Many owners of multi-day fishing boats are reluctant to send their vessels out to deep sea, with hired hands, for fear of hijacking, following the recent boat-grab on October 14, off the Matara coast in Kudawella, the industry said yesterday. Ever since the ‘Thejan Putha’ was hijacked by armed men operating with the connivance of [...]


Trawler owners, skippers and crew take to human smuggling like fish taking to water

Honest multi-day boat operators fear hijacking of their vessels after the ‘Thejan Putha’ incident

Many owners of multi-day fishing boats are reluctant to send their vessels out to deep sea, with hired hands, for fear of hijacking, following the recent boat-grab on October 14, off the Matara coast in Kudawella, the industry said yesterday.

Ever since the ‘Thejan Putha’ was hijacked by armed men operating with the connivance of a section of the boat’s hired crew, there are jitters among many in the local fishing industry, mainly owners of multi-day fishing trawlers who stand to lose the most, in case of a hijacking.

Suspects being brought to court. Pic by Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk

Matara Multi-Day Fishing Trawler Association (MMFTA) President Manjula Piyasantha told the Sunday Times the present situation is frightening, with those out to find a quick buck, by tying up with human traffickers operating in the area.

Since the ‘Thejan Putha’ incident, there has been at least a 25% drop in operations of multi-day fishing trawlers, which has even led to a livelihood crisis with many professional deep sea fishermen out of work, he said.

“The boat owners are caught up in a ‘catch 22’ situation, finding it increasingly difficult to trust hired hands any more. Once the boat is out at sea, anything could happen. The boat could be either hijacked at gunpoint, or the crew could simply sail away from the country’s maritime boundary, with a boat load of refugees,” Mr. Piyasantha said.

He added that the ‘Thejan Putha’ hijacking is not an isolated incident. There have been at least two earlier instances where trawlers went missing, after putting out to sea from the southern coast, and probably landing in Australia.

“It is also believed that, in certain instances, the owner of the vessel may also be involved, for monetary gains, and later pretending ignorance, once the vessel is reported missing.”

“Several boat owners are in debt to finance companies and other institutions and would find this an easy way out of their problems,” Mr. Piyasantha said.

He added moves were currently under way to make representations to the defence authorities for limited protection, or an increase in naval presence in the southern seas, since the Fisheries Ministry was ‘fish out of water’, with incompetent and unsuitable personnel in charge.

His worries were echoed by Aruna Fernando of the Negombo Fisheries Association (NFA) claiming that the hijack threat in his region was minimal, at least for the moment, but could not predict what will happen in the future, as the human smuggling racket to Australia increases.

“There are some concerns among the local boat owners, following the ‘Thejan Putha’ incident, but they are still sending their boats out to sea, often with a close relative or two for security purposes,” he said.

“There was a case of a single boat gone missing, after it left a location in Wennappuwa, but apart from that, there has been no other incident,”Mr. Fernando added.

He said there is very little the boat owner can do, if the hired crew decides on an alternate course of action, because, once beyond the country’s maritime boundary, the local authorities have no jurisdiction over their actions, since the vessel is in international waters.

All Ceylon Fisher Folk Trade Union (ACFFTU) General Secretary Dinesh Fernando said the present problem must be addressed by all stakeholders in the industry, including the relevant authorities such as the Fisheries Department, etc.

“Fishing craft deployed in the deep seas are the most vulnerable, as they maintain only a six-member crew, who could be easily overpowered by armed hijackers, ” he said.

“Increased surveillance by the Navy that includes more sea patrols, etc., could be helpful towards preventing such incidents, as was the case with the ‘Thejan Putha’ last month,” he added.

Fisheries Dept stresses vigilance in recruiting trawler crew

The fisheries authorities meanwhile called on boat owners to be more vigilant when recruiting the skipper and crew for their vessels. “There should be a proper vetting process while recruiting these persons, as the bulk of the responsibility lies with the owner”, Fisheries Department Director General Nimal Hettiarachchi told the Sunday Times.

“There is very little we can do at this end, except coordinate with the Navy and the coastguard in this matter. There could be instances where even the boat owner could be involved in the hijacking of his/her own vessel for more monetary gains. The whole issue is very complicating”, Mr. Hettiarachchi pointed out.

He added that the authorities were currently working on a programme to make it compulsory for multi-day trawlers to be equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS), so that their movements could be tracked on a day-to-day basis.

“This will take some time, maybe six months, but it is one way of keeping track of a vessel in deep sea. The Navy could be alerted if a vessel was making a detour, and the boat investigated,” Mr. Hettiaarachchi said.

Australia deports alleged hijackers

The 16 persons who allegedly grabbed the ‘Thejan Puth’ last month, on the high seas off Kudawella, were deported by the Australian authorities who had been informed of the incident by Colombo.
The group is presently remanded pending further investigations.

The hijackers are alleged to have been in cahoots with the skipper of the boat and a fellow crewman.
Two crew members who refused to go along with the hijackers, jumped overboard and were later picked up by a foreign-flagged oil tanker, while the fate of the remaining crew remains unknown, and are feared dead.

Survivors of the ‘Thejan Putha’ this week identified the boat’s skipper and his accomplice, at an identification parade.

Meanwhile, in a related incident on October 27, a multi-day fishing trawler owned by a close relative of the skipper involved in the ‘Thejan Putha’ hijacking, was set on fire in mid-sea off Kudawella, in an apparent revenge attack.

The crew of the burning boat was subsequently rescued by a naval patrol that rushed to the scene on receiving a distress message, said Navy Spokesman Kosala Warnakulasooriya.

He added that the Navy has been placed on full alert in the area, following the ‘Thejan Putha’ episode, and had encouraged local villagers and fishermen to share information with the authorities, on the movements and activities of human traffickers and related elements.

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