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Time to resolve issues of northern fishermen

22 December 2020 12:11 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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One of the important issues that have been eclipsed by the COVID-19 threat is the plight of the fishermen of northern Sri Lanka, who have been hit by both Coronavirus related issues and the invasion of their fishing grounds by Indian fishermen.


Northern fishermen, as their counterparts in many parts of the island, are dependent on selling large amounts of fish at the Peliyagoda fish market. But they have been severely affected by the market being closed for about two months after a huge cluster of COVID-19 infected people centred on the market being detected around the country including the Northern Province.


According to a Daily Mirror report northern fishermen had used at least four cooler trucks to transport large quantities of fish to the Peliyagoda fish market daily from four districts in the North before the market was closed. And the impact on the fish exports due to the pandemic has worsened the situation.


While their market is hit by the deadly virus, their fishing grounds are being invaded by Indian fishermen. Though this has been a decades-long issue, both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments have failed to resolve it. Northern fishermen have been agitating over Indian fishermen originating from Tamil Nadu trespassing into their waters and using destructive fishing methods, such as bottom trawling which is banned in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Navy had controlled the poaching by Indian fishermen to some extent, in the past, but the northern fishermen have been alleging that currently, the Navy is reluctant to arrest the trespassing fishermen from Tamil Nadu now, due to the Covid-19 prevalence in India.


Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda said last month Sri Lanka was ready to hold talks with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami to resolve the problems of fishermen of both countries. But no response came from the other end.


India and Sri Lanka share a maritime border of more than 400 kilometres, which cuts across three different seas: the Bay of Bengal in the north, the Palk Strait in the centre and the Gulf of Mannar in the West.


The maritime boundary is close to the shores of both the countries in the Palk Strait region, where the maximum distance separating them is around 45 kilometres and the minimum 16 kilometres.


Even before the Law of the Sea was negotiated at the United Nations, there were the maritime agreements of 1974 and 1976 between India and Sri Lanka. The 1974 Agreement demarcated the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait and ceded Kachchathivu, a small, uninhabited barren island in the region, to Sri Lanka. The 1976 Agreement barred either country’s fishermen from fishing in the other’s waters. Yet, Indian fishermen’s invasion of Sri Lankan waters has been going on for decades unabated. This came to a head during the war between the government forces and the LTTE when the Sri Lankan Navy imposed restrictions for the northern fishermen since the arms smuggling LTTE boats mingled among the fishing boats.


According to a government official in the north, the Jaffna District went from producing 48,776 metric tons of fish in 1983 to 2,211 metric tons in 2000. In the Mannar District, production went from 11,798 metric tons in 1983 to 3,614 metric tons in 2002.


The Indian fishermen took advantage of the situation and plundered the fishing resources of the northern Tamil fishermen at will. Neither the LTTE nor the other Tamil politicians wanted to antagonize the Indian and Tamil Nadu politicians over this and hence turned a blind eye to the issue, leaving it to the Sri Lankan government. However, since the conflict’s end in 2009, tensions have risen around the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen and it was then the Tamil politicians woke up. The situation has worsened by the usage of trawlers which are referred to as the “hoovers of the sea bottom” and “bulldozers mowing down fish and other benthic species” by the Indian fishermen.


Discussions during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and the Yahapalana regime centred around the alleged “harassments” of Indian fishermen by the Navy and not the plight of the Sri Lankan fishermen.


It is high time the authorities take up the issue with the Indian leaders and resolve it for good.

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