Bhubaneswar: The death of a fisherman in the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary on Friday night after being shot by a Coast Guard patrol has put the focus back on the vexed issue of conflict between turtle conservation and human survival.
Going by newspaper reports, the fisherman, identified as Mayadhar Mallick, was hit by the warning shots that the Coast Guard patrolling vessel fired when the fishing trawler on which he was working tried to flee on being asked to stop. The Coast Guard had found the movement of the vessel to be suspicious. Located in Kendrapara district, the 1,435-sq km Gahirmatha sanctuary is the only marine sanctuary of the state, carved out especially with the purpose of Olive Ridley turtle conservation. It is an endangered species that traverses thousands of kilometres in the sea to reach the Odisha coast, where Gahirmatha is believed to be its largest rookery in the world. Fishing has been banned in the sanctuary area since it came into being in 1997 as it takes a heavy toll of these turtles. They get choked by gillnets and also perish in large numbers after getting hit by the propellers of fishing trawlers.
The round-the-year ban on fishing has hit the local fishing community hard with several protests having been staged against it in the past. As the sea off the Gahirmatha Coast used to provide business to around 45,000 fishers in 90 villages, mostly in Mahakalpada and Rajnagar blocks of Kendrapara, resentment over the restrictions has been brewing over the years with even cases of suicides having been reported.
According to fishing community leaders like Narayan Haldar, who heads the Odisha Matsyajivi Forum, the year-long fishing ban in Gahirmatha looks all the more irrational in view of the fact that the government imposes a general restriction on sea fishing in an area of up to 20 km from the shoreline for a seven month period beginning November 1, hitting the livelihood of over 30,000 fishermen in coastal districts like Puri, Ganjam, Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur. This is in addition to the routine ban imposed on fishing every year in April-May, the breeding season of fish.
“The fisher-folk are thus being deprived of their bread and butter for the better part of the year in the name of turtle conservation. Considering that the compensation being offered to the fishermen by the government is ridiculously inadequate the ban should be reconsidered. We are all for turtle conservation but our survival is also at stake,” said Haldar.
The Odisha Traditional Fish Workers’ Union (OTFWU), an umbrella organisation of traditional fishermen, has also been protesting against the restrictions, which they find irrational and prejudicial to the interests of fishermen. General Secretary of the union, K. Alleya said the ban needs to be rationalized, otherwise there would be more protests.
If Haldhar is to be believed, the government is presently offering the affected fishermen a compensation of Rs.5000, which is peanuts considering their losses. “In Kendrapara district, they were providing compensation to around 2000 families. The number is likely to increase. But the compensation amount is too small,” said the leader.
Sources said the trawler that employed Mallick, the victim of Coast Guard firing, had sneaked into the Gahirmatha sanctuary illegally from Balasore side. But every year, there are many such cases of intrusion into the sanctuary with fishing vessels being challenged by patrolling vehicles of Forest and the Fisheries Departments.
“The sanctuary has become an area of conflict and will remain so till the government succeeds in striking a balance being turtle conservation and survival of the fisher-folk,” averred Haldar.