Trouble fishing in the waters of northern Sri Lanka
Efforts to end poaching of Indian fishermen in the coastal waters of northern Sri Lanka have consistently failed, despite two decades of talks between the two neighbors, with the latest move being to relaunch a licensing proposal for Indian fishermen.
The problem today is not caused by traditional fishermen, but rather by mechanized trawlers owned by businessmen from Tamil Nadu, who use large nets to collect everything in their path; Bottom trawling is such a destructive method that scratches on the seabed can be seen in underwater practice videos.
A collaborative and ecosystem-based approach that has been advocated could yield better results, especially in managing transboundary fish stocks and ensuring sustainable fishing and livelihoods for fishermen, including many remain impoverished for generations.
Opposition to licenses
Noor Mohamed Alam, president of the Union of Cooperative Fishermen’s Societies in Mannar District, said fishermen in the region opposed the proposal to issue licenses to Indian fishermen. “The government should act more effectively to stop the poaching of Indian fishermen,” he said. Roar Media.
Alam wants the government to enforce the law properly and the navy to stop the poachers. “If 500 Indian boats arrive, only one or two are stopped,” Alam said. “If the navy stops all the poachers, the problem can be solved.”
Poaching by Indian trawlers has worsened, “he added.” Fish stocks are dwindling. Now sometimes we hardly get any fish anymore. “
Fish stocks have really declined sharply in the coastal waters of Sri Lanka, according to the latest marine survey under the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries management project, called the EAF-Nansen program, carried out by the United Nations. Food and Agriculture United Nations and the Institute. of Marine Research, Norway.
“Overfishing could be one of the reasons. Marine degradation, habitat loss, climate change could be other reasons,” said Dr Prabath Jayasinghe, senior scientist at the National Research Agency and development of aquatic resources (NARA).
Dr Jayasinghe was a local cruise chief aboard the Dr Fridtjof Nansen, one of the most advanced research vessels, in the 2018 survey which covered the entire coastal area except the shallow Palk Bay.
Sri Lanka’s fish stocks had not been assessed by independent surveys for four surveys conducted by a Norwegian research vessel “Nansen” in 1979-1980. Although a single research campaign is not 100% conclusive, the new survey found that the northeastern coastal waters have the lowest biomass of zooplankton, small organisms eaten by larger marine animals, as well as lowest average number of fish larvae and lowest species diversity. . However, investigation found that Pedro Bank, a shallow-water shelf about 1,000 square miles off Point Pedro, the island’s northern tip, was still as rich a fishing ground as it was. had been for decades.
Pedro Bank and Wadge Bank, the continental shelf off Cape Comorin at the southern tip of India, had been profitable commercial fishing grounds since the 1920s for Indian and Sri Lankan boats. But Sri Lanka lost access to Wadge Bank and part of Pedro Bank with the establishment of the Indo-Sri Lankan maritime border in 1976.
“Historically, Sri Lankan and Indian artisanal fishermen have fished harmoniously in the Bay of Bengal, Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay without any dispute,” said Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, director of the Jaffna-based think tank, Point Pedro Institute for Development Studies, which has studied the issue of poaching. “Artisanal fishing is defined as low capital, low technology and small scale subsistence fishing,” he said.
The current fishing conflict between Sri Lanka and India is mainly due to illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by hundreds of illegal fishing vessels called “bottom trawlers”, explained Dr Sarvananthan. “The use of bottom trawlers is prohibited internationally. This IUU fishing is a commercial fishery as opposed to a traditional subsistence fishery.” Licensing Indian fishing boats would worsen the plundering of Sri Lanka’s fish stocks and cause a huge underwater environmental disaster, says Dr Sarvananthan. “It would actually legalize an illegal practice globally.”
Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda suggested in March 2021 to hold talks with the government of Tamil Nadu to issue licenses to a limited number of Indian fishing vessels to fish in Sri Lankan waters – although the trawling of background would be prohibited. But Dr Sarvananthan believes Indian fishing vessels could not pay the annual fee in foreign currency. “Also, to my knowledge, the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay do not have high value fish like tuna to make it commercially viable for Indian fishermen to pay the annual fee,” he said. declared.
And, he added, neither the Sri Lankan Coast Guard nor the Sri Lankan Navy have the capacity to check every boat to make sure they have a license or not. “In theory, the Indian Coast Guard could also control Indian ships on their side of the border. But I don’t think they will ever take that responsibility,” he said.
Sri Lanka agreed to consider licensing Indian fishing vessels as early as 2003, according to V. Suryanarayan, former founding director and senior professor of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Madras, who also studied the matter. . The license proposal was taken up again in 2016. The two countries engaged in a “firefighting exercise,” Suryanarayan believes, with Indian poachers and their boats being detained and released by Sri Lanka with monotonous regularity. , before returning to the country. the waters of the island.
“Fishermen around the world do not respect maritime borders; they move wherever the fish move. It is a universal phenomenon, ”writes Suryanarayan. “Sri Lankan fishermen poach in Indian and Maldivian waters; Indian fishermen enter Pakistani and Bangladeshi waters, and Japanese and Taiwanese trawlers travel the world.”
Indian trawlers began poaching in Sri Lanka after clearing the seabed on their side of the maritime border. The island’s ethnic warfare in the 1980s and 1990s led to restrictions on Sri Lankan fishermen, making it easier for Indian poachers. Additionally, many Sri Lankan fishermen who fled to Tamil Nadu as refugees found employment on Indian trawlers and guided them to known fishing grounds off the coast of the island.
Some of them may still be. In January of this year, one of four fishermen who died when an Indian boat sank after colliding with a Sri Lankan navy vessel turned out to be a person of Sri Lankan descent, who was living in India.
Suryanarayan believes that only a change in mentality on both sides can resolve the dispute and advocates that the two countries convert the disputed territory into a “common heritage”. He suggests that the trawlers be removed from Palk Bay and that a “Palk Bay Authority” be created, made up of specialists from both governments, representatives of fishermen’s associations and navies. The equipment would “determine the ideal sustainable catch, how to jointly enrich the sea, the type of fishing equipment that can be used and the number of fishing days for each country,” Suryanarayan said.
Regional fisheries management
However, Dr Sarvananthan, of the Point Pedro Institute, is skeptical of the idea of collaborative regional management of fish stocks in the region, saying it will not be practical.
“Sri Lanka does not have the scientific competence to assess the availability of fish stocks in its maritime territory, especially in the Bay of Bengal, Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. This is why the Sri Lankan government instructed Norway to undertake a stockpile. as part of a bilateral aid program, which is currently underway, ”he said.
Jayasinghe of NARA cites the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, the main fisheries management body in the Indian Ocean, as an example of regional cooperation in the management of shared fish stocks. NARA has just concluded a new agreement with the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, the second phase of the project aimed at developing fisheries management tools. It aims for improved and sustainable management of marine resources, which will allow Sri Lanka to better monitor its fish stocks.
Jayasinghe says NARA will use its own research vessel to conduct fisheries surveys in shallow northern waters not covered by the Dr Fridtjof Nansen ship. Norway, which also promotes the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) in Africa, says it involves a comprehensive, risk-based management planning process, which addresses both the human and ecological dimensions of sustainability. .
There may be some trepidation about venturing this far, but the collaborative approach is one that has yet to be considered, if the Sri Lankan and Indian authorities are to end the endless poaching. , clashes and imprisonment of fishermen for crossing borders.