The Lede travels to a boatyard in Thoothukudi where boats for deep sea fishing are being built
The port yard at Tharuvaikulum in Thoothukudi was a busy place during the fishing ban, but now, a couple of months after the ban was lifted, the place is still abuzz with activity.
Workers can be seen cutting wood, soldering iron sheets, hammering nails and applying a fresh coat of paint to old boats.
There are also hulls of wood, fibre wood and iron boats being built from scratch.
It takes 15 workers between two and three months to complete each boat and while it takes almost the same amount of time to make it from different materials, wooden boats sell for Rs 50 lakh, those made with wooden fibre sell for Rs 70 lakh and iron boats sell for Rs 80 lakh.
Fisherman T Selvai who owns a wooden mechanised boat says that the fibre boats are becoming popular because of their ability to absorb lesser amount of water as compared to the wooden ones.
"When wood absorbs water, the boat swells up and it becomes a little difficult to manoeuvre it. But, when it comes to cutting through water, nothing beats iron boats," says Selvai.
Apart from the basic engine room and cabin, over the past few years, the boat builders have been adding an extra room - for toilets.
"As fish catch depletes, we have to spend long hours at sea to catch fish. Having a toilet in the boat makes things easier," says Selvai.
As fibre boats gain popularity, more fishermen seem keen to buying one for themselves, but when the average price of one mechanised boat is close to Rs 70 lakh, they have to think hard before making the transition.
Take for example, the case of A Arulraj. The 50-year-old owns two wooden boats which he had bought for Rs 50 lakh each less than a decade ago.
“People have been saying that the fibre boats sail better and is low on maintenance as compared to the wooden ones, but mostly those who need a new boat choose to buy it,” says Arulraj.
“The features of the new fibre boats are attractive, especially because they come with their own toilets. Hence, much as I would like to own one of them, I cannot afford it right now,” he adds.
Shared ownership of boats plays an important part among fishermen.
Owing to the high price, most of them choose to borrow money to buy their boats.
“It is a common practice here for people to borrow half the amount to purchase new boats. Sometimes, money lenders are offered 10% of the profits as well until the debt is repaid,” says Arulraj.
Currently, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and village banks also give out loans at 1% interest rate, but their maximum limit is only Rs 15 lakh which amounts to less than one-fourth the price of an average boat now, the fisherman said.
Keeping aside the money required to buy a mechanised boat, there are other factors involved which make deep fishing an expensive affair.
Explaining the process, Selvai says, “We use only gill nets and they are available for Rs 400 per kg. We use nets weighing one tonne, so we easily shell out Rs 4000 per net and they need frequent repairs.”
“Now, for the fuel, the tanks in our boats can hold 3500 litres of diesel and for a trip which lasts between 10-15 days, we need at least 2000 litres of fuel which amounts to more than Rs 1 lakh,” adds Selvai.
Arulraj says that he too has to spend the same amount of money on fuel.
“Then we have to carry 2000 litres of water for all our needs. It costs us Rs 2000. We also have to carry ice to keep the catch fresh before we reach the shore. 400 kg of it costs around Rs 40,000,” he says.
The final cost is of food being packed for about 15 people who need to stay on the boat for close to 15 days.
Both Arulraj and Selvai pay close to Rs 1.5 lakh for it and a 15-day fishing trip can set them back by around Rs 3 lakh.
“On the face of it, nobody realises that fishing can be this expensive a business, especially for deep sea fishermen. But if we manage to get our hands on a good haul, it makes all the effort and expenditure worth it,” says Arulraj.