A stand-off between protesting fisherfolk and police at the Port of Spain Waterfront yesterday led to two supporting activists and a fisherman being arrested.
This is the latest and most dramatic instalment in a series of planned protests by the fishing community, as they attempt to get the Government to regulate seismic testing by energy companies in local waters. This type of testing uses dynamite or air guns underwater, in the search for and assessment of oil and gas reserves with the use of soundwaves.
Detained by police yesterday were Gary Aboud, head of Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), environmentalist Cathal Healy-Singh and La Brea fisherman, Wayne Henry.
The trio were up to late yesterday in custody at the Central Police Station, in Port of Spain, after several charges were laid, among them resisting arrest, obstructing the police and protesting without permission.
Yesterday’s protest, the third in as many months, began at 10 a.m. with dozens of fisherfolk, supporters and conservationists at the Waterfront, with some fisherfolk offshore in their fishing vessels.
They bore placards calling on the Government and Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to lay down the law on energy companies that have, for decades, conducted seismic underwater tests without being required to provide an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or apply for a Certificate of Environment Clearance (CEC).
The proceedings became heated when the gathering was refused police permission to march outside the Parliament Chamber, where they wanted to “knock on the door,” Aboud said, as a symbolic gesture of their requests to the Government.
The police refusal to allow the entire group to do so and subsequent orders that the gathering disperse, led to a hand-on-shoulder human barricade being formed and the group’s staunch refusal to leave.
After some time of bandying between the police, Aboud, Healy-Singh and several other protesters on the front line, Aboud turned to the crowd and for the third time that day, began to sing the National Anthem.
The crowd joined him, causing a policeman in the lead to move into the crowd and attempt to pull Aboud out. Henry surged forward, calling out to the policeman to leave Aboud alone.
This led to an immediate attempt by the police to subdue Henry and they tried to drag out of the crowd to handcuff him, Aboud and others held on to his body.
Aboud was then dragged off Henry and tackled to the ground. Henry, who was standing, handcuffed, had his feet kicked out from under him by a police officer and was also taken, face down, to the ground.
Aboud crawled forward and draped himself on Henry, both still singing the national anthem.
More protesters, including Healy-Singh, threw themselves on Henry and Aboud, who was by then close to tears and calling out to Henry as his “brother”, pleading with the police to release the 43-year-old fisherman.
The crowd fell into a sit-down protest, refusing to budge and demanding that the men be released.
It was some time later that the police, overheard saying that the situation had to be brought to closure, picked up and dragged Henry out of the grip of members of his group.
Following were Aboud and Healy-Singh, who were also then arrested and shoved into the back of a waiting police vehicle.
In the wake of the arrests, the stunned crowd milled about for hours, unsure of their move, having been warned by the remaining police that they had outworn their welcome on the Waterfront.
“This is a public space and you have to leave. You had two hours,” one policeman told them.
The protesters were also warned about the bullhorn, the use of which they were told is illegal in the capital city.
Head of the Claxton Bay Fishing Association, Kishore Boodram, said the group did not need permission to picket peacefully, which they have done in the past.
“We are doing what we can, not just for ourselves, but to preserve the future of this country for the children to come,” Boodram said.
“This is food we are talking about. The food of tomorrow,” he said.
For Boodram and the others, yesterday’s events were a manifestation of what they felt is “contempt” by the Government for the fishing community.
“This is how they treat us, bravo for the police, they are doing their job,” one emotional Carenage fisherman cried.
The group said it will continue to draw attention to its cause in whatever way necessary.
“Seismic testing and bombing are destroying our marine life,” Boodram said.
“It kills small fish and their eggs and babies. It causes disorientation among big marine life, like dolphins and turtles in the Gulf of Paria, which is also a dumping ground for these companies. We are seeing species migrating out of our waters and this affects the chain of life. Other countries, where these companies are based, regulate seismic testing, because they care about their future. Why can’t we?”
Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj said yesterday he was “extremely disappointed” in the protest actions taken by Fisherman and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) and the fishing community.
Maharaj, who last week announced the appointment of an interdisciplinary committee to review seismic testing in Trinidad and Tobago, said he had expected that Aboud would act on good faith, given his (Aboud’s) involvement in forming the committee.
“The ink hasn’t been allowed to dry on the papers and we have these protests,” Maharaj said in a telephone interview.
Maharaj said he believed that the current Government has done more for the environment than previous administrations, given State’s decision in September to ban wildlife hunting and his Ministry’s decision to impose regulations and bans on the trawling industry.
“We still hold out hope for a timely resolution in this matter,” Maharaj said.