Declining fish stock in the Kerala sea waters is forcing large-scale migration of fisher folk from the state’s prominent fishing areas.
The phenomenon has also affected the availability and price of fish, an essential part of the food culture of people in the state, putting family budgets under strain. Prices of most popular fish varieties have more than doubled.
The fish stock problem began surfacing in the wake of the Ockhi cyclone, which ravaged the coastal areas of the state, changing the fishing eco-system. The cyclone’s impact zone also saw large-scale disruption of employment for the fisher folk.
Lack of employment and indebtedness caused by the disaster have forced the fishermen to leave the shores and seek employment in other countries.
They have been mainly targeting West Asian countries of UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Iran, where they are exploited by unscrupulous agents and sponsors.
The plight of the migrating fishermen was brought into focus over the week-end, when scores of fishermen from Kerala stranded in coronavirus virus-hit Iran sent an SOS message to the state government seeking its intervention in rescuing them.
A video posted on the social media showed the fishermen confined to their room without food and other essential supplies due to the virus outbreak.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar asking for central help for their rescue. State authorities said they were also seeking the help of NORKA, the government organisation looking after the welfare of overseas workers from Kerala, to secure their safe return.
Family members of the affected fishermen have claimed that their sponsors have failed to provide the stranded men with food and other supplies and shirking their responsibility as their employers. Reports suggest that the sponsors have refused the fishermen permission to leave, claiming that they owe money in terms of visa charges and other fees.
All the stranded people are from Thiruvananthapuram district, which bore the brunt of the Ockhi storm. At least a 100 people from the area have gone to places like Iran and UAE with work permits issued by local companies there.
The fishermen reportedly suffer exploitation at the hands of these companies, as they are not provided even regular salaries. The workers have to fend for themselves from the cost of the catch on the fishing boats after paying the owners their fixed costs. This often leaves the workers with little money.
The state government has been trying to restore the ecological balance along the coast, by increasing the fish stock and undertaking other developmental initiatives in the area. But these have not produced the desired results, forcing the traditional fishing workers to seek other forms of gainful employment.