Indo-Sri Lanka Relations: How to end Great Fish Robbery?

Trawlers come at night, three days a week, smuggle colossal amounts of fisheries resources, and damage Sri Lankan fishers’ nets, causing enormous financial losses. To avoid the trawlers, Sri Lankan fishers often stay at home instead of going out to sea, thus loosing valuable fishing time.

by Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe and Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar

From the beginning of the early 1980s, trawlers, from Tamil Nadu, have been crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and illegally fishing in the Palk Bay waters of northern Sri Lanka, damaging the ecosystem by bottom trawling, smuggling fisheries resources, belonging to the northern Sri Lankan fishers, damaging their fishing equipment, and undermining their livelihoods. Diverse types of interventions, by the two governments, dialogues between the fishers of the two countries, involvement of civil society actors, and others, have done little to prevent human suffering, economic losses and the volatile political situation disturbing the relations between two friendly countries that have emerged from this 40-year long story of resource piracy. The northern Sri Lankan fishers, who suffered 30 years of civil war have had enough and there is an urgent need to end this crisis.

Extracting and devastating resources

Both Sri Lankan and Indian fishers used to share the Palk Bay waters (historic waters) in the past, which they did in harmony. However, post-war developments saw radical changes in the structure and organisation in fisheries, the expansion of the market and the establishment of borders separating the Palk Bay region, all of which had tremendous influence on fisheries, especially on the type of technology employed (craft-gear combinations), target species, fishing pressure and area of operation. In this process of change, a tremendous increase in Indian trawlers was observed, which finally resulted in a serious decline of fisheries resources on the Indian side of the Palk Bay and crossing of the IMBL by the Indian trawl fleet to fish in Sri Lankan waters.

In northern Sri Lanka, over 37,000 fishers operate more than 11,650 boats, the majority of which are 18 feet FRP boats propelled by outboard engines of 8 to 25hp. Including post-harvest sector employment and dependents, about 200,000 people in the Northern Province are dependent on the sector. They don’t stand a chance against the 2500 odd 30-60 feet trawlers from Tamil Nadu propelled by 70-190hp outboard engines. Indian trawl boats are crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (which was established in 1974 and 1976) to fish on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay. These boats are poaching in Sri Lankan waters in large numbers as well as extracting and devastating the resources belonging to Sri Lankan fishers. Although the process of poaching commenced in a situation where Sri Lankan fishers in the North had limited fishing opportunities due to the civil war. Today the issue has become one of the most important economic and political issues in the country, because with the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan fishers in the North has commenced fishing.

The Palk Bay Pirates

Trawlers come at night, three days a week, smuggle colossal amounts of fisheries resources, and damage Sri Lankan fishers’ nets, causing enormous financial losses. To avoid the trawlers, Sri Lankan fishers often stay at home instead of going out to sea, thus loosing valuable fishing time. They are forced to adopt less-profitable, near shore operations and/or resort to destructive fishing practices (trawling, wing nets, purse seining, dynamiting, etc.). The social institutions of the fishing communities, particularly fisheries co-operatives present in every village, have been weakened due to the long decline of fishing incomes, where a fraction of such incomes are normally contributed to run the co-operatives. Thus, participatory management and coastal support for fishing communities have been undermined. The long disruption of fisheries after the war has made it difficult for fishing communities to plan for the next season, and many are slowly moving out of the fishing sector to other forms of day wage labour.

In the early years, arrests of Indian trawlers for poaching were made for security reasons, because the Sri Lanka Navy, which was fighting a war, was less interested in fisheries issues. But since the cessation of the war, the Navy arrested the intruders for illegal entry into Sri Lankan territory. The arrests were made under the Foreign Fishing Boat Regulations Act No. 59 of 1979, Immigration Act of Sri Lanka and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The impact of the arrests in preventing Indian trawl intrusion was neutralised by the arrests of Sri Lankan multiday fishers for poaching in Indian Territory, and detained in Indian prisons. Often, through the intervention of the embassies of the two countries, the Indian trawler fishers arrested and detained in Sri Lankan prisons were released in exchange for Sri Lankan fishers detained in India.

Early Interventions

In trying to deal with this escalating crisis, the two governments drew up an MOU in 2005, which made provision for the establishment of a Joint Working Group (JWG), which among other things, would deal with issues of poaching and arrests. Although several rounds of discussions were held since 2008, no significant developments were reported, other than agreeing that fishers in both countries should be able to pursue fishing activity in a safe, secure and sustainable manner. However, some progress was achieved in the front of fisher-fisher dialogues. Several such dialogues have taken place in the past, initially organised by ARIF (Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen) and later with the active involvement of the two governments. The most important of such dialogues took place in August 2010, where the Indians agreed to stop mechanised trawl fishing in Sri Lankan waters within a period of one year, during which time, only 70 days of trawling were to be allowed. Unfortunately, the governments failed to back up these decisions, and the promises were not kept. Further dialogues took place under state patronage in March 2011 and January 2014, which did not produce any fruitful results.

Post-2015 developments

In April 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena convened a meeting with the various arms of the state and the northern fisher leaders on the request of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This high level meeting and continued engagement gave the fisher folk the confidence that their plight was a matter of serious concern to the Government, and initiated bipartisan engagement on the issue, leading to significant progress. The Parliamentary debate in October 2015 on the ecological and socio-economic damage by Indian trawlers, growing awareness through media coverage and the greater involvement of actors in Colombo, raised the fisheries conflict to the level of a national issue, rather than a problem confined to the North. Fisher leaders also took their issue to court and actively sought legal recourse towards prolonged confiscation of trawlers, and a ban of trawling in Sri Lanka. An Amendment to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act banning bottom trawling in Sri Lanka was passed by Parliament in July 2017.

On another front, the Indian Government, in 2015, made unambiguous statements that Tamil Nadu trawlers should stop cross-border fishing. Furthermore, the increased media attention on the devastation caused to Northern Fishers exposed Tamil Nadu’s hypocrisy. The Tamil Nadu Government called for INR 1,520 crore (USD 225 million) package to convert the trawler fleet to deep sea vessels under the ‘Blue Revolution Scheme’., of which INR 450 crore (USD 66 million) was approved by the Government in Delhi, and the rest was to come from bank loans. By September 2019, close to 590 trawlers have applied for this facility. Although concerns were raised about whether such a conversion to deep sea fishing and buy back is realistic and sustainable, the engagement from Tamil Nadu pointed to an acknowledgement of the unsustainability of trawling and poaching.

An important development was the setting up of a Joint Working Group in November 2016 during ministerial talks held between India and Sri Lanka (revitalising what was formed in 2005), which would meet every three months and a meeting between the Ministers for Fisheries every six months.

The Terms of Reference for the Joint Working Group (JWG) included: i. expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest, ii. working out the modalities for the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for handing over of apprehended fishermen, and iii. ascertaining possibilities for cooperation on patrolling. Both Governments agreed on setting up a hotline between the two Coast Guards. Agreement was also reached on the request by the Fishermen Associations that there should be no violence and no loss of life in the handling of fishermen by the Navies and Coast Guards of the two countries. They agreed to encourage the Fishermen Associations of the two countries to meet every six months to take further their dialogue. Yet, many of the decisions taken at the bilateral Ministerial talks were not followed through towards a permanent solution.

As a result of campaigns of small scale fishers from the North, the work of researchers and activists and engagement with the governments of the two countries, and more importantly, the enforcement of the Foreign Fishing Boat Regulations (amendment) Act, a significant reduction in the incidence of Indian trawlers illegally fishing in Sri Lankan waters was noticed by 2018. Yet, the Northern fishers did not even have a breathing space for a new beginning, because the country was hit by the Covid Pandemic in early 2020. Very little action was paid against the poachers and there has been a resurgence of the incidence of Indian trawlers poaching in Sri Lankan waters, drastically affecting fishing livelihoods, which were already being threatened by the pandemic. The aggravated current situation, continues to dispossess the small scale fishers of the North; they were devastated by the war until 2009, crippled by the Indian trawlers in the decade after the war and impoverished by market disruptions with the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020.

Moving forward

The decision to arrest and retain trawlers that are crossing over the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) by the Sri Lanka Navy, particularly since 2013, places significant pressure on the Tamil Nadu establishment. Yet, the lower levels of arrests over the last two years (71 vessels were arrested in 2017 while only nine were arrested in 2020) is in part due to fears of the Covid-19 virus spreading through arrests. Evidently, expanding deterrence is of paramount importance in dealing with the present crises, which needs strict enforcement of the Foreign Fishing Boats Regulations (Amendment) Act, No. 01 of 2018 to arrest foreign vessels in Sri Lankan EEZ which has provisions for imposing heavy fines on trawl owners ranging from Rs. 4 – 15 million. The Trawl Ban Act. No. 11 of 2017 should also be implemented. Given that Indo-Sri Lankan relations are currently of great importance, where the priorities for both governments are in furthering trade, investment and defence ties between the two countries, deterrence is to be employed carefully. There is the need for a broader strategy that asserts pressure at different levels to ensure that Tamil Nadu addresses the issue of poaching by their trawlers; particularly given that fisheries is a devolved subject in India. Pushing for joint patrolling operations by the Indian and Sri Lankan Navy could be strategic. The Indian side needs to be convinced to install vessel monitoring devices on their trawlers to track their location. However, these efforts will prove futile unless the incidence of Sri Lankan multiday boats violating Indian maritime boundaries is brought under control.

Raising the issue both by the Sri Lankan Government towards the Indian Government and the TNA and Tamil political actors towards Tamil Nadu would be strategic, given the political realities. Strong emphasis should be made on the devastating impact of resource smuggling on the livelihoods of Northern fishing populations of Sri Lanka. Strategies to work with the newly elected Government in Tamil Nadu in relation to the fishing conflict will be necessary. Engagement by the Tamil fishing community and community leaders from the North will prove important for challenging a change of stance by Tamil Nadu Government and its leaders.

Thousands of nets worth millions of Rupees have been lost in the past decade, with no single fisherman ever being compensated and with no insurance being available. Fishers now deserve financial reparations for their lost assets and for lost fishing days. Financial reparations can also be asked from the Tamil Nadu fishers, the Tamil Nadu government or the Indian government. If such demands, however, are not met in the short term, the Sri Lankan government itself may need to find the required funds. A campaign for reparations for northern Sri Lankan fishers will help consolidate the demand for a permanent solution to the fishing conflict.

The larger aim of interventions in the Palk Bay should be to establish a sustainable, comprehensive, and socially just fisheries. Current data on the state of fish stocks in this region are highly deficient. Similarly, very little scientific knowledge on the damage caused to the environment by trawling is currently available. There is an urgent need for NARA to intensify research in the Palk Bay. This can provide the foundation for developing a rational and legitimate framework for fisheries governance. Such research will also continue to weigh on the need for a permanent solution that ends bottom trawling in the Palk Bay.

While the fisher-to-fisher negotiations conducted in Chennai in 2010 were initially widely acknowledged as promising, the follow-up was poor. Similarly, the Ministerial level talks in November 2016 were significant and even led to considerable changes, however, again follow up was poor. There is a need to build on the tremendous gains of those talks, regardless of the change of Government.

At the current moment there should be a clear plan recognising the realities in Sri Lanka and India, including the political changes in Tamil Nadu and the Covid-19 pandemic to work through a process of consensus building, but with firm resolve to end bottom trawling. There should be no setback on issues agreed at the Ministerial level talks in November 2016, and calls for licensing cross border fishing should be rejected outright.

Concluding remarks

The measures suggested above will be important steps towards resolving the Palk Bay fisheries conflict. Such measures along with the recent national attention on fisheries can also lay the foundation to ensure sustainable governance and management of the natural resource base and the people who depend on it. The establishment of effective interactive platforms (e.g., strengthening fisher community organizations, co-management platforms) and clearly laid down rights and responsibilities of participating actors, along with consultation, collaboration and coordination of all concerned actors can lead to effective and sustainable policies. Indeed, sustaining small scale fisheries in addition to solving the Palk Bay fishing conflict will encompass dialogue among relevant actors, capacity development, law enforcement and empowerment of coastal communities.

(Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe is the Chancellor of the Ocean University and Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar is a Senior Lecturer, Jaffna University, they are also, President and Executive Committee member respectively, of the Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries – SLFSSF)

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