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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 10. Tidal Wave


I first went to the Far East in 1973 when offered a position by the UN and the Government of the Republic of Indonesia. A large marine fisheries research and training project had been established to help train personnel and develop the national fishery which till then was almost entirely artisanal in nature. The project was based at main institute in central Java, but included a Fisheries Academy in Jakarta, and five training centres located in Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali, Ambon, and Irian Jaya (northern New Guinea). There was also a UN research vessel, and over 20 training vessels of assorted sizes. Later we organized a mobile training unit to reach those provinces not served by a training centre.

This was an enormous opportunity to study and work with one of the largest of the world’s fisheries. Indonesia then had a population of 130 million, of which an estimated 3 million were fishers and fish farmers. Their numbers were similar to those in India, and second only to China which had the biggest number of persons in fishery employment. Most of the fishing boats were un-mechanised, powered only by oar, sail, or paddle. At the harbour of Tegal near our station, over 1,000 prahu sailing canoes headed out into the Java Sea each day to catch reef fish, sardines, mackerel, shrimp, squid, crab, and an assortment of other species. A small number of decked boats operated shrimp trawls or purse seines which were often used in conjunction with light attraction, or rumpon devices of palm leaves tied to a buoy to encourage fish aggregations.

Beyond the Java Sea, off the west coast of Sumatra, south of Bali, or north of Sulawesi, and east of Ambon, huge schools of ocean-swimming tuna could be found. These skipjack and yellowfin were caught in large quantities by pole and line (using a barbless un-baited hook). The tuna were attracted by live bait thrown into the water, and then when in a feeding frenzy would readily bite the flashing hooks. The tuna were to be heavily fished, first to supply canning plants, and then later to feed the growing lucrative sashimi markets in Japan. To capture the large bluefin tuna best suited for making fresh sashimi, baited long lines were used. These were tens of miles long, with the hooks suspended around 100 fathoms below the surface. The best of these fresh bluefin tuna were flown by jumbo jet from Jakarta to Tokyo. The prices obtained then justified the use of air freight.

I came to be familiar with most of Indonesia’s Islands and coasts in the 5 years when I led the UNDP FAO project. I regularly visited Medan in North Sumatra, and later spent a year in Padang, West Sumatra. Banda Aceh the most northerly Province of Sumatra is strictly Islamic, unlike the rest of the country where Moslems lived in gentle toleration of Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist faiths. It also has an active independence movement. The fishers of Banda Aceh were mainly located on its western or Indian Ocean coast which was the one that experienced the most serious tsunami damage in 2004. Indonesia had been hit by tsunami waves before, but not in the awful scale of the Boxing Day disaster.

The huge island of Sumatra is rich in natural resources, both flora and fauna. It is home to a dwindling population of tigers, elephants and orang-utan apes. The island is also rich in petroleum, particularly in Riau province on the east coast facing Singapore. There are substantial tropical forests, and plantations of oil palm, rubber and teakwood. Sumatra’s fisheries are extensive and varied but as yet not fully developed. The east coast has many shrimp farms and there are hundreds of fresh water fish farms in the west and south. East coast fishing focuses mainly on shrimp, while west coast fleets harvest a great variety of coastal and oceanic species.

Northern Sumatra was also of historical interest to me. At Samosir Island on Lake Toba in the mountains above Medan, ancestral home of the Batak people, were the remains of the strongholds of the old kings of Sumatra. North Sumatra people were mostly Batak, while West Sumatra were Meningkabau Their magnificent hand-woven textiles and elaborate traditional dress were most impressive, as any who have attended a magnificent Sumatran wedding will affirm. As with all Indonesian people, they are generous and hospitable to visitors and foreigners, and will gladly welcome you to their celebrations.

It is not commonly known that Java and parts of Sumatra came under British Empire rule for a period 200 years ago. This was after the Napoleonic wars, and it was on Java that Stamford Raffles began his illustrious career. He was based in Bogor where he established the great botanical garden, and where, sadly, his first wife died and was buried. Following that they sent him to one of the islands off NW Sumatra, but it was too far away from the main shipping lanes. So he was then posted on an island at the tip of the Malay peninsula which we now know as Singapore. Raffles was an example of the best of British colonial administrators. He was remarkably competent in several areas, particularly biology, natural science and land management. He himself died relatively young, and in somewhat impoverished circumstances, the British government having reneged on his pension provision.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka I visited first in 1983, after the Sinhalese – Tamil riots in Colombo, and then again between 1999 and 2002, after the bombing of the Air Lanka planes at Colombo airport. That lovely spicy island, shaped like a tear drop, has seen far too much conflict and bloodshed the past 25 years. Sinhalese and Tamils could happily live side by side in harmony if certain troublemakers and antagonists in both politics and religion would leave them alone. But that it seems is too much to ask for of these persons who are obsessed with hatred. I worked with both races (you cannot tell the difference between them), and had friends on both sides of the conflict.

The Sri Lankan fishing fleet is unusual for its range of vessels and their methods of operation. Apart from the coastal canoes with their outrigger poles, and the numerous sailing boats, the country has a fleet of ocean-going vessels that fish as far away as the coasts of East Africa and north Australia. The fishermen are skilled and intrepid. The distant water boats are relatively small, most of them in the 35 to 55 foot range. Their hulls are usually of wood or fiberglass. The three main bases of the fishing fleets are the west coast north of Colombo, the south-west coast, and the northern Tamil province of Jaffna, facing India. The tsunami was to hit all three but chiefly the east, south and south-west coasts. The fishers of Negombo, north of Colombo are mainly Christian, those around Galle, Matara and Hambantota on the south-west and south coast are predominately Buddhist, and those up north around Jaffna and the north-east coast down to Trincomalee and Batticaloa, are mainly Hindu. There are a few Moslem fishers also in some restricted locations. When political interference was absent, cooperation between the different fisher groups was very possible. An active fish merchant friend, Prashantha Peiris was able to work harmoniously with fishers and fisher organizations in all 3 areas.


I had visited Thailand and Malaysia several times when working with the UN South China Sea Programme, and had traveled up and down their coasts. In 1979, just as the Vietnamese army was flushing Pol Pot’s incredibly cruel Khmer Rouge forces out of Cambodia, I joined a Thai fisheries mission on a journey to the Khmer, Myanmar and Malaysia borders. My fishery officer escorts were armed, and we had to have special security permission to go to each of those sensitive areas. We did not see any military activity, but for me the most tense border, and the one that had the most visible military presence, was not the Khmer (Cambodian), or Myanmar (Burmese) borders, but the one with Malaysia where extreme or radical Islamist groups were confronting the Thai authorities. No doubt there were reasons for the dispute, on both sides, but the tension in that southern part of Thailand, was the most evident.

Other visits to Thailand were to conduct training and extension courses and workshops with the Thai fisheries department, and representatives from other fishery administrations in the region. I knew well the Japanese funded SEAFDEC organization which was based in Bangkok, from where it served the fisheries of Indo-China and South East Asia.

The Tsunami wave

A monstrous wall of water descended on the coastal communities of Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, SE India, and Myanmar, that tragic Boxing Day morning in 2004. All was quiet, peaceful and pleasant before the mighty wave struck with incredible violence. It shook the whole world to its foundations as we were made to appreciate the immense forces of nature, and our own vulnerability. Over 300,000 persons lost their lives, and together with the aftershock earthquake that struck North Sumatra and Nias Island barely 3 months later, the total toll in lives was probably well over 340,000. The cost in destruction of homes, fishing boats, stores, businesses, and coastal infrastructure, is incalculable.

Knowing most of the Fishery Departments and fishery officers involved, in all three countries, I maintained contact with them after the tidal wave struck, to keep abreast of the situation and to put them in touch with those who were ready to provide assistance. In Thailand, the Government asked the Fishery Department to mount an immediate relief effort. The Fisheries director selected an experienced officer and former naval captain, Thewan Thamalarat, to travel immediately to the stricken coast. Thewan contacted an expert team of former naval colleagues and they sped to the Andaman coast and plunged into search and rescue efforts. They were too late to save lives, and had the gruesome task of retrieving bodies from the sea and from overturned vessels. But they worked day and night in the hope of the remotest chance of saving someone.

Fishing villages in all three tsunami-hit countries were vulnerable to tidal waves as they were mostly located within walking distance of the sea. In all three lands, where there was a belt of trees between the shore and the communities, houses and lives were spared. Where no such natural protection existed, the waves simply crashed on for up to three miles inland. The South Pacific and Indian Oceans, regularly experience severe weather in the form of typhoons and hurricanes. These are particularly frequent in the South China Sea at certain times of the year. So the fishers and their communities are no stranger to natural disasters. But the tsunami of December 26, 2004, was far beyond any marine storm they had experienced before. Yet it came upon them silently and unexpectedly, - a horrendous weight of water that traveled rapidly over the ocean’s surface, then developed into a huge wall of water as it entered the shallow coastal areas.

Tsunamis are caused by undersea earthquakes whose powerful vibrations result in a ripple effect on the surface, spreading out from the ocean above the quake. On the ocean surface the tsunami ripple is scarcely visible. It is like a very long shallow swell, but it travels at high speed heading for the shore where its energy will be spent with devastating results. In some cases the dip before the swell reaches the coast first, and sucks the inshore water back, revealing fish and shellfish on the exposed sand. But the wave that follows before people can run clear of its path, carries of tens of thousands of tons of water that crash onto the shore and can sweep houses and boats and vehicles before it.

Post tsunami assistance

The graphic pictures relayed by television after that Boxing Day disaster, moved us all and touched the hearts of all who saw the devastation. The whole world responded with remarkable generosity and millions upon millions were pledged and donated. The biggest pledges were by governments such as those of the USA, Britain, Japan, and others in Europe, Scandinavia and Australasia. But six months after the event, little of those enormous pledges has materialized. This illustrates why the UN Secretary General was unimpressed by the pledges, and pleaded instead for money on the table. Though there was a rush to spend some of the money, there was sadly a corresponding lack of vision or practical ideas on how best it might be used.

What was delivered well and promptly, in Sri Lanka, Banda Aceh, Thailand, SE India, and the Andaman Islands, were hundreds upon hundreds of charitable donations and items of practical assistance from numerous individuals, churches, missions, charities and organizations like OXFAM, the Red Cross, Tear Fund and World Vision. Even a small Scottish charity like Blythswood, that formerly had Eastern Europe as its focus, was able to ship thousands of tons of clothes and household goods to the stricken areas within a very short space of time. Some individuals like Alan Glanville of Dunmore East, Ireland, who had worked in Sri Lankan fisheries in the 1950’s went to work on personal relief efforts immediately. Alan flew to Sri Lanka, assessed the situation, reviewed the design and specifications of the local boats, and ordered suitable replacements from a boatyard in Chile.

From the start, I established and maintained contact with officials and volunteers in the countries concerned, and was asked by the fishing industry to assist them in selecting the most appropriate types of equipment and assistance, and in identifying the more reliable and trustworthy vehicles of delivery. The government invited me to attend a consultative meeting in London, and numerous individuals in UK, Ireland, and the tsunami hit countries, liaised regularly with me on the organization of contributions in money and kind. But at the meeting in question, DFID personnel told us they would rather leave the entire relief effort to FAO, than burden their own staff with the extra work.

Fishing industry representatives from Scotland, northern Ireland, Wales and England, attended the meeting. All were eager to do what they could to help, but the government reaction from DEFRA and DFID was like a huge wet blanket. One Scots skipper offered to donate his steel refrigerated stern trawler for use as a relief supply vessel in Banda Aceh or Sri Lanka. The other Scots fishers offered to fill the boat with ropes, buoys, netting, twine and floats from which the Asian fishers could construct their own types of nets and traps. They would fly a crew in from the stricken areas, and help them sail the boat out, and to train them on the way on the operation and maintenance of the machinery and electronics.

But the British government said “No”. The boat in question was one of those scheduled to be scrapped under the EC MAGP programme (though it was in fine condition and could have served for another 25 years). But the government would rather see it go to a scrap-yard than be offered to the stricken coasts of SE Asia. When I later informed the fishery authorities in the 2 countries concerned, they were appalled that the UK government had not even consulted them on the possibility. British officials said publicly that such fishing boats were inappropriate for the area, - knowing full well it was offered, not for fishing operations, but for delivering supplies to the needy areas, and to take fish catches from there to the markets since the roads and bridges had been made impassable. The Chairman of the Scottish Pelagic fishers Association, Alex West, told me personally that his member boats would gladly donate the delivery funds, and ordinary people were then giving millions for tsunami aid through the government. Yet officials admitted to me they were afraid some of the expenses of sending a boat out (like insurance costs) might have to be met by the UK treasury ! Yet the government claimed to have spent over £ 64 million immediately after the tsunami, and to have committed a further £ 215 million for longer term reconstruction. This does not include the £ 300 million or more that was donated by the British public and distributed by the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Rehabilitation in Thailand

I made known my interest in assisting the relief efforts on the spot, as I was familiar with practically all of the coastal areas and their fishing communities. Though asked later to help in Banda Aceh, it was Thailand that first requested my services in April 2005, through a European project, originally designed to improve fishery management, but modified early that year to direct assistance to fishers and fishing communities that had suffered loss. I was particularly fortunate to have Thewan Thamalarat mentioned above, allocated to me as my guide and counterpart. He was a fund of up-to-date information and insights on all that happened, and seemed to have a warm personal acquaintance with all of the leading figures in the coastal fishing communities. We formed a lasting bond and still count each other as treasured friends.

The tsunami had struck Thailand’s islands and coastal areas on the Andaman seaboard. The area hit by the huge sea wave includes 6 Provinces, 25 Districts, 95 Tambons (sub-districts), and 40 Villages. It was confirmed that 1,952 Thai persons lost their lives, with a further 1,998 missing, making a possible total of lives lost of just over 3,950. It is believed that non-Thai casualties were almost as high as those of nationals, bringing the total of deaths in Thailand to around 8,000. Many fishermen from Myanmar and other adjacent lands were killed in the disaster.

The number of children made orphans by the disaster came to 1,172, including some from outside the 6 province area. A total of 3,302 homes were completely destroyed, and 1,504 suffered partial damage. The value of fishing craft, gear, fish cages, ponds, and fishery facilities, lost or damaged, came to over 1.8 billion Baht (£ 25 million). Damage to farm lands and crops amounted to 6.6 million Baht (£ 93 million). Livestock losses came to 17.6 million Baht (£ 25 million), and small business premises damage to 13.1 billion Baht (£ 18.7 million).

Later estimates put the losses in Thailand as high as 8,000 persons, half of them Thais, although many of that number are still listed as missing. Sadly, many bodies will never be recovered. Over 700 children were orphaned by the disaster. A total of 4,800 homes were hit by the enormous wave. 3,300 were destroyed completely, and 1,500 suffered partial damage. Over 6,700 fishing boats were damaged or lost, along with tens of thousands of nets, fish cages and fish ponds. This amounted to an enormous disaster by any yardstick.

Initial compensation sums from Thai Government emergency funds, were paid to survivors and to families of fishermen lost. Practical help was provided to communities by a range of charities and NGOs which were prompt to respond. My role in the CHARM / TRS1 assistance programme was to identify genuine fisher victims and damaged villages, and to allocate appropriate practical help to repair vessels, provide equipment, re-equip fish farmers, and assist fisher women to re-establish their curing and retail ventures. Help was also to be provided to enable former fisher family members to access alternative employment or alternative business opportunities. My fellow officer Thewan, was remarkably skilled at interaction with the stricken communities, and was a welcome visitor wherever we went. We were equally welcome in Moslem villages as we were in Buddhist fishing ports.

I was made particularly responsible to develop and implement workable arrangements for the fishers to manage their operations and protect their fishing grounds in cooperation with the national fishery patrol service. With the enthusiastic and dedicate assistance of my fine Thai fisheries counterpart, groups of fisher volunteers were organized and trained in six coastal provinces, and were equipped with life saving equipment, CB radios, binoculars, first aid kits, charts and signal flags. Shore communication centres were established and fitted out to act as the base for all operations, and the repository of data and information on fish catches, illegal fishing reports, marine habitat changes, and environmental facts on the local mangrove, sea grass, and coral resources. The facilities provide each participating community with the tools and skills to respond to future marine disasters, as well as the training and facilities to monitor the condition of their coastal zone and its fishing grounds.

Yet, while these models are relatively inexpensive and their replication up and down the tsunami threatened coasts, would do much to lessen the impact of new disasters; the bodies sitting with hundreds of millions of tsunami relief funds in their hands, seem devoid of practical ideas for their use. So instead of similar effective inputs and measures, the money is being wasted on hugely expensive and hopelessly theoretical studies and academic or bureaucratic exercises of little genuine relevance. After nearly half a century in development work I still am astonished by the propensity of bureaucracies to avoid providing practical help if there is an abstract alternative.

Visits to fishing villages on the west coast and on the islands offshore, gave me plenty opportunity to meet with the people and hear first hand from them, their experiences when the tsunami wave hit, and the subsequent losses they suffered. Rural peasants all over the world, whether farmers or fishers or small traders, are remarkably resilient people, and one could not but admire how they were rebuilding their lives and their communities. Personal tales of loss and bereavement were particularly poignant. The province of Ranong, north of Phuket, experienced the worst of the damage in Thailand, though the scars of the destruction are being covered by new constructions, and by nature’s ability to replace devastated areas with fresh growth.

Banda Aceh

The most northern province of Sumatra, Banda Aceh was hardest hit and had the biggest fleet of small boats which operated gill nets, seines, lines and traps from their beaches and estuarine harbours on the east side of the Province, and from Nias and other islands. I had spent a year and a half to the south, in the town of Padang where the government was then developing a fishery harbour for the local boats which worked trolling lines for schools of surface tuna on the deep ocean. Some fishery support facilities were also being developed on the Mentawai islands offshore.

The Aceh coast was struck with such velocity that over 280,000 lives were lost, and scores of villages wiped off the map. The surviving population will rebuild their villages and restore the shattered economy, but the social and psychological scars of the disaster will remain for generations to come.

Three months after the tsunami disaster, North-West Sumatra was struck by a major earthquake that mercifully did not result in a tsunami wave, but which caused serious damage to certain localities. The island of Nias alone suffering many hundreds of fatalities. The total number who died from that earthquake in Sumatra is reckoned to amount to over 1,300 persons. Coming on top of the havoc wreaked by the tidal wave, this was a double tragedy for the area.

Despite government sensitivities over the separatist movement in Banda Aceh, several aid organizations were allowed to come in, and to work directly with the people. FAO did a sterling job and was about able to implement a substantial project in relatively short time. My good friends, Dr Rudolph Hermes, and Dr John Kurien, who had worked hard for coastal communities in Kerala India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and other countries in the region, were among the key team members. A range of locally appropriate seaworthy boats were built and provided to fishermen who lost their vessels in the tsunami. 25-year-old Irwan lost half his family as well as his boat, but is now re-building his life with one of the new vessels.

The women-folk who process and sell almost all of the catch, have also been assisted. Fifty-year-old Mrs Wardiah Johan of Pante Raja village lost her husband and seven children. With a fresh supply of fish drying racks and modest start-up capital, she is once again in business and able to provide for herself and her assistant Miss Pataia. Together they are processing and selling forty per cent more fish than Wardiah handled before the tsunami.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s east coast and south coast suffered the next highest losses in life and property. The tsunami tidal wave wreaked havoc along 1,300 kilometres of its coast from the Tamil north-west to the Singhalese south coast and southern east coast. Over 40,000 persons were killed, and hundreds of thousands were made homeless. Much of the coastal infrastructure, fishing fleets and countless seaside villages were destroyed. The tear-shaped island experienced sorrow upon sorrow, its pristine beaches and lagoons turned into graveyards for numberless innocent persons who were going about their normal business that Sunday when the ocean bed earthquake created a 2,000 kilometre long wave of immense proportions. The work of restoration is now under way, supported by a remarkable global response of generosity and sympathy. But coastal life in the beautiful island will never be the same again.

For months after the tsunami, the 5 star and 4 star hotels were packed full of aid missions and teams of consultants which was an unexpected benefit to the country’s languishing tourist trade. But this initial show of interest did not result in speedy assistance. As in Thailand, India, and, to a lesser extent, Banda Aceh, the first to assist on the ground were the small charities and missions, and countless numbers of concerned individuals. I was approached by many would-be donors and asked to advise them on how to channel their inputs. My advice was to avoid the British government and the UN Agencies, the former because of their stated intention to leave it to others, and the latter because of the in-built bureaucratic delays and high overheads.

A school in Ayrshire had raised several thousand pounds and wanted me to point them to a reliable local channel. I suggested a fine local missioner, Reggie Ebenezer, who worked directly with Sinhalese, Tamils and Moslems. He in turn put the funds to good use in two needy villages, and gave the school a full account of their use, and the resulting benefits to the impoverished residents.

On a larger scale, UN assistance through FAO led eventually to 21,000 surviving fishers and fish workers being enabled to return to work through renovations to damaged boats and shore facilities. Over 3,400 boats, 212 inboard engines and 658 outboard motors were repaired and put back in service, along with hundreds of damaged fish ponds. In addition to fishermen, women fish processors and cooperative managers were trained and equipped to resume operations.

But the island went on to face a huge humanitarian problem with tens of thousands of persons displaced from their homes by the Sinhalese / Tamil conflict. However, that is another story. Part of it is related in chapter 14 – Fishermen in a Civil War.

1 Coastal Habitats and Resources Management / Tsunami Rehabilitation Support, an EU financed Project

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