Bottom trawling that scrapes the sea bed : Finding solutions to the fishery conflict

Fishermen from the coastal districts of India and Sri Lanka have used the sea around the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, for traditional fishing, until the signing of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) agreement in 1974 and 1976, which is clearly demarcated, mutually agreed upon and legally binding, separating the territorial waters of the two countries. The Tamil Nadu fishermen changed their fishing methods in the late 1970s and upgraded to steel hulled fishing vessels and engaged in bottom-trawling, to boost production. Continuous bottom trawling in the Indian side of the IMBL resulted in depleting fish stocks, and gradually, the trawlers began to cross over to the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL.

The newly introduced Indian trawlers are bigger and more powerful than the traditional craft. The Lankan fishermen found it difficult to venture into sea during the days when Indian trawlers were poaching, as they feared damage to their boats and fishing gear, as well as, safety for their lives.

During the time of conflict, Sri Lankan government was compelled to restrict fishing by local fishermen in the north and east, due to security concerns. However, the Indian trawlers continued to bottom trawl at times, venturing 2-3 nautical miles off the Lankan coast. With the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka, local fishermen wished to recommence their livelihood activities, and encountered a large, hostile Tamil Nadu trawler fleet plundering their resources. With the fishery conflict gaining significance both governments continue discussions at various levels to find an amicable, long lasting solution. However, to-date, there has been no solution or even a common agreement.

The United Nations Development Summit in September 2015, adopted the UN Resolution 70/1, “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. The basis for this was the understanding that global resources in the oceans should be carefully managed for a sustainable future, as the oceans are key in making the earth habitable for humankind. The main objective of Goal 14 of this agenda, ‘Life Below Water’ is to “conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” (UN, 2015).

The spirit of this resolution is clearly applicable to the Indo-Sri Lanka fishery conflict. The UN has set a target year, 2020, to end Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The UN resolution also talks about conservation and sustainable use of oceans as per international law as reflected in UNCLOS, and encouraging sustainable artisan fishing. India and Sri Lanka being member states of the UN should abide by this resolution.

Kachchativu Island

The two governments concluded that the two IMBL agreements were with a view to maintaining cordial relations. They could be termed as landmark agreements, which came into force even before the UNCLOS. Tamil Nadu maintains that the island of Kachchativu was ‘ceded’ to Sri Lanka by the 1974 agreement without the consent of the state, for which it has sought legal remedy. However, the central government maintains that these two agreements are binding. Hence, sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction of Kachchativu clearly falls under Sri Lanka.

Tamil Nadu politicians also accuse that Sri Lankan Navy and Coast Guard harass the Tamil Nadu fishermen, who accidentally drift across the IMBL closer to Kachchativu. However, the Indian Coast Guard, filing an affidavit in Chennai High Court stated: the Indian fishermen cross the IMBL into Lankan waters for a better catch, as resources are depleted in the Indian side of the IMBL; they use banned methods of fishing; and Sri Lanka Navy does not cross the IMBL to the Indian side (Indian Coast Guard, 2015). No further argument is necessary, as this statement has come from the most authoritative source in India.. This affidavit also nullifies the claim made by Indian fishermen that the Sri Lanka Navy is harassing them.

The Tamil Nadu fishermen are experts in navigation and know their position. Besides, most of these trawlers are fitted with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and they fish not only around Kachchativu island, but advance 2-3 nautical miles from Pesali in Mannar island, which is 17.5 nautical miles from the IMBL and south west of the Delft island, i.e. about 11.5 nautical miles from the IMBL (Admiralty Chart, 1987). These two locations are deep inside Lankan territorial waters.

Therefore, the issue of Kachchativu is only a cover to justify destructive fishing carried out by Indian trawlers to sustain the multimillion-dollar prawn export industry.

Livelihood issue

Often Tamil Nadu argues that their ‘poor fishermen’ suffer due to enforcement measures by the Sri Lankan government. However, it is noteworthy that almost all who are engaged in bottom trawling, are contracted employees. It is alleged, the trawlers are owned by large-scale businessmen, often close to the political elite of the state, as highlighted by Suryanarayan.

Prawns have become a multimillion-dollar industry; mainly for exporting to the USA, Japan and Western Europe. However, when the Sri Lankan authorities arrest a minute percentage of these trawlers for poaching in its territorial waters, and subject offenders to judicial processes, there are huge protests in Tamil Nadu and letters written to the central government demanding intervention.

To maintain goodwill between the two neighbours, the government of Sri Lanka releases offenders and hands over their boats to Indian Coast Guard at the IMBL, at regular intervals. This is not an effective deterrent, as they return to poaching no sooner they are released. Enforcement measures such as burning or blowing up captured fishing vessels engaging in IUU fishing, as practised by Australia and Indonesia, are not implemented in Sri Lanka. Due to the severity of poaching Sri Lanka has refused the demand made at the November negotiations in New Delhi for the release of hundreds of boats it has seized, which is a step in the right direction.

Security implications

The northern Sri Lankan fishermen engage in most sustainable methods of fishing, employing traditional artisan methods. They do not operate multi-day fishing vessels, unlike their southern counterparts.

They use small boats and venture into the ocean for short periods, usually, not more than 24 hours. However, large, steel hulled Indian trawlers practise bottom trawling, considered as one of the most destructive methods of fishing. Bottom trawlers are called ‘hoovers of the ocean’ and ‘bulldozers mowing down fish and other benthic species’ (Suryanarayan, 2016). If this bulldozing of the Sri Lanka Ocean is continued, soon there will be hardly any fish to catch. Bottom trawling scrapes the sea bed, disturbs the marine environment, damages age old corals, affects the growth of plankton, and finally, affects the reef fish, prawns and other types on benthic marine species, which could result in ‘habitat degradation’. The majority of the northern coastal population of Sri Lanka depends on fishing or fishery related industry. It is the only livelihood activity they have ever known. If that source of livelihood is destroyed, there will be huge economic, social and political consequences affecting human security.

The Indian side has made it a practice to demand that representatives of fishermen from the two countries should meet and discuss all issues relating to the dispute. However, this time around, representatives of Lankan fishermen had been firm against the systematic exploitation of fisheries resources by their Indian counterparts. During the recent encounter in New Delhi on November 2, after a gap of nearly one and a half years, Sri Lankan fishermen refused to agree to the demand made by their Tamil Nadu counterparts to fish in Sri Lankan waters for 83 days in a year, for three consecutive years, as a grace period, before they switch into deep sea fishing, as an alternative solution to the issue (Sunday Times, November 13, 2016). The Sri Lankan fishermen had been adamant that they would not agree to the continuation of illegal poaching and bottom trawling in their waters.

They also demanded compensation for losses incurred due to poaching and bottom trawling, prior to any further talks (The Hindu, 2016). They pointed out that Tamil Nadu fishermen were engaged in IUU fishing, and threatened to take the matter up in international forums. The stand taken by Sri Lankan fishermen, victims of IUU fishing, is genuine as it is their livelihood that is at stake. It is the responsibility of the Indian government to adopt measures to address the livelihood issue of its citizens and, allocate adequate resources to help them in their transition from bottom trawling to deep-sea fishing.

In the aftermath of the inconclusive fishermen’s talks, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister and Aquatic Resources Development Minister met with Indian External Affairs Minister and Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, to discuss possible measures to find solutions to the fishery conflict (Lanka Business Online, 2016). This is the first time the two foreign ministers actively participated in fishery talks, a clear indication of the commitment of both governments to find a lasting solution.

While the details of the discussions have not been published yet, it is reported that they agreed to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fisheries to meet every three months, and a meeting between the Ministers of Fisheries every six months. The first Ministerial Meeting would be held on January 2, 2017 in Colombo.

While the Sri Lanka side maintains that poaching and bottom trawling by Indian trawlers should not be permitted, the Indian side demands licensing, limiting the number of trawlers and days, and not harming their fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. The law enforcement authorities on both sides of the IMBL are forced to restrain themselves due to political pressure wielded by Tamil Nadu business interests. The solution to the problem is not to permit Tamil Nadu business interests to profit from their illegal activities. Unless a firm position is taken by Sri Lanka with regard to violation of its territorial waters, poaching in the Palk Bay area and the Gulf of Mannar would continue for some time, while the marine environment is systematically destroyed to a point of no return. However, the ongoing dispute should not result in physical harm to Tamil Nadu fishermen, due to the failure of the authorities to address the dispute..

Positive measures

As Suriyanarayanan points out, there are some positive measures being undertaken by Tamil Nadu, i.e. a planned buy-back arrangement of trawlers, provide alternative livelihood for fishermen engaged in trawling and to construct tuna long liners. Through incentives and persuasion, affected fishermen could be encouraged to switch over to deep sea fishing or engage in other vocations. However, sincerity, effectiveness and timely implementation of these measures are yet to be ascertained (Suryanarayan, 2016).

Sri Lanka’s concern is whether the fragile marine ecosystem in the Palk Bay would survive until these measures are implemented. There is a need for scientific research on the subject, to ascertain the real damage caused by bottom trawling and the impact on the fisheries in the Palk Bay, gather data from primary and secondary sources, make an assessment of the cost of annual losses due to poaching, and be ready to present an incontrovertible case to India.

A research station in the island of Kachchativu manned by National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) personnel could be entrusted with this task. A joint mechanism for investigation of alleged offences and joint patrolling by both countries merits consideration. If all efforts fail in finding an amicable solution, the government of Sri Lanka should be ready to refer the dispute to the appropriate international authorities on the strength of UN Resolution 70/1, Goal 14: ‘to conserve and sustainably use oceans and marine resources for sustainable development’.

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