On the usual ship tour even the incessantly hard working crew rests on Sundays. People get up relatively late and take it easy, catch up on email and nurture social contacts. But this is not the usual ship tour and our Sunday could not have been more of a contrast. I was woken early in the morning with the news that two fishing vessels were showing up on our radar just off the coast of the Indian Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal. Once we caught up with them, we saw no national flag flying which would identify the country in which it was registered or a name displayed on the vessel. When there was no response on the radio from either of them, we decided to launch our inflatables and take a closer look.
They turned out to be Burmese vessels and it took quite some effort to communicate with the mostly very young looking crew: we asked them for their papers in three different languages (English, Thai and Taiwanese), none of which they were able to understand. The papers were in Burmese too and none of the vessels seem to possess any written permit from any Indian authorities allowing them to fish within the Indian waters. Without a Letter of Permit, foreign vessels are not allowed to fish in the Indian EEZ.
The circumstances on these vessels were far from ideal. Without any cooling facilities, catch such as sharks and juvenile yellow fin tuna - the smallest you’ve ever seen - is being spread all over the vessel to be dried and stored. In between the drying catch the crew lives for days and days on the couple of square meters that are left.
Not an hour later we sighted two more vessels; they turned out to be Burmese as well. While you may think that four illegal vessels in a day is no big deal as the lack of proper monitoring and surveillance means that there are numerous vessels in and out of Indian waters regularly. In fact, one study pegs this estimate between 150-220 US million dollars annually!
When we tried to contact the local Coast Guard, there was no immediate response. Two days later though, we were contacted by the Indian navy and they assured us that a vessel was sent to the spot of the previous encounter and checks about the incident were being made.
There have been news reports of arrests of illegal Burmese fishermen in India before, but the crucial problem with the current regulations is mainly in the implementation. The fact that these vessels continue to fish year after year, completely illegally, means that the Indian government is incurring economic losses thanks to unreported fish catch.
At the heart of it all lies a simple fact—that piecemeal measures like this will not do much if the Indian government is not serious about putting an end to illegal fishing in its waters and protecting the interests of its fishermen. And incidents like these are symptomatic of what is happening across the rest of the Indian coast. That is why we need change, we need action. Have you asked for it already?
Areeba Hamid is an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace India. Read her previous blog from this ship tour.