pushing for a law that will ensure them rights to fish freely. “We are also seeking compensation for life and property in case of accidents such as boat-ship collisions,” says Kerala State Fish Workers Federation state vice-president V. D. Majeendran.