All Parties must defend Northern Fishermen

2 October 2013 04:57 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The Government’s decision on 18th September to confiscate Indian trawlers caught fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters and swiftly repatriate the crew (see Daily Mirror 19th September), should be welcomed by anyone committed to improving the livelihoods of fishermen in the north of Sri Lanka. Minister Rajitha Senaratne should also receive many plaudits for his sustained effort to ensure that the issue of poaching by Indian fishermen has been taken seriously by the Government.  

It is now more than four years since the end of the civil conflict in Sri Lanka and much has been done by the Government and non-governmental organisations, to improve the lives and livelihoods of fishing communities in the north of Sri Lanka. Individual fishermen and fishermen’s societies have been provided with hundreds of new fishing crafts, nets and engines to replace those damaged or destroyed during the conflict. New landing centres and fishermen’s society buildings have been constructed. Technical assistance and financial support has been provided to install new ice production facilities and to set up boatyards. Hundreds of cool boxes, motorcycles and cooler trucks have been distributed to improve supply chains and access to seafood markets. As a result, fish production and fishing household income have increased rapidly since the end of the conflict. 59,340 tons of fish were caught by northern fishermen in 2012, representing 14% of the country’s total marine production. The majority of the catch from the north is sent to the south and the hill country, while high value seafood products such as prawns, lobsters, crabs and cuttlefish are exported.

However, if you talk to fishermen and women in fishing communities in the north, as I did recently during a 12-day tour of Kalpitiya, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Jaffna, you could be forgiven if you left, thinking that fishermen’s livelihoods have got worse, rather than better, since the end of the conflict. Why is this so? It is because of Indian trawlers. On three nights every week – Monday, Wednesday and Saturday – around 500 to 1,000 Indian trawlers cross the International Marine Boundary Line (IMBL) in the Palk Strait, to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters. Northern fishermen are literally forced to stand on the shore and watch, as the Indian trawlers drag their nets within 200 metres of the shore. The much larger and more powerful Indian trawlers, towing heavy bottom-trawls, simply ripping through the northern fishermen’s much lighter gill nets, causing damage to the smaller northern fishing craft, and risking injury to Sri Lankan fishermen.

For large periods of the civil conflict, fishermen in the north were restricted to daytime fishing – the worst time to catch fish – because of the security situation. Indian trawlers faced no such restrictions. In spite of the threat of capture by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s Sea Tigers Units or arrest by the Sri Lankan Navy’s patrols, Indian trawlers successfully poached Sri Lankan marine resources throughout the conflict period. Following the end of the conflict in May 2009, northern fishermen expected to quickly regain their earlier position as the country’s number one fish producer. In the 1980s the Northern Province contributed 41% of Sri Lanka’s national marine production (75,750 tons). There is no doubt that the fishery in the north has recovered or that the recovery has been swift since the end of the conflict. The issue for fishermen in the north is that the fishery has not recovered as much as they expected – hence the prevailing deep sense of dissatisfaction with the post conflict recovery, found in fishing communities all along the northwest and northern coast.

Trawling is a particularly destructive form of fishing. Bottom-trawling is by far the worse form of trawling. Bottom-trawls are designed to dig in to the top foot or so of the sea-bed and dredge up everything therein. As the trawls are dragged through the water by the powerful Indian trawlers, all marine life in or just above the sea-bed is swept up into the fine mesh of the trawls, along with the flower prawns, sea cucumbers, blue swimming crabs and cuttlefish targeted by the trawlers: all of which are abundant in Sri Lankan waters. For every tonne of prawns, crabs, sea cucumbers and cuttlefish harvested by Indian trawlers, five to ten 10 tonnes of juvenile fish, crabs, prawns, starfish, sea urchins, molluscs, worms and other miscellaneous marine animals and plants are caught in the by-catch. 40% to 50% of the trawlers’ by-catch is simply thrown back – mostly dead - into the sea. Besides the indiscriminate toll on marine life, bottom-trawls damage and destroy sand banks, rocky outcrops and patches of coral reef. These marine habitats are crucial to the overall function of the marine eco-system.

Northern fishermen suffer multiple economic losses due to the Indian trawlers. Firstly they are unable to fish for three days each week. If they risk fishing, they also risk additional debts if their fishing gear and craft are damaged or destroyed. Indirect losses, running into tens of millions of Sri Lankan Rupees and foreign exchange earnings, are incurred every month when flower prawns, sea cucumbers, blue swimming crabs and cuttlefish are landed in South India and exported to the European Union, the United States, South Asia and Japan, labelled as “Indian Seafood”. Seafood that would otherwise be caught by Sri Lankan fishermen, bought by Sri Lankan traders and exported by Sri Lankan seafood companies. Finally northern fishermen’s future economic income is jeopardised as a result of the ‘eco-system level’ damage caused by discarded by-catch and the destruction of marine habitats.

In the late 1990s I worked with two local Non Government Organisations (NGO), providing basic humanitarian assistance – medical checkups, soap, sarongs, towels, toothbrushes, banians and bidis - to Indian fishermen detained in Mirihana Detention Camp, who had been arrested for illegally entering Sri Lankan waters. An Indian NGO provided similar assistance to Sri Lankan multi-day boat fishermen arrested for fishing illegally in Indian waters. At the time the debate emphasised the plight of ‘innocent fishermen,’ arrested for unknowingly crossing an invisible border separating the country’s territorial waters. After a couple of years of visiting Indian fishermen in Mirihana every month; of making trips to meet fishermen from Chilaw, Negombo, Beruwela and Trincomalee imprisoned in Madurai jail and after visiting Indian fishermen who had been released and repatriated to Rameshwaram, it became obvious that neither the Indian fishermen, nor their Sri Lankan counterparts were as ‘innocent’ as was commonly assumed. If a fisherman doesn’t know where he is, how can he expect to find his way home?

Over the last two years or so there has been an important shift in the language used to describe Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen arrested for illegally fishing in each other’s waters. Sri Lankan multi-day boat fishermen are no longer referred to, even by the government, as ‘innocent fishermen’. Now the term is poachers. The same term and its corollary - ‘illegal fishing’ - is now used to describe Indian fishermen caught trawling in Sri Lankan waters. Sri Lankan multi-day boats and Indian trawlers are equipped with a range of modern fishery and navigational devices, including geographic positioning systems. Each skipper knows exactly where he is when his boat is fishing. The owners of multi-day boats and Indian trawlers are well aware that their fishing boats are poaching each other’s resources.






The decision last week to confiscate Indian trawlers caught fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters and repatriate the crews, has been taken by the Government in the best interests of northern fishermen. If the decision is followed through, it will represent a decisive step towards realising the aspirations of northern fishermen, in the aftermath of the end of the civil conflict four years ago.  The Government’s decision to confiscate Indian trawlers is not unprecedented. Again going back ten years or so, the Maldivian government adopted the same approach in response to persistent poaching in Maldivian waters by Sri Lankan multi-day fishing craft at the end of the 90s. Multi-day boat owners quickly instructed their skippers not to do fishing illegally in Maldivian waters and the incidence of illegal fishing by Sri Lankan multi-day boats in Maldivian waters rapidly declined. Incidentally, clusters of stripped and cleaned Indian trawlers, sunk in strategic locations on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Straitwould simultaneously create excellent ‘anti trawling’ devices and ‘artificial reefs’. Anti trawling devices and artificial reefs have each been demonstrated to have a restorative impact on marine production and marine eco-systems.


" if you talk to fishermen and women in fishing communities in the north, as I did recently during a 12-day tour of Kalpitiya, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Jaffna, you could be forgiven if you left, thinking that fishermen’s livelihoods have got worse, rather than better, since the end of the conflict. Why is this so? It is because of Indian trawlers. On three nights every week – Monday, Wednesday and Saturday – around 500 to 1,000 Indian trawlers cross the International Marine Boundary Line (IMBL) in the Palk Bay, to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters. "



From an Indian point of view, particularly an Indian Tamil point of view, the Government’s decision to confiscate Indian trawlers and repatriate the crew may well be viewed as excessive. The decision is also likely to be misconstrued as yet another source of provocation from the Sri Lankan Government, by many commentators in South India.  


" The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in particular needs to end its long and unsupportive silence on the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters. "



Yet, the point of view that matters most in this context is that of northern fishermen. It is their views that the Government of India and in particular Indian Tamils, need to reflect on, before responding to the Government’s decision in support of northern fishermen.



" Indirect losses, running into tens of millions of Sri Lankan Rupees and foreign exchange earnings, are incurred every month when flower prawns, sea cucumbers, blue swimming crabs and cuttlefish are landed in South India and exported to the European Union, the United States, South Asia and Japan, labelled as “Indian Seafood ”



The unanimous position of the leaders of District Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Unions and District Fisheries Federations that I met during my recent visits to the north a couple of weeks ago, is that they want illegal fishing by Indian trawlers to stop NOW! Not next month, not in another six months or one year’s time, but now, today! Sri Lankan fishermen in the north simply want to rebuild their lives and recover their livelihood from fishing, after 30 years of ultimately pointless civil conflict. The biggest obstacle to this recovery is Indian trawlers. Any future bilateral meetings between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka or dialogues between South Indian trawler fishermen’s associations and northern fishermen’s associations, as recently suggested by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram, in a letter to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (The Hindu, September 23rd), must depart from the inalienable right of northern fishermen to determine the extent of their livelihoods in the Sri Lankan half of the Palk Bay.






Sentiment aside, the law appears to be firmly on the side of northern fishermen. The maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka, in the historic waters of the Palk Straits, was formalised by Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1974, under the Maritime Boundary Agreement. The agreement clearly states that each country shall have sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction and control over the waters, the islands, the continental shelf and sub-soil thereof, falling on its own side of the aforesaid boundary (Article 4). Acknowledging the historic use of the Palk Bay and Islands, notably Kachchativu, by fishermen from south India and northern Sri Lanka, the agreement ensures that Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to visit Kachchativu as hitherto, and will not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visas for these purposes (Article 5). The agreement goes on to stipulate that the vessels of India and Sri Lanka will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein (Article 6).

It would be very disingenuous to argue that mechanised trawling using large, heavy, destructive, bottom-trawls is a traditional fishing method of south Indian fishermen. Mechanised bottom-trawling was introduced, with fairly disastrous results for traditional fishermen, under a series of Norwegian-funded aid programmes that started in the 1950s. It is interesting to note that traditional south Indian fishermen are as badly affected by Indian trawlers as Sri Lankan fishermen. It is as a result of the conflict between traditional south Indian fishermen and modern mechanised trawlers, that Indian trawlers are restricted by the State Government of Tamil Nadu to fishing for only three days a week. The other three days are set aside for traditional south Indian fishermen. In Sri Lanka, conflicts between traditional fishermen and mechanised trawlers in Kalpitiya, Mannar and Jaffna have been resolved by prohibiting trawling in Sri Lankan waters. But I digress.

Nor can it be said that south Indian fishermen have traditionally enjoyed the right to fish within 200 metres off the coast of Sri Lanka. Traditionally, south Indian fishermen catch fish using kattumaram (log rafts) and vallam (canoes), powered by sails or outboard engines. If south Indian fishermen wish to exercise their prerogative to fish in Sri Lankan waters, as enshrined in the 1974 Maritime Boundary Agreement, then it is quite conceivable that northern fishermen, out of genuine goodwill to their south Indian cousins, would allow them to do so. The condition would be that south Indian fishermen agreed to fish in Sri Lankan waters using traditional fishing craft and gears, keeping to a reasonable distance, say 20 km from the Sri Lankan shores.

If advocates for the rights of Tamil Nadu trawler fishermen and politicians in south India are genuinely committed to supporting the legitimate rights of Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka - around 30% to 40% of whom depend on fishing for their livelihood - then they will accept the Government of Sri Lanka’s recent decision on behalf of northern fishermen. The challenge now facing advocacy groups and politicians in South India is not to dispute the right of northern fishermen to exploit Sri Lankan resources. Instead it is to research, design and implement assistance programmes that will mitigate the economic and social consequences for south Indian trawler fishermen and the seafood sector as a whole, which will arise now that it is no longer possible for Indian trawlers to do fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters.  

Equally, politicians across the political spectrum in Sri Lanka should come out strongly in support of the legitimate rights of fishermen in the north, by unequivocally backing the Government’s decision to confiscate Indian trawlers and swiftly repatriate the crew. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in particular needs to end its long and unsupportive silence on the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters. During the lead up to last week’s elections for the Northern Provincial Council, the TNA made a number of positive statements in support of the right of northern fishermen to exploit Sri Lankan resources. Following the TNA’s resounding victory at the polls, the opportunity now presents itself for the TNA to demonstrate its commitment to the voter who gave them their new mandate, by endorsing the Government’s decision.

Illegal fishing by Indian trawlers is the single largest obstacle preventing northern fishing communities from harvesting the economic, social and ecological benefits arising out of the end of the conflict. Four years is a long time to wait. But if the wait is now over, northern Sri Lankan fishermen will finally have something to celebrate.   
- Dr. Steve Creech is a freelance consultant with over 15 years of experience working in support of the sustainable development of the fisheries sector in Sri Lanka.
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