Fishery community leaders at discussion. From left to right K. Rajachandran (Karainagar, Jaffna) , J. Francis (Pooneryn, Kilinochchi), M. Alam (Palamunai, Mannar), N. V. Subramaniam (Manipay, Jaffna) and A. Annarasa (Thambattai, Jaffna)
Small scale fishery community leaders from Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mannar held a press conference in Jaffna last week (Wednesday) in response to news that the government is preparing to give into demands from New Delhi, and release hundreds of Tamil Nadu trawlers arrested for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Sri Lankan waters. Sri Lanka’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera agreed to the release of 42 Tamil Nadu trawlers as (yet another) ‘gesture of goodwill’ during the last round of bilateral talks between Sri Lankan and Indian ministers held in New Delhi in November 2017. But according to fishermen in Jaffna his decision was reached only this week after consulting and getting concurrence from fishery community leaders in the north. In return for the 42 fishing craft, the Government of India undertook to introduce meaningful measures to finally bring an end to IUU fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters, the fishermen said.
Fishery community leaders expressed their frustration that neither the Government of India nor the State Government of Tamil Nadu have taken any meaningful measures to stop the unrelenting violation of Sri Lankan sovereignty by thousands of Tamil Nadu trawlers every week. On what basis they asked was the government considering the unconditional release of hundreds of Tamil Nadu vessels? What guarantees could the Sri Lankan government give fishermen that these vessels once released would not return the next day and poach in Sri Lankan waters?
"According to reports 10.96 kg of ‘trash fish’ was discarded for every kg of prawns landed; a discard ratio of 91.6%!"
Arrested Tamil Nadu Trawl in Kayts
National and international researchers have estimated that IUU fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters causes an annual loss of Rs.6 billion to the Sri Lanka’s fishery sector. Seafood industry sources suggest that the same amount again -- equivalent to US$ 42 million -- is being lost by the Sri Lankan seafood export industry every year. The country’s rich marine resources are being harvested illegally by Tamil Nadu trawlers and sold to seafood processing factories there.
The threat posed by IUU fishing and seafood fraud to the sustainability of global seafood stocks is explained in the US Presidential Initiative on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud (2015). The Initiative states that IUU fishing and fraudulent seafood products distort legal markets and unfairly compete with the products of law-abiding fishers and seafood industries globally. The fisheries sector, seafood industry and government are well aware that the European Commission(EC) has its own regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing (2010). In October 2014 the EC banned the export of Sri Lankan seafood products to European countries, costing Sri Lanka millions of dollars in lost export revenue. The ban was enacted in April 2015 due to alleged IUU fishing by a handful of Sri Lankan vessels in British-Indian Ocean Territories, following a complaint to the EC by the British government. The EC’s regulation reiterates that IUU fishing depletes fish stocks, destroys marine habitats, distorts competition, puts honest fishers at an unfair disadvantage, and weakens coastal communities, particularly in developing countries.
No one -- not even Tamil Nadu trawler owners -- disputes the fact that mechanized bottom trawling in shallow, coastal waters depletes fish stocks and destroys critical marine habitats. According to a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1994, the top five most wasteful global fisheries were all mechanized prawn trawl fisheries. Sri Lanka’s prawn trawl fishery was rated the fourth most wasteful fishery in the world in 1994. According to the report 10.96 kg of ‘trash fish’ was discarded for every kg of prawns landed; a discard ratio of 91.6%! In July last year, the government finally banned mechanized trawling in Sri Lankan waters in response to the demands from small scale fishermen and concerns from environmentalists about the wanton destruction of marine resources. Sri Lanka became the fourth country after Hong Kong, Palau and Indonesia to demonstrate its commitment to the sustainable fisheries by banning mechanized bottom trawling in its waters. In December last year, the government amended the Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act. Once again in response to protests and demands by small scale fishermen (and their lawyers). The amendment increased the penalties for foreign fishing boats arrested for illegal fishing and revised the jurisdiction of the Act from the High to the Magistrate’s Court.
"Fishery community leaders argue that cordial relations with India cannot be achieved by abandoning Sri Lanka’s sovereignty"
In Jaffna last week, fishery community leaders acknowledged the government’s desire to maintain ‘cordial relations’ with its much larger neighbour. But they argued, this cannot be achieved by abandoning Sri Lanka’s sovereignty; by ignoring international regulations, initiatives or national laws; by accepting multi-million dollar losses to Sri Lanka’s export and fisheries sectors or forsaking Sri Lanka’s commitment to sustainable management of marine resources. The leaders said they were ready and willing to support the government in negotiations with India on the release of vessels, but not without conditions. Sri Lankan fishermen called upon the government to use the Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act to finally end IUU fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in
Sri Lankan waters.
Author is a freelance writer and an activist for the rights of fishermen, especially in the North and the East. He can be contacted on