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India fishing in troubled Sri Lankan waters

Why the long-standing dispute between India and Sri Lanka over fishers crossing maritime boundaries remains unresolved

Many Indian bottom trawlers fish in Sri Lankan waters. These are blamed for damaging marine ecosystem and destroying smaller nets and boats of Sri Lankan fishers (credit: M.arunprasad)

It's not just the alleged atrocities on Tamils because of which Prime Minister Manmohan apparently skipped the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) in Colombo that is straining India's relations with Sri Lanka. Indian and Sri Lankan fishers trespassing into each other's territorial waters is another big sore point in the relations between the two nations.    

Last week, two fishers from Tamil Nadu drowned when their boat capsized as they were reportedly being chased by Sri Lankan naval vessels for crossing the international maritime boundary line. Thirty other fishers were arrested in the incident. Last month, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 32 Indian fishers for illegally fishing in their waters. There are similar incidents this side of the marine boundary as well. According to the Sri Lankan ministry of fisheries, around 97 of their fishers are in Indian custody.   

The conflict between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu over fishers is a long-standing one. In the 1970s, both the countries agreed on a maritime boundary. During the time of civil war in Sri Lanka,  Indian fishers operated freely in Sri Lankan waters, disregarding this boundary. With the end of the civil war, the situation changed and the Sri Lankan fishers returned to the sea to find their fishing grounds encroached.

Bottom trawlers from India pose threat

It is common knowledge that many Indian bottom trawlers fish in Sri Lankan waters. These are commercial fishing vessels that operate by dragging multiple nets through water. There are also allegations that Indian vessels use the kind of fishing net that is banned in Sri Lanka. Bottom trawlers essentially scrape the seabed, disturbing the marine environment. Identified as an internationally banned illegal, unregulated, unreported (IUU) fishing practice, bottom trawling is banned both in India and Sri Lanka. This fishing practice also creates a lot of fish wastage—as high as 30 per cent.

Herman Kumara, secretary general of World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), says in 2010 when a delegation of Sri Lankan fishers visited Tamil Nadu, the Indian fisher group had agreed to reduce accessing Sri Lankan waters from 130 days a year to 70 days a year. But this was not accepted by the governmentsHerman Kumara, secretary general of World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), which works with communities dependent on fishing for livelihoods, blames the Indian trawlers for catching a lot of fish and also destroying the smaller nets and boats of Sri Lankan fishers. “We have long used our waters in a sustainable manner but these trawlers do not follow this model,” he says. The Sri Lankan fishers stray into Indian waters allegedly to fish for tuna.

Kumara informs that in 2010, close to 30 people from Sri Lanka went to Tamil Nadu to try and find a solution to this problem. In August 2011, a consensus was reached between the two fisher groups. The Indian fisher group agreed to reduce accessing Sri Lankan waters from 130 days a year to 70 days a year but this was not accepted by the governments, he adds. Nimal Hettiarachchi, director general Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR) of Sri Lanka informs that there is a joint working group with members from both the countries trying to resolve the conflict.

The joint group was to meet every six months but the second meeting has not happened in a long time. Some allege this is because the Indian government has refused to give a date. Some government officials in Tamil Nadu who do not wish to be named inform that most of these trawlers are owned by rich people or those with a political clout, which allows them to operate as they please. “In this situation, where a mafia like situation exists in Tamil Nadu, the small fishers become the victims,” says an official. While some of these small fishers go fishing independently, some are also employed on trawlers. “Owners of these trawlers are the new class of fishers who have flourished because of mechanization,” says V Vivekanandan, secretary of the Fisheries Management Resource Centre in Kerala. “The trawler issue is a complex one and not resolving this is a failure of the Tamil Nadu state,” he adds.           

Chinese intervention

Interestingly, Sri Lanka has now allowed foreign (mostly Chinese) vessels to park in its waters and fish. “These Chinese vessels are big and fitted with modern satellite systems which helps them track fish much better than the traditional fishers. Also, with their advanced equipment they are able to catch more fish,” says Kumara. Such arrangements usually take place under the distant water fishing arrangement that allows a country to fish in another country’s exclusive economic zone for money.

But Sri Lanka has reportedly allowed the Chinese trawlers even beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); a Chinese company has entered into an agreement with the Sri Lankan Board of Investment for this. Under the agreement, 90 per cent of the catch would be exported to China while the rest will be sold to the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation at US $1/kg fish. But Kumara says this is not the case. “The Chinese trawlers sell their catch in the local market and that too at much lower prices than the local fishers, which further adds to the losses of traditional fisher people.”

Overfishing causing extinction

WFFP fears overfishing. “Overfishing is set to become a big problem for Sri Lanka in the near future. What’s more is that rich people are getting most of this fish catch as they are the ones who have the financial resources to operate high yielding methods unlike the traditional fisherfolk,” adds Kumara.

Overfishing is causing certain species of fish to fall under the threatened or extinct category. For instance, the popular edible fish Kelawalla (yellow-fin tuna) is now a near threatened species in the country because of overfishing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Tuna accounts for over 40 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total fish catch and about 50 per cent of marine fish catch. Last year in November, Greenpeace also warned of tuna overfishing in the Indian Ocean and called for monitoring.

The Sri Lankan Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development (MoFARD) says that population growth in the country and the lack of alternative income generating opportunities has led to immense pressure on coastal resources. The fisheries development programme of the government says that overexploitation of fisheries at the very least means lower returns and at worst leads to elimination of a biological species. The ministry says that it is certain kinds of harmful fishing methods that are responsible for this overfishing problem (see 'Harmful fishing methods').

Hettiarachchi acknowledges that overfishing is becoming a problem in certain areas. “We know this is an issue in some places and we are trying to ban certain fishing methods being used which are harmful. This is mainly because of increased demand from hotels and restaurants.” But he contradicts himself by saying that the traditional fishing methods are keeping the fish catch lower than potential in the country. DFAR is trying to promote fish production and fish export by introducing modern technology.

Fishing in Sri Lanka is a family activity by tradition. MoFARD attributes this to low education levels, lack of alternative livelihoods and high independent income. Fish is also the cheapest source of protein for people in Sri Lanka. The department is aiming to increase the per capita consumption of fish from 11kg per person to 22kg per person, keeping in mind the malnutrition levels in the country. It accounted for 1.8 per cent of GDP in 2012 (SLR 134,967 million). The coastal fish production in the country stands at 590,766 MT in 2013 according to DFAR, which is more than an 85 per cent rise from the 2010 levels.

Arjan Rajasuriya of IUCN tries to put this in perspective, “Thresher shark have almost vanished as have some other very important species mainly due to an increased demand and wrong fishing methods. The government needs to give this a serious thought.” The government is allowing even foreign vessels to fish in its waters, further aggravating the problem of overfishing. There is a need to provide better market access and prices to the local fishermen with a view to gradually improve their socio-economic conditions, he adds.