Fishing in troubled waters: Sri Lanka’s war-hit fishermen frustrated over Indian bottom trawling

ECONOMYNEXT – Resettled after the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year war in 2009, Annalingam Annarasa had vowed to develop his family profession of fishing. Twelve years later, he struggles to continue his livelihood in the resettled Northern coastal island of Kayts.

The reason is bottom trawling by fishermen from neighbouring India.

The banned method of fishing still continues, and local fishermen are the most affected – fishermen who have just started to prosper from a livelihood they had been long denied as a result of being displaced by the war, fishermen who have finally allowed to resettle in their original fishing villages.

“We have lost around 40 percent of our daily fish catch due to bottom trawling by Indian fishermen,” Annarasa told EconomyNext over the phone.

The 43-year-old, who is President of the Federation of Jaffna District Fishermen Societies, says the local fishermen in Jaffna are deprived of fishing resources as Indian bottom trawling has reduced fish populations in Sri Lankan waters. The banned practise results in even fingerlings being caught while also damaging fishing nets used by local fishermen.

“Around 500 fishing nets have been damaged so far this year in Kayts,” he said, referring to an area where a number of small islands is situated in the Gulf of Mannar to the north-northwest of mainland Sri Lanka and to the south-southwest of the Jaffna peninsula.

Bottom trawling is banned in Sri Lanka and the law is strictly implemented to maintain the sustainability of the fishing industry by preventing fingerlings being destroyed.

Thousands of fishermen like Annarasa who are rebuilding their lives after the end of a decades-long war are now desperate in the face of increased bottom trawling by Indian fishermen.

Thousands of Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen have urged the government to make a final stand on the Indian trawler issue as the encroachment and the damage to their fishing equipment are hindering their livelihood and challenging Sri Lanka’s post-war resettlement efforts.

Around 800,000 people were displaced during the civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009. The fighting escalated in Jaffna district in 1990, which saw many turn to state-run welfare centers or move to live with family elsewhere.

Bottom Trawling

Bottom trawling is a type of fishing net that’s pulled along the seafloor. Fishermen commonly use the technique to catch shrimp and bottom-dwelling fish.

However, in addition to targeting fish, the nets also catch a variety of ocean life that’s usually thrown back into the water dead or dying.

Dragging heavy gear across the seabed can also damage sensitive seafloor habitat. The harmful effects of bottom trawling on bottom-dwelling organisms and their habitat can be reduced by modifying the fishing gear or limiting the trawling area.

Annarasa says a fisherman needs up to 600,000 rupees to start fishing and if a net is damaged, the fisherman needs a quarter of that investment for repairs.

“These fishermen use kerosene oil for their boats to cut the costs, and we have lost our income due to bottom trawling. Our fishing community is now reduced to 17,000 from 23,000 in the past few years,” Annarasa said.

After many failed discussions with India on its fishermen illegally entering and using bottom trawl nets in Sri Lankan waters in Palk Strait, the fishing community in Jaffna launched a flotilla protest on October 17, demanding that the government strengthen existing laws and protect their own fishermen and bring to a stop the damage caused to their livelihood as well as the environment.

Resettlement is one of the key issues India has been pushing Sri Lanka towards since the end of the war as thousands of displaced Sri Lankan Tamils are still living in refugee camps in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Many international aid agencies including the United Nations Development Program and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) have helped northern fishermen restart their livelihood after resettlement.

Back to zero?

The resettled fishermen had nothing but the skills of fishing and fish resources in the northern sea. They started from zero and now they are compelled to hit reset because most of their fishing gear is damaged.

“We need the government to strengthen the existing laws that already states entering into our waters and using trawler boats are illegal. The government must alsoe provide compensation for the damaged boats and provide a mechanism for fishermen who lost their livelihoods and are unemployed as a result of this,” N V Subramanian, Chairman of the Northern Fishermen Association, told EconomyNext.

Sri Lanka amended provisions in the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act No 2 of 1996 in both 2017 and 2018 to charge foreign fishermen who trespass into Sri Lanka’s waters and are involved fishing without a permit, entering into territorial waters without keeping the fishing gear stowed in their vessels and using banned bottom trawling nets towed by a mechanised boat.

Most fishermen urged the government to implement the amended act strictly. Already the amendment had angered Indian fishermen.

Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, an opposition lawmaker raised the issue in the parliament and said on July 22 alone 277 fishing nets in a small fishing village in Jaffna were damaged, with total damage estimated at 4 million rupees.

“Indian fishermen have been encroaching into Sri Lanka waters. These are fishermen who come in large trawlers and they have literally destroyed the fishing assets of the fishermen of the Northern Province, particularly from Mannar to Jaffna and Mullaitivu,” he told the parliament on August 05.

Vincent Arulnathan, president of Annai Velangkanni Fishermen Association in Mullaitivu, expects another gloomy month in November as Indian trawler boats can be seen as near as 1 kilometre from the shore.

“In November, it is shrimp season and these Indian trawlers will come for shrimp resources depriving many of our fishermen,” he told EconomyNext over the phone.

“Our livelihood is fishing and it is now being destroyed. Resettlement hardly means anything for us without our livelihood, and we only know fishing.”

The fishing issue between the two neighbours began when India and Sri Lanka signed four Maritime Boundary Agreements between 1974 and 1976 that defined a mutual understanding of the international maritime boundary between the two countries. Katchatheevu Island, famous for its annual St Anthony’s festival, was ceded to Sri Lanka by India without consulting the Tamil Nadu state government.

Since then, Indian fishermen have only been allowed to use the island for resting, drying their nets and for the annual church feast, but not for fishing.

Since 2009, after the end of the war, the Sri Lankan navy has tightened surveillance of its northern maritime boundary to halt a potential return of Tamil insurgents, resulting in increasing the number of Indian fishermen arrests, even as Sri Lankan authorities argue that they are simply protecting the maritime boundaries of the country against poaching and are securing the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen.

Lingering bilateral discussion

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he met Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla last month in Colombo pointed out that the long standing problems faced by the fishermen of the two countries could be resolved by identifying immediate solutions to the existing problems and providing the benefits rightfully owed by the fishing community.

Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda also expressed his displeasure over the illegal fishing of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters sabotaging the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen and ruining the aquatic resources in Sri Lanka, when he met the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary.

Minister Devananda had told the
Indian official that a large number of Indian fishing trawlers enter the Sri Lankan waters daily for illegal fishing amid strong protest by Sri Lankan authorities.

The Minister said that he had submitted a legal draft to the Indian authorities with a proposal to set up an India-Sri Lanka Joint Coastguard to halt the Indian bottom trawling during his visit to India as a member of the official entourage headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2020.

State Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera said Sri Lanka has taken steps to ban bottom- trawler fishing practices and India too should do the same with its own fisheries act.

“So far we have not got positive feedback on that,” Wijesekera told EconomyNext.

Sri Lanka has also requested both countries’ coastguards to work together to find a mechanism to prevent either party crossing the border. Sri Lanka has already taken steps to use a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) in all the vessels and has requested India to do the same.

“If the Indian fishing ministry implements this, it could prevent illegal fishing,” the state minister said.

“According to the laws in the country, the vessels that cross our border or are engaged in illegal fishing: those vessels will be confiscated, the fishermen will be released, but not the vessels,” he said.

Many fishermen say they are considering moving to some other area in search of new jobs though they have no idea what to do for a living besides fishing. (Colombo/Nov02/2021)

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