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When fishermen get NETTED

  • By  Arthur Wamanan and Sahla Ilham
  • Saturday, 21 March 2015
  • The recent visit of Indian Premier Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka was looked at as a positive sign in terms of several key issues pertaining to both countries. India and Sri Lanka, while having maintained friendship for generations, have had their issues. Occasional clashes between fishermen of both countries have been a nagging pain for both States.  This has now become part of a political issue that needs to be addressed.

    Tamil Nadu has been in the forefront of voicing support for Tamils in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province during and after the war. However, Northern fishermen claim that they are in fact affected due to the encroachment of Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan waters.
    “They use fishing nets and boats that are banned. They encroach into our seas since they had destroyed all their resources,” said Jaffna  District Fisheries Federation Secretary K. Rajachandran.

    The allegation leveled is that Indian fishermen use bottom trawling which destroys the sea bed and its natural resources. Bottom trawling, also referred to as benthic trawling, is considered an IUU (Illegal, Unregulated, Unreported) fishing practice, banned by the Indian Ocean Tuna Committee (IOTC) and the European Union (EU).

    As a result, the Northern fishermen are facing a major livelihood issue. The  encroachment by Indian fishermen, the fishermen in the north have to now compete for fishing space with the much larger fishing vessels used by Indians.

    Rajachandran states that at least 30,000 fishing families in the Northern coastal belt have been affected by this prolonged issue.

    It is well known that the Indian Sri Lankan fishermen problem has continued for decades now. Over the course of 30 years, more than 530 fishermen have been killed in the waters between India and Sri Lanka.

    The recent visits of the Heads of States to both countries were expected to have a soothing effect on the issue. The Government, as a goodwill gesture, released 86 Indian fishermen in line with the visit by Modi who arrived in the country on March 13.

    However, Rajachandran claims that the encroachment continues despite the developments. In addition, the statement made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that those who violate the maritime border would be shot has also sent mixed signals to India.

    Bottom trawling
    Fisheries Department Deputy Director Lal De Silva said the method of trawling uses large nets tied to the end of boats. These nets which are dragged in the bottom of the seabed destroy corals, small fish and fish eggs.

    He further said that this process often leaves the sea bed in a deserted state. He further commented saying that especially due to the destruction of fish eggs, it gives small fish a lesser chance to repopulate, and this has a negative impact on the people as fisherman will have smaller harvesting later on. Genetic and ecological diversity are equally affected. Sri Lanka is a tropical country. With its higher biodiversity it stands to lose more because of such destructive methods of fishing than would a none-equatorial country.

    More than 30 percent of the catch made by Indian poachers in Sri Lankan waters is dumped back into the sea as waste fish, because it is not commercially viable. In fact for every kilo of fish there is 20 kilos waste fish.

    Proprietor, Ocean’s Harvest Fishing Company, Rahul Ariyasinha told The Nation that the issue of illegal fishing practiced by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters is a major concern both economically as well as environmentally and has had extensive economic repercussions for the northern fishermen who comprise of almost 20 percent of the population in the north. Over 3,000 large trawlers operate in the Palk Strait, Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar.

    He stated that Indian fishermen tend to encroach in big groups that number into the hundreds and as a result the fishermen in the north have had to limit their fishing operations to a very short distance from shore which minimizes their chances of finding fish.

    “There have been many incidences where the fishing gear of our fishermen have been damaged as a result of being entangled with the bottom trawl nets of the Indians or has been intentionally destroyed,” he added.

    Continental shelves
    Ariyasinha also explained the importance of continental shelves which serves as feeding grounds to sea creatures. “Though Sri Lanka has a narrow continental shelf, the north and the north western banks of Sri Lanka have a highly productive and broad continental shelf that continues with the Indian continental shelf,” he said.

    He alleged that the Indian fishermen who encroach target the rich continental shelf using the bottom trawling method which is one of the most destructive methods used to catch fish.

    He stated that as a result of the small mesh used in these nets it does not allow other sea creatures to escape resulting in many other fish, turtles and marine mammals to be captured and discarded. Accordingly, many of these discarded fish are juvenile and valuable species for other fishermen. “The unsustainable over fishing practiced by the encroaching Indian fishermen is a direct threat to fishing communities not only in the North and North West, but of the entire country,” he added.

    He further stated that both countries needed to come to a compromise on the issue that would allow Tamil Nadu fishermen to operate in our waters of North and NorthWest for an agreed number of days a month, provided that they completely stop the use of bottom trawling and instead use a more environmentally sustainable method of fishing when fishing in our waters.

    Indian fishermen walk after being freed by a local Sri Lankan court at Katchchativu in Jaffna District on March 17, 2014. 
    Ishara S. KODIKARA)
    Source: The Nation