Depending on the spot along the coast of Jaffna peninsula, resident fishermen share different versions of the familiar story of “poaching Indian trawlers”.
“The situation is much better now,” said K. Rajachandran, a fisher leader in Karainagar, about 20 km northwest of Jaffna town. “I would say the Indian trawlers coming to our waters has reduced by more than 50% after the new laws were introduced,” he said.
He was referring to the time after Sri Lanka legally banned trawling in 2017 and imposed stiffer fines on foreign vessels found fishing in its territorial waters in 2018. The move came after Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen struggled for years, constantly highlighting their falling catch and disappearing livelihoods.
The Indian trawlers, usually from Tamil Nadu, not only crossed the International Maritime Boundary Line to fish in Sri Lanka’s resource-rich seas, but also used a destructive fishing method that virtually scooped out the sea-bed, adversely impacting fish production and marine biodiversity. The Palk Bay fisheries conflict, which intensified after the war ended in 2009, posed a serious challenge to the livelihoods of Tamil fishermen in Sri Lanka, who were trying to rebuild their lives.
In fact, trawlers from Tamil Nadu had caused considerable damage to the catch in its own seas, as it did to the livelihoods of fishermen using smaller boats along coastal Tamil Nadu, particularly in Rameswaram and Nagapattinam. But on the Sri Lankan side, they amplified fisher folk’s post-war distress.
Many rounds of talks between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments, and among fisher leaders didn’t bring a solution any closer. Sri Lanka went for tougher laws.
Ever since, both officials and Sri Lankan fishermen have observed a drop in the number of instances of Indian trawlers poaching. Official statistics show that while as many as 453 Indian fishermen were arrested in 2017 — they have all been released and repatriated — only 156 were arrested on charges of poaching in 2018. Last year, 210 were arrested and this year, 34 have been held until mid-February. “We have been spotting some species of fish again after many years and the catch is also going up steadily,” Mr. Rajachandran said.
Trail of destruction
When things were looking up for the community, Sri Lanka’s own trawler fleet — smaller than the Indian ones but destructive nonetheless — began expanding. The Indian trawlers’ trail of destruction was not only evident in sea, but also in the smaller vessels they had bred in Sri Lanka. A few hundred fishermen in Jaffna saw quick money in these powerful vessels and invested in them.
According to many northern fishermen, the trawlers originated from Gurunagar, located on the southern coast of the peninsula. The village is a 10-minute drive from Jaffna town, but starkly different. The five-storied residential complex is crowded, with each of its tiny apartments, packed to the brim with people and their belongings. Fishing is the main livelihood for men, while women are mostly engaged in daily-waged labour. “It’s not us, it’s the Indian trawlers,” said a young fisherman, who did not reveal his name fearing “repercussions”. “Even now, they come thrice a week to our coast. I don’t know about other parts,” he said, adding the people of the village felt “helpless and hopeless”. He claimed that fishermen like him didn’t operate smaller trawlers and instead squarely blamed the Indian trawlers for his plight.
While Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen continue braving conflicts, local and international, the two governments are trying to sort out pending cases. As many as 130 of the Indian trawlers seized by the Sri Lankan Navy over the past few years will have to be discarded, as they have corroded and are no more fit to be used. During his visit to New Delhi in November, soon after his election victory, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the release of 57 boats in Sri Lankan custody.
In a potentially long-term initiative, Sri LankanPrime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Douglas Devananda, who were in New Delhi in early February, have proposed that the two countries set up a joint marine resources management authority, with experts, officials and fisher leaders from either side of the Palk Strait.
However, the Indo-Lanka fisheries conflict — at least a decade old now — cannot be simply “managed”, as past efforts have proved. They need to be solved. And that might need greater political will from both sides.
(Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent)