Context: Sri Lanka’s legislative amendment to prohibit bottom trawling, a destructive fishing practice, is a welcome step. Current updates:

  • Sri Lanka’s legislative amendment to prohibit bottom trawling, a destructive fishing practice, is a welcome move despite its likely near-term consequence of deepening the fisheries conflict in the Palk Bay region.
  • Bottom trawling in the island nation’s territorial waters will now attract a possible two year prison term and a fine of 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees.
  • The practice involves trawlers dragging weighted nets along the sea floor, is known to cause great depletion of fishery resources, and curbing it is in the interest of sustainable fishing.
  • The amendment is aimed at curbing local trawlers as well as deterring trawlers from Tamil Nadu.

Trouble areas

  • India and Sri Lanka are separated by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
  • Fishermen from both sides cross over to the other side for bottom trawling fishing expeditions and those results in arrests and, on many occasions, shootings.
  • In 2013, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran informed Rajya Sabha that no separate data is maintained in respect of fishermen who are reported missing while fishing in Indian waters and high seas.
  • According to Joint Working Group on Fisheries (JWGF) data of December 2016, 111 boats of Tamil Nadu fishermen and 51 Indian fishermen were in arrest or detention in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
  • One of the major reasons complicating the issue is of Katchatheevu Island. India ceded the uninhabited island to its southern neighbour in 1974 under a conditional accord.
  • In 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared Katchatheevu Island as sacred land owing to a Catholic shrine’s presence on the piece of land.
  • It is important point to note that despite the signing of maritime boundary agreements, fishermen communities of both the sides continued their fishing in the Palk Bay area peacefully until the Eelam war broke out in 1983.
  • After the end of war in 2009, the Sri Lankan fishermen have been raising objection to Indian fishermen fishing in their waters.
  • According to an estimate, more than 500 trawlers from Tamil Nadu cross the International Maritime Boundary Line.

Present situation:

  • Fishermen from both countries have been in talks for a long time to resolve the conflict.
  • Sri Lankan fisherman demand an immediate end to incursions by Indian trawlers, and those from Tamil Nadu insist on a three-year phase out period.
  • Tamil Nadu fishermen are arrested from time to time by the Sri Lankan Navy, and their vessels seized.
  • An appropriate response from Tamil Nadu would be to expedite the conversion of its trawlers to deep sea fishing vessels, and not merely condemn in Sri Lanka
  • Political parties claim the amendment is draconian and it is targeted at the State’s fishermen who regularly use hundreds of trawlers in Sri Lankan territorial waters.

Possible consequences of law amended by Sri Lanka:

  • If more fishermen are arrested and slapped with two-year jail terms after a summary trial, as the law now envisages, it may create new flashpoints
  • In recent years, some fishermen in northern Sri Lanka have also adopted bottom trawling.
  • If this practice of bottom trawling continues even among local fisherman, the long-term consequences on fishing resources in the contested Palk Bay region will be irremediable.
  • It may deepen the fisheries conflict in the Palk Bay region

Reasons for Indian fishermen crossing boundaries: Due to the dearth of multi-day fishing capability, Indian fishermen cannot shift their fishing effort from the Palk Bay area to the offshore areas of the Indian waters or beyond the continental shelf. Therefore, Indian fishermen have no other alternative but to fish into the Sri Lankan waters. However, this results into the large cases of arrest of Indian fishermen. Political developments:

  • Last year, Sri Lankan President met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the issue of arrest of fishermen in the high seas between India and Sri Lanka as well as the seizure of fishing vessels.
  • In November 2016, an interministerial delegation of both countries discussed terms for a joint working group but the Sri Lankan delegation rejected India’s request for a three year grace period so that the government can assist fishermen to move from bottom trawling fishing method to another sustained and effective method.

Solutions:

  • The solution lies in the transition from trawling to deep sea fishing, for which a beginning has been made.
  • The Central and State governments plan to provide 500 deep sea fishing boats with long lines and gill nets this year, as part of a plan to replace 2,000 trawlers in three years.
  • There is need for institutionalization of fishing in Indian waters by the government of India so that alternative means of livelihood are provided.
    • The Government will have to mark up a comprehensive plan to reduce the dependence of Indian fishermen on catch from Palk Bay.
    • Blue economy is an ignored issue in India and that seems to have led to the current crisis so there is need to address this issue also.
    • The Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Ocean Development are the nodal bodies responsible for giving technical assistance to states for the development of fisheries and blue economy.
    • Extra deployment of Navy and Coast Guard  Conclusion: Both the countries should ensure that the situation does not disrupt regular meetings of the Joint Working Groups. Besides the fisheries conflict, they need to discuss marine conservation, thus giving equal importance to protecting livelihoods and sustainable fishing. Both countries need to adopt peaceful amicable solution.
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