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Cyclone Ockhi: Disaster Risk Management and Sea Safety in the Indian Marine Fisheries Sector
  • :Manas Roshan
  • :2018
  • :73
  • :978-93-80802-73-2

The cyclone Ockhi developed in the Northern Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka and rapidly intensified into a cyclonic storm, killing over 350 people from southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala between 30 November and 3 December 2017. There were also some unidentified fishers from the north-eastern states of India who were lost at sea while working on board fishing vessels. The full force of the storm was borne by fishermen at sea, unlike previous cyclones.


Supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) undertook a study to assess disaster response and preparedness in light of cyclone Ockhi, to review cyclone warning systems and their efficacy, as well as central and state policies and plans (Tamil Nadu and Kerala) to cope with disasters and to minimize loss of human life and damage to fishery-based livelihoods in line with the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (the SSF guidelines).


The research consisted of field interviews with survivors and the families of missing fishermen from cyclone-affected coastal fishing villages in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala; and Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. The study looked at short-haul and long-haul fishing operations—the latter undertaken in the maritime zones adjacent to states along the western seaboard up to Maharashtra and Gujarat, and the archipelagic waters around Lakshadweep Islands. Secondary research and interviews with central and state governments, fishers’ associations and the scientific experts were conducted. Interviews were used to construct a timeline of events between 28 November and 6 December 2017 to identify key issues of early warnings, fishing positions, disaster response and relay time between different agencies.


The study recognizes the need to improve disaster risk management and disaster risk reduction framework to reduce the vulnerabilities of coastal fishing communities. Considering the diversity of fishing communities and fishing operations, the study recommends a multipronged approach to reducing economic and social damages including the loss of human life. While a majority of fishermen casualties in Kerala were those employed on board traditional motorized craft fishing less than 50 nautical miles from shore, almost all the fatalities in Tamil Nadu were from mechanized, deep-sea vessels undertaking fishing trips of 40-day duration within the Indian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the high seas.


The study observes that the disaster management plans at the central and state levels are primarily focused on risk reduction and mitigation on shore where storm surges have historically led to over 90 percent of deaths. The study points out the need to integrate safety of fishing operations at sea into disaster preparedness protocols to reduce the number of fishers losing their life during cyclones. The role and responsibilities of the fisheries department in monitoring fishing activity and ensuring sea safety are highlighted and the study seeks a more active role, along with the revenue department, for the state fisheries department in search and rescue operations as well as in relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery efforts.


Various efforts by state governments to regulate the fishing sector and their effectiveness are analysed in the study. The study stresses the need to address the differential impact of cyclones, in particular, on small-scale fishers and vulnerable and marginalised communities. The study reviews fisheries and sea safety legislation, rules and policy frameworks at various levels and proposes integrating disaster preparedness into fisheries management. Such integration is to be consistent with the recommendations of the SSF Guidelines, employing “relief-development continuum” and “build back better” principles and a human rights-based approach.


The study underscores the importance of developing a national legislation for the EEZ on fisheries that integrates sea safety considerations into fisheries management and governance, and seeks greater cooperation and coordination between the littoral states, and between coastal states and the central government. The United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which India has adopted in 2015 for implementation, aims to achieve a substantial reduction in the loss of lives through the coordinated efforts of national and international agencies, civil society and the community.


As an example, the study draws attention to how an effective monitoring, control and surveillance system in Sri Lanka, recently implemented as part and parcel of its fisheries management regime has, in fact, led to improved and effective disaster preparedness during cyclone Ockhi. Although the damage caused by the cyclone was limited to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the lessons gleaned from the study point to the need for a national strategy to ensure the safety of fishermen consistent with paragraphs 6.16 and 6.17 of the SSF Guidelines.


Following are the main recommendations of the study:



  1. Reconfigure the notion of the last mile in the communication of disaster warnings and to include fishermen at sea.

  2. Ensure constant communication between the IMD and disaster managers so as to effectively warn the coastal communities.

  3. Reduce relay time between departments by using multiple channels and technologies.

  4. Develop low-cost and user friendly communication technology, keeping in mind the end users, i.e., fisher families.

  5. Conduct periodic awareness and training programmes in disaster preparedness guided by community-based disaster managment approach, to build a culture of safety among fishermen.

  6. Widen the scope of disaster management plans to include at-sea disaster and accident risks

  7. Develop the already existing national cyclone plan to include best practices from various states, based on each state’s stregths and weaknesses in handling various disasters.

  8. Improve coordination between different agencies in disaster management to reduce response times and more effectively collaborate during seach and rescue and other mitigation measures.

  9. Utilize the traditional knowledge of fishers in identifying likely fishing zones during search and rescue operations by the Coast Guard and Navy. Identify experienced fishers in each village to accompany rescue teams.

  10. Strengthen disaster management at the district and village levels through well-manned 24-hour control rooms, community participation and training, and ensuring the availability of technology and infrastructure to reduce damage to lives and livelihoods.

  11. Integrate disaster management into fisheries management through appropriate legislation and its implementation.

  12. Ensure safety of fishers at sea through free flow of information between fishers and the administration. Strengthen monitoring measures and compliance to safety norms.

  13. Expanding the regulatory role of the fisheries department to include monitoring, control and surveillance measures, reporting of all fishing activity, including accidents, and enforcement of norms for sea safety. This also includes maintaining robust up-to-date data on all fishing vessels and the vessels at sea and where at a point of time

  14. Use new technologies for improving sea safety measures, such as mobile applications for information sharing and dissemination of alerts (E.g. Fisher Friend Mobile Application, Mfisheries or Abalobi).