They were fishing in high seas when the navy from Talaimannar arrested them

Twenty Indian fishermen were arrested on Saturday night on the charge of poaching north of Mannar, sources in the Sri Lankan Navy said on Sunday.

Four trawlers were also confiscated, Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said.

With Saturday’s arrests, 37 Indian fishermen are in Sri Lankan custody, facing the charge of illegal fishing.

The ongoing conflict in the Palk Bay is likely to figure in the talks between Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi later this week.

Amid speculation on India planning to allow its fishermen to fish around Katchatheevu after getting a licence on payment of a fee, the issue of the two governments retaining trawlers or boats used by the arrested fishermen seems to have worried fishermen. The Sunday Times in Colombo reported that Sri Lankan fishermen, arrested by India on the charge of poaching and freed later, were finding it difficult to make a living without their boats.

Deputy Fisheries Minister Sarath Kumara Gunarathna was quoted as saying: “Sri Lanka does not release boats belonging to Indian fishermen taken into custody for entering Sri Lanka’s waters; Indian authorities follow the same principle.”

Meanwhile, the fishing community at Rameswaram expressed anguish at the latest arrests, even as the total number of arrests has crossed the 200-mark in the new fishing season since June 1.

The 20 fishermen from Rameswaram and Mandapam were fishing in the high seas when the navy from Talaimannar arrested them, according to reports received at Rameswaram. They were handed over to officials of the Fisheries Department and were likely to be produced in court on Monday.

They were part of the over 3,000 fishermen who had sailed in 666 mechanised boats from the fishing jetty at Rameswaram on Saturday morning, sources in the Fisheries Department said.

Fishermen leader P. Sesu Raja said that in the past 38 days of the new fishing season, the fishermen had 10 days of fishing, and only two were incident-free.

U. Arulanandham, president of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, said the Navy had so far arrested 216 fishermen and confiscated 46 boats and sunk two. The Sri Lankan authorities released all but 37 fishermen, including 20 arrested on Saturday, but detained all trawlers.

Centre’s stand

Fishermen leaders said the Centre’s stand in the Madras High Court — the sovereignty over Katchatheevu was a “settled matter” and Indian fishermen had no traditional fishing rights around the islet — seemed to have emboldened Sri Lanka.

They demanded that the Centre retrieve the islet and help fishermen use their traditional waters in the Palk Bay. The fishermen could not switch overnight to deep-sea fishing, which would help them avoid crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line, they said.

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