Timely alerts for fishermen out at sea

  • A satellite-based early warning system will help save lives and guide fishing boats.
Mirudhula Thambiah reports

Bad weather alerts will soon be available to all fishermen, thanks to an early warning system to be introduced next month by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development. The Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) is being expedited after last month’s tragedy in which 22 fishermen working along the southern coast died after being caught up in incoming gale force winds.

The system will be implemented once the Cabinet approves a senior committee’s report on the VMS, Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Rajitha Senaratna told the Sunday Times. The Meteorology Department came in for criticism for failing to issue a warning when cyclone-type weather developed over the Indian Ocean on Friday, November 25. The department had said the bad weather conditions would not affect Sri Lanka. However, the Tamil Nadu Meteorology Department had given a timely warning and saved lives as a result, Minister Senaratne said.

The fisher community will benefit from an advance warning system with multiple uses.

According to Minister Senaratne, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) have received news of the impending cyclone through CNN, and NARA chairman Dr. Hiran Jayawardene had calculated that the cyclonic activity would affect Sri Lanka. He had duly informed the coastguard, the Met Dept and the Disaster Management Centre. However, the Met Department did not take the alert seriously.

“The Met Department should give due consideration to any such warning,” the Minister said. “Two days later, the Met sent out a warning that another depression was developing over the Indian Ocean, but nothing happened.”

According to Minister Senaratne, the Minister of Disaster Management has promised to conduct an inquiry. “Without an -inquiry, I cannot say whether it was the fault of the Met Department. The department ignored the NARA chairman’s warning. No one in my ministry can be blamed for the failure to warn the fishermen,” he added.

The Vessel Monitoring System is a multi-purpose satellite tool that can provide round-the-clock information on a range of issues, from border crossing and intrusion into territorial waters, disasters, fish populations and availability, and daily weather forecasts. There are about 3,500 multi-day boats used by Sri Lankan fishermen. Each boat will be fitted with a transponder or transmitter. The boats will be under surveillance when out at sea, and boat movements will be noted at the Fisheries Ministry.

“The system also allows us to check whether boats are doing anything illegal. For example, there will be a warning beep, accompanied by a flashing light, when a boat comes within a mile of the international maritime boundary. “The fishermen will know when they are approaching the boundary line, and they will be expected to change course,” Minister Senaratne said.

Equally important, the fishermen can use the transmitter to send distress signals in case they are in danger. All they have to do is press an emergency button and a warning signal will go out the Fisheries Ministry. Vessels in the vicinity will be alerted and requested to rush to the scene. The VMS will also help fishermen locate areas of high fish density, and save them time looking for suitable fishing grounds.
“The weather forecasting will come directly from the satellite, and will be very precise. We will know well in advance if bad weather is developing,” Minister Senarathne said.

The Fisheries Ministry is to compensate the fisher families that suffered losses in the November 25 cyclone. “We have had a discussion with the chairman of Sri Lankan insurance, and he has given instructions that the fisher families are compensated as early as possible.”

“We will provide them with money, at least Rs, 100,000 per family. The Chinese Ambassador has also promised to help us in this matter. I am going to make life insurance compulsory for fishermen, from January,” he said.

The Ministry is also considering making it mandatory for fishermen to take life-belts with them when they go fishing. Meanwhile, the Sunday Times tried many times to reach Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera for his comments, but was unsuccessful.

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