Sri Lanka’s maritime zone is gifted with rich marine bio diversity and is home to a wide array of aquatic species. As such the Bay of Bengal, the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay which together delineates the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between Sri Lanka and India, constitutes a rich commercial hub for those engaged in the fisheries industry.
According to the IMBL, Indian fishermen were restricted to fish on the Indian side of the IMBL while Sri Lankan fishermen were restricted to fish on their side of the IMBL. However, it is a well known fact that the depletion of fishing resources in the Indian side of the IMBL has resulted in Tamil Nadu fishermen violating the IMBL and fishing in the Sri Lankan maritime zone illegally. Besides violating the IMBL, this situation has also caused severe losses to Sri Lankan fishermen in commercial terms while gravely affecting their main source of livelihood. The local fishing community points out that the numerous demonstrations and protests that were carried out concerning this issue has fallen to the deaf ears of the relevant authorities.
Consequently, a petition was filed at the Human Rights Commission on August 15 by a group of Sri Lankan fishermen representing the north and south, alleging that Tamil Nadu vessels enter the Sri Lankan maritime zone illegally and pilfering fishing resources. The petition highlighted that Indian fishermen were engaged in illegally harvesting marine resources from Sri Lankan waters every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evening. The HRC petition also signified how the fundamental rights of the Sri Lankan fishing community have being violated due to the illegal harvesting of fish in Sri Lankan waters by Tamil Nadu fishermen.
not privileged to engage in a livelihood of their choice
- Attorney Jayantha Dehiaththage
Speaking to Daily Mirror, Human Rights Lawyer Jayantha Dehiaththage stated that under the Sri Lankan legal framework, no one was permitted to enter the country illegally by violating the international maritime border. Anyone who runs contrary to these regulations is challenging the sovereignty of the country. He stated that according to official as well as unofficial sources, the number of Tamil Nadu trawlers that have entered the Sri Lankan maritime zone illegally since 2009 is believed to be nearly two hundred and eighty thousand in number. “Therefore, the Sri Lankan maritime zone has been violated two hundred and eighty thousand times as a result of Indian trawlers breaking through the international maritime border and entering Sri Lankan waters. We have already brought this issue to the notice of the Human Rights Commission” he said.
“The Sri Lankan Navy and the Sri Lanka Coast Guard are generally entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the maritime zone of the country. These authorities have been influential in taking only a few boats into custody. Article 14 (1) (g) of the Sri Lankan Constitution clearly states that every citizen is entitled to “the freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise”. However the failure of these authorities to prevent Tamil Nadu trawlers from being a hindrance to Sri Lankan fishermen in the North clearly indicates how the latter are not privileged to engage in a livelihood of their choice.”
According to the Fisheries Act 1979 (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats), foreign trawlers can be taken into custody and produced before the High Court if they enter the Sri Lankan sea illegally. Such foreign boats can be confiscated as state owned property under the Fisheries Act. However responsible authorities have not taken any such initiation lately, to file a case against foreign boats illegally entering Sri Lankan waters.
“According to Article 12 (1) of the Sri Lankan Constitution, “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law”. Unfortunately, the fisheries population in our country is not sheltered as governed by this law. The Government including the Ministry of Fisheries should engage in bilateral talks with the Indian Government to address this problem in a manner favourable to the fishing folk of both countries. We have conducted numerous protests and demonstrations to bring this problem to the notice of the Government although we have not received a very favourable response from them to date” Dehiaththage added.
The fish population in the Bay of Mannar grows rapidly due to its rich marine environment. However, Dehiaththage pointed out that these aquatic resources were fast depleting owing to the modern fishing methods employed by Tamil Nadu fishermen while harvesting fish. This has also become a challenge to the livelihood of the Sri Lankan fishing community due to the low rate of fish available in Sri Lankan waters. He also noted that in contrast to the traditional methods employed for fishing in Sri Lanka, the increasing commercialization in Tamil Nadu has prompted its fishermen to use modern methods of fishing accompanied with high-tech fishing gears that are detrimental to the marine environment.
M. V. Subramaniam - “Our marine resources are fast depleting due to modern fishing methods”
Commenting on this issue further, President of the Federation of Jaffna Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Union M. V. Subramaniam said that Indian trawlers were destroying all marine resources in the process of poaching in Sri Lankan waters. Moreover, he added that these fishermen harvested nearly all the fish available in the territory leaving Sri Lankan fisherman with resources barely sufficient to generate a decent income. “As fishermen, we employ traditional methods of fishing unlike the Indian fishermen who employ modern fishing methods with sophisticated, hi- tech fishing gear. We are bound by the law of our country and we engage in the fishing industry set within these limits. However, it is depressing to watch foreign trawlers infiltrating in Sri Lankan waters and engaging in fishing.
These Indian trawlers are causing hindrance to Sri Lankan fishermen by not letting the latter engage in the fishing business within their maritime boundary. Strict regulations should be introduced to curb this situation. Indian trawlers illegally entering Sri Lankan waters should be detained by our authorities.We submitted a petition to the Human Rights Commission highlighting all these issues faced by the fishermen in the North and the South. We hope the Government would take stringent measures to tackle this problem in a positive manner” Subramaniam added.
“Strong bilateral ties vital for development”
- Joseph Francis
Adding that Sri Lankan fishermen could implore only to their Government concerning this problem, President of the Poonakari Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Union Joseph Francis said awareness has been created among the government members including all responsible authorities with reference to the crisis faced by the Sri Lankan fishing community. “We have made the Government aware of the losses we had to incur as fishermen, owing to the ongoing poaching by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. Crossing through international maritime borders and illegally fishing in the maritime zone of a foreign country should not be viewed as a light issue. The gravity of this situation needs to be immediately addressed by respective authorities. We have not seen the Government taking any effective step to curb this problem regardless of the number of times we have brought this issue to their notice. There is no point in taking one or two trawlers into custody while thousands of trawlers are still out there engaging in the pilfering of our fishing resources freely.”
We cannot blame the Navy for not seizing all the illegal, fishing trawlers because they are acting under Government instructions. We believe that the Sri Lankan Government should have stringent standards and implement strong initiatives against trawlers illegally breaking through international maritime borders and entering Sri Lanka. While maintaining strong bilateral ties between both nations is vital for development, it is equally important to ensure that the heads of both states in Sri Lanka and India address the matter of illegal fishing trawlers entering Sri Lankan waters and arrive at a decision favourable to the fishing communities of both countries” Francis said.
“ negative implications for the economy” - N. M. Alam
Speaking to Daily Mirror, President of the Mannar Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Union N. M. Alam said that the Sri Lankan fishing community has been greatly inconvenienced in terms of the low amount of fish available for trawling resulting in the low generation of income among local fisher folk. Additionally, he said that these trawlers were violating the international maritime border by entering Sri Lankan waters illegally.
“There are 50, 000 families in the North and nearly 200,000 active fishermen are engaged in the fishing industry. These fishermen are deeply affected and inconvenienced due to illegal trawling by Indian fishermen. This should be viewed as nothing short of a human rights violation because the main source of livelihood of the Sri Lankan fishermen has been jeopardized. Such illegal trawling could also have negative implications for the Sri Lankan economy in the long run. These Indian trawlers are seen three days a week harvesting fish in our sea area. Our Government should introduce and implement strong laws to address this situation and provide a response favourable to the Sri Lankan fishing community” Alam added.