A murder of crows peck at a katta karawala carcass outside a stretch of fishing wadiyas as the sun sets, leaving a long shadow over the Mullaitivu beach. Every now and again Pedurupullai Markupillay throws a stone in the general direction of the crows. He doesn’t care that the carcass is being attacked but doesn’t want to allow the crows to be too comfortable at settling outside his wadiya.

Markupillay began fishing when he was 18 years old. Now 69, he owns five boats that he leases out to the other fisherman that have settled into the wadiyas along the Mullaitivu beach. He has four children. Three of them are adults now. They have little to no interest in following their father’s footsteps and devoting themselves to a life at sea. “The younger generation are distracted and have no concern for what we do. Fishing used to be a generational occupation. My father was a fisherman, so was my grandfather,” he says.

50 years at sea : Pedurupullai Markupillay stands by his fleet of fishing boats

Markupillay’s eldest daughter Kelansuthayini was attending a leadership programme at the Senchoali Children’s home when it was bombed by the Sri Lanka Air Force. She was 18. His wife passed away some years ago as well; the years have hardened him to the realities of an occupation that’s unpredictable, uncertain and volatile.

Kerosene oil arrives just once a month the shortage severely denting the community’s ability to fish. “6,500 litres per month is what they send. It’s the bare minimum we can deal with,” says Markupillay. The litre of kerosene oil that was Rs. 75 a year ago is now Rs. 365. Monsoon rain or mid day shine, catch or no catch, this is the reality the community has to contend with.

To work around the shortage, the men collect their respective kerosene quotas and share it among those who venture out to the sea. A portion of the catch is then shared back with the rest of the community. If someone among the group is unwell or unable to go out, the others share something of their return as well. It is the practical solution of a close knit community to get around times of crises. “The younger generation don’t understand the value of the community we have built around ourselves,” reflects Markupillay. The boat owner still understands and sympathises with his children’s desire to pursue a better life and progress upwards rather than commit their lives to an unpredictable life at sea, yet it is the future of his occupation rather than of his children that he seems to weigh more seriously as he speaks. The economic crisis has affected the community no doubt, yet the sense of community that has built a system of understanding among the fisher folk is something that helps it stay afloat all the same.

While kerosene shortages and occupational sustenance form the backbone of the issues on land, further out at sea, the fisher folk of Mullaitivu must contend with the Tamil Nadu bottom trawlers from the North and light-course fisherman from the South, both of which are of serious detriment to the fishing ecosystem that the fisherman of Mullaitivu depend on.

Boats from Trincomalee and Batticaloa who venture into Northern waters often employ the light-course system here, complains Navaratnam Shanthan (38) one of the fishermen who regularly takes Markupillay’s boats out to sea. Already deemed illegal due to the harm it causes to marine life, light-coursing sees a bright set of LED lights shone directly into the water, driving the fish in a specific area into a large net where they are separated and harvested, causing an imbalance in the ecosystem as one type of fish is allowed to thrive while another is systematically fished. “Fisherman from Negombo and Trincomalee come here and use dynamite in the water as well,” notes Shanathan. “They don’t care about what it does to the sea. Their life doesn’t depend on the ecosystem here.”

Shanthan has been going out to sea since he was 16 and knows these waters well but outside fishermen straying into their waters are making the fishermen here desperate. “Just last week three of ours braved the strong December seas to go out for a catch,” he says. “They lost the boat but were lucky to escape with their lives. Sometimes I prefer going alone too because I wouldn’t have to share the return then. I know the risks.”

Amid all this however, Indian trawlers remain the biggest threat. During the war, an army of Tamil Nadu trawlers lay committed to fishing off the Jaffna coast at great detriment to their neighbours across the strait. Peace has now allowed them to venture further south along Sri Lanka’s Northern coast as well. Trawlers employ a large net which they drag along the seabed collecting all manner of seafood and whatever else that gets entangled within the net. As effective as the method is in harvesting a large catch, the wake of destruction it leaves on the seabed is second to none.

The “things were different during the war” thread is a common one that communities in the North subscribe to. There was uncertainty and danger and the constant threat of death and injury, yet as farmers toiled in their fields unimpeded by supply chain issues or fertilizer crises, the waters remained safe and untouched by outside fishing boats and their harmful methods of fishing. “During war time we could do our job and make a living,” says Shanathan, a sentiment Markupillay agrees with. Indian trawlers were afraid to venture this far south and fishermen in other parts of Sri Lanka dared not come into these waters during the height of the war. There was a 10 km safe zone that the fishermen in Mullaitivu could venture out into before they put their own lives at risk. “If they went beyond, they were shot at and arrested,” Shanathan says.

Kumarasamy Tasatharakumar works on the beach

Kumarasamy Tasatharakumar could well attest to that. He sits on the beach, a stone’s throw away from the line of wadiyas along the shore, fiddling with a net. A pair of crutches lie next to him, neatly placed on the sand. Tasatharakumar took his boat out to sea one evening in 1996 and was shot at by the Navy who were on an anxious lookout for Tiger reconnaissance boats testing the outer perimeter defenses of the military’s massive complex in Mullaitivu. He had been married for eight months when he was shot at. The Mullaitivu base was overun and destroyed by the LTTE a few months later, but Tasatharakumar is still here 26 years later. He looks on, indifferent to his amputation, committed to life by the sea although he could never venture out to fish again.

Tasatharakumar’s daughter died during the closing stages of the war and three of his remaining four children are still in school. His son was recently arrested in India, as he attempted to find passage to Canada. “They go because they don’t have jobs anymore. They want a better life. The cost of a life here is more than what we can earn. He doesn’t even want to come back because he says there is nothing for him here.”

With diesel prices at an all time high, the fish that’s caught hardly goes in bulk outside the province, let alone the district. “Us sending fish to Colombo or wherever else would mean we have to bear the transport cost and the commissions and then spend on the ice too. With all that considered, it’s not a good return for us,” says Markupillay. “Amid all that, we have no control over the quality of the fish or the care that’s paid when transporting it. Sometimes people are not satisfied with the quality of the fish and don’t pay for it. It’s not a risk we like to take, if something were to go wrong.”

Hero over Honda: Vendors transporting their fish prefer converting the passenger seat of the newer Hero motorcycles than persisting with the trusted Honda MD90

The best option then is to wait for the vendors to come to them. As the logistics of transporting fish by bulk is a difficult proposition to manage, the simple person to person transactions between vendor and supplier have returned. Vendors drive their motorcycles to Mullaitivu from Vavuniya, Anuradhapura and sometimes even as far away as Nuwara Eliya hoping to land a good bargain for fresh fish. It’s an easy profit for Markupillay because he is sure of the quality of the fish he sells and the person he sells it to. “The price for everything has increased, so the price for fish has to increase as well,” he says with a chuckle. It is an easy, hassle free transaction.

“The first boat I bought in 1972 was Rs. 7, 200. My most recent one was six lakhs,” says Markupillay as he looks back at his fleet of five boats beached on the sand. The times have changed and the prices gone only higher, life is difficult and yet it goes on for the community of about five hundred fishermen on this stretch of sand.