A recent headline in a Sri Lankan weekly newspaper titled “Tamil Nadu Exports Fish Robbed from Sri Lanka” prompted me to highlight the legal implications of such activity generally referred to as IUU (Illegal Unreported and or Unregulated) Fishing and stem from non –compliance with fisheries regulations that is evident worldwide since 1990 and is due to problems focusing in managing high sea s fish stocks , as well as highly migratory and straddling stocks.
The International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between Sri Lanka and India was clearly established in June 1974 by Agreement between the Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka and India defined by 6 positions of Latitude and Longitude (Article 1).IMBL is not an “arbitrary line” as reported. Further the IMBL was extended to cover the Bay of Bengal totaling 13 positions in March 1976 in an Agreement signed by the Foreign Secretaries representing the two countries. Further in 1976 and Agreement on the Tri junction Point between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives (13A) were signed by the Foreign Secretaries representing the three countries. Accordingly, the IMBL between India and Sri Lanka is not “arbitrary “ but demarcated by exact points of Latitude and Longitude.
The demarcation of the Fisheries Line can be traced back to 1921 and ran 3 miles west of Kachchativu but was not ratified and remained porous (refer to Appendix A Kachchativu : and the Maritime Boundary of Sri Lanka –W.T. Jayasinghe 2003) .
However the IMBL demarcated in 1974 between Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar runs 1 mile west of Kachchativu apportioned the waters between India and Sri Lanka. Consequently, Sri Lankan fishermen were free to carry out fishing in Sri Lankan waters without hindrance or harassment from intruders. It is noted that the seas particularly around Kachchativu are rich in prawns and other fish with high export value. However the Sri Lankan fishermen are at a drawback without equipment to expand their operations.
A case in point is the local fishermen were not equipped with outboard motors of adequate horse-power and trawlers for the prawn grounds in the area. The recent exposure shows that the Indian fishing vessels are more powerful and could easily encroach into these high productive fishing grounds particularly to enhance the catch for multi- billion dollar exports as reported.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides clear guidelines for the legal regime of the high seas and is based on traditional concepts as flag State responsibility and rights of coastal States. However it has very weak provisions governing transboundary fish stocks (as the case of IMBL between Sri Lanka and India) and fisheries outside the EEZ encouraging States to seek cooperative arrangements to manage such fisheries. Further UNCLOS reiteration of a “freedom to fish “ on the high seas (Article 87) has encouraged IUU Fishing and dampens attempts to control such activity.. To cover this deficiency other legal instruments , specially the Fish Stock Agreement and Compliance Agreement related to Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks have been developed.
Enforcement and compliance are the major instruments to combat IUU Fishing. Limitations in these regimes as seen on our IMBL would lead to development of other tools particularly trade related measures to address IUU Fishing for example certification by WTO internationally.
According the local media report Tamil Nadu government is accused of “Robbing Fish from Sri Lanka for a Multibillion –rupee industry feeding US, EU, Japan while engaged in banned IUU fishing “However from the above analyses of this problem it is quite difficult to effectively ban IUU Fishing.
Monitoring Control and Surveillance improvement
Further according to the FAO “improvement in Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS) and their effective implementation in waters under national jurisdiction and in the high seas represent the best hope for preventing , deterring, and eliminating IUU Fishing” .
Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) and sophisticated communication systems are common on distant water and high sea vessels .However the problem of controlling fishing across our IMBL is a bi lateral task and it is recommended that the Ministry of External Affairs study this problem in close cooperation with the Fisheries Ministry , Navy and NARA and evolve a strategy of combating illegal fishing across the IMBL. To this end a bi lateral agreement between Sri Lanka and India within the guidelines of the International Plan of Action to Prevent Deter and Eliminate Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA on IUU ) is recommended.
It is my view that the most effective instrument to prevent IUU Fishing across the IBML within the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar and even further south as well as in the north east is to conduct joint patrolling by the Coast Guards of Sri Lanka and India within each stretch jointly with efficient communication systems and also educate the fishermen of both countries about the consequences of crossing the IMBL.
Arresting and detaining and prosecuting fishermen from both sides will not lead to any solution. Further assistance from the FAO will also help to facilitate such action. IUU Fishing in our EEZ and the high seas is another problem which has to be tackled by the GOSL in order to improve economic and social advancement of the fishermen in the country and also enhance our export earnings.
Non-adherence to demarcation
Another serious drawback according to my knowledge is that a definite demarcation of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has not been carried out by the GOSL with relevant charts indicating Latitude and Longitude at each position and such charts have not been deposited with the Office of the Secretary General United Nations as required under Articles 74 and 75 of UNCLOS.
This is a major deficiency to monitor IUU Fishing in the EEZ as well as identifying the High Seas and it is recommended that the GOSL initiate such action without delay. Further such demarcations will also facilitate the GOSL to enter into JVs with foreign companies to carry out commercial fishing activities for export and also encouraging floating fish canneries .
(The write is a retired Economic Affairs Officer United Nations ESCAP who was also in charge of Marine Affairs and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )