Sri Lanka’s legislative amendment to prohibit bottom trawling , a destructive fishing practice, is a welcome move despite its likely near-term consequence of deepening the fisheries conflict in the Palk Bay region. Bottom trawling in the island nation’s territorial waters will now attract a possible two-year prison term and a fine of 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees. The practice, which involves trawlers dragging weighted nets along the sea floor, is known to cause great depletion of fishery resources, and curbing it is in the interest of sustainable fishing. The initial reaction from Tamil Nadu has been one of concern and consternation. Political parties claim the amendment is draconian, and that it is targeted at the State’s fishermen who regularly use hundreds of trawlers in Sri Lankan territorial waters. This criticism is way off the mark. In recent years, some fishermen in northern Sri Lanka have also adopted bottom trawling. If this practice continues to gain ground even among local fishermen, the long-term consequences on fishing resources in the contested Palk Bay region will be irremediable. The amendment is aimed at curbing local trawlers as well as deterring trawlers from Tamil Nadu. An appropriate response from Tamil Nadu would be to expedite the conversion of its trawlers to deep sea fishing vessels, and not merely condemn Sri Lanka.
Fishermen from both countries have been in talks for a long time to resolve the conflict. Sri Lankan fishermen want an immediate end to incursions by Indian trawlers, and those from Tamil Nadu insist on a three-year phase-out period. The proposal to ban bottom trawling is two years old, but the amendment has come at a time when a Joint Working Group set up by both countries last year is in place. Tamil Nadu fishermen are arrested from time to time by the Sri Lankan Navy, and their vessels seized. If more are arrested and slapped with two-year jail terms after a summary trial, as the law now envisages, it may create new flashpoints. Ultimately, the solution lies in the transition from trawling to deep sea fishing, for which a beginning has been made. The Central and State governments plan to provide 500 deep sea fishing boats with long lines and gill nets this year, as part of a plan to replace 2,000 trawlers in three years. However, the question is whether Sri Lanka can be expected to wait for this plan to be fully implemented before enforcing its bottom trawling ban. Even while bracing for an escalation as a result of protests from Tamil Nadu, both countries should ensure that the situation does not disrupt regular meetings of the JWG. Besides the fisheries conflict, they need to discuss marine conservation, thus giving equal importance to protecting livelihoods and sustainable fishing.