India-Sri Lanka fishing conflicts show no signs of abatements efforts to phase out destructive trawling practices.
What is the Issue?
- Incessant bottom trawling along the coast of Tamil Nadu over the years has meant that the fishermen are drawn to the relatively resource-rich Sri Lankan waters. This pushes them into a cycle of arrest, remand, release, or in some unfortunate cases, violence or death at sea.
- At the heart of the conflict is a tale of competing livelihoods in a narrow stretch of the sea, amid a looming environmental threat, and a glaring asymmetry of power — be it in numbers, equipment, or political backing — between two Tamil-speaking fishing communities.
- Over the years, as resources on the Indian side of Palk Bay began to deplete, trawlers have been crossing the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary to tap into the resources on the other side. This lands them in trouble.
- The Sri Lankan state’s response to the problem has been largely a military and legal one, tasking its Navy with patrolling the seas and arresting “encroachers”, banning trawling, and levying stiff fines on foreign vessels engaged in illegal fishing in its territorial waters.
What is Bottom Trawling?
- Bottom trawling is a fishing practice that herds and captures the target species, like groundfish or crabs, by towing a net along the ocean floor.
- Species that forage on or near the seafloor are at risk of being captured or entangled in netting or tow lines (also called lazy lines).
Bottom Trawlers of India
- According to the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department, there are 5,893 trawlers in the state— more than 2,000 from the four districts alone—that go out into the bay to drag a large net along the ocean floor to catch target species.
- Though bottom trawling destroys coral reefs and causes an irreversible impact on benthic communities, the government has encouraged trawling in Palk Bay since the mid-1960s through loans and subsidies to boost prawn exports.
What is the History of the Conflict?
- There is an unresolved fisheries conflict festering in the barely 30-mile-wide (at its narrowest point) Palk Strait.
- The problem has existed for more than a decade now, from the time Sri Lanka’s 30 year-long civil war ended in 2009.
- That was when the island’s northern Tamil fishermen, who were displaced and barred access to the sea, began returning to their old homes, with hopes of reviving their livelihoods and resurrecting their lives.
- Their return, however, marked the beginning of a new tension with Tamil fishermen on the other side of the sea.
- This has posed a serious threat to their livelihoods, fishing gear, and the marine resources they rely on.
Failure at our side
- India has promised to phase out trawlers from Palk Bay in several meetings with Sri Lanka over the past two decades.
- In 2017, the Union government launched the “Diversification of trawl fishing boats from Palk Strait into deep-sea fishing boats” or the Palk Bay Scheme for 2,000 fisherfolk in the four districts of Tamil Nadu.
A sum of R1,600 crore was allocated to provide long-liner- cum-gillnetter boats (at R80 lakh each) for deep-sea fishing.
- Under the scheme, the Union and state governments together provide a subsidy of R56 lakh for the boats, while R16 lakh comes from loans and the beneficiary pays R8 lakh.
- As far as fishers do not see deep-sea fishing as a viable option the scheme puts beneficiaries in exorbitant debt and does not rake in significant profits either trailers usually return in a day or two. But deep-sea fishing lasts for at least 15 days, and it is difficult to keep the catch fresh for so long.
No Consensus between India and Srilanka
- India and Sri Lanka have held many rounds of bilateral talks in the last decade between government officials as well as fisher leaders.
- The outcomes have mostly ranged from deadlocks, with Tamil Nadu refusing to give up bottom trawling, to template responses from the governments, with India seeking a “humanitarian response” from Sri Lanka.
- The closest that the two countries came to reaching a solution was in November 2016, following a meeting in New Delhi led by the Foreign and Fisheries Ministers from both sides, with other key interlocutors.
- A Joint Working Group was constituted to first and foremost, expedite “the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest”.
- The Indian government’s attempt to divert fishermen to deep-sea fishing has not taken off as was envisaged, even as profit-hungry boat owners in Tamil Nadu stubbornly defend their trawler trade.
Arguments of Indian Side
- Tamil Nadu fishermen continue to allege that the Sri Lankan Navy is unleashing violence on them; Sri Lanka denies this.
- Five years since, we are at a rather low point in the fisheries conflict, with a rising human cost.
Arguments of Srilankan Side
- It is equally well known that the relentless trawling by Indian vessels has caused huge losses to northern Sri Lankan fishermen.
- Their catch has fallen drastically and they count vanishing varieties of fish.
- They are dejected as their persisting calls to end bottom trawling have not been heeded by their counterparts in Tamil Nadu, or “brothers” as they repeatedly call them.
What should be done?
- The growing trust deficit between the two sides does not augur well for the prospect of a solution.
- India and Sri Lanka must urgently refocus their energies to address this crisis.
- As the first step, Tamil Nadu must consider a moratorium on bottom trawling in the Palk Strait.
- Such a move must be accompanied by both New Delhi and Colombo substantially supporting their respective fishing communities to cope with the suspension of trawling on the Tamil Nadu side and the devastating impact of the pandemic on both sides.
- Indian and Sri Lankan fishers can fish on different days of the week.
The focus must be on evolving a lasting solution. Strong bilateral ties are not only about shared religious or cultural heritage but also about sharing resources responsibly, in ways that the lives and livelihoods of our peoples can be protected.