North: Livelihood of 50,000 fisherfolk families are in danger

Past midnight, last Saturday, a cluster of Indian bottom trawlers entered Sri Lankan territorial waters off Delft island in the North as usual and engaged in fishing until two naval vessels — northern naval command’s fast attack craft of 4th fast attack flotilla and another craft of the Sri Lanka Coast Guard — rushed to the scene after spotting them.

With most of the Indian bottom trawlers leaving the waters following a brief chasing stunt with Sri Lankan Navy vessels, two Indian trawlers with 15 fishermen on board were still engaged in fishing despite the warning issued by the navy.

Nagarasa Varnakulasingam

All 15 fishermen were taken into naval custody and they were brought to Kankesanthurai harbour along with their trawlers. Later, they were remanded until July 21 after being produced before the Kayts Magistrate Court.

So far this year alone, at least 74 Indian fishermen were taken into custody along with 12 of their trawlers for engaging in bottom trawling, an illegal fishing method banned through an amendment in 2018. The arrested fishermen are deported by air and their trawlers are seized and declared as state property under the law.

When a fleet of Indian mechanised trawlers made of iron bars and heavy metal equipment enter Lankan waters, aluminium-built Naval vessels have to take extraordinary measures when driving them away from the country’s waters. On seeing Navy vessels, the fleet of Indian trawlers disperse across two to three nautical miles- making it extremely difficult for Navy vessels with limited capabilities to deal with the situation.

“The first step we take when we notice Indian fishermen in our waters is to warn them to leave our waters, followed by boat manoeuvring. If they resist we arrest them. We try our best to handle the issue in a humanitarian way and we don’t use any hard power, not even warning shots,” Navy spokesman Captain Gayan Wickramasuriya told the Sunday Times

In the recent past there were reports of Indian fishermen alleging that the Navy damaged their trawlers at mid-sea and assaulted them. In October 2021 one Indian fisherman from Puthukottai, Tamil Nadu drowned after his trawler capsised. The Navy denied any wrongdoing and rejected the allegations as baseless.

For the war-affected Northern fisherfolk, the impact of destructive bottom trawling is subtle, with reduced catch.

“We don’t get a decent amount of fish catch as we used to, nowadays. On some days, we return home empty-handed, or even not enough fish for our own consumption,” Rasenthiram Mathiyalahan, secretary of Aadhikovilady Fishermen Union in Point Pedro, told the Sunday Times.

Northern fishermen continuously demanded compensation for the damage caused due to Indian bottom trawling which left them with damaged fishing nets and broken equipment.

The catch in an Indian fishing vessel that was seized by the navy on July 8

“Not a single cent was given to us to repair the damage till now. I took a Samurdhi loan to purchase my fishing nets and it got stuck in the trawling nets and was damaged last year. I informed the authorities and registered with them to obtain damages but nothing happened,” Mr Mathiyalahan said.

The fishermen leader from Vadamarachchi alleged both the Government and Tamil politicians failed to protect the interests and the livelihood of the community which is under much pressure due to local trawling, illegal fishing activities and a record number of export-oriented sea cucumber farms popping up in the Northern coastal area in recent times.

Nagarasa Varnakulasingam, leader of Vadamarachchi North Fishermen Federation, asked why the Government is unwilling to implement the law passed in 2018 declaring trawling is illegal.

“If we implement the law as it is in the law books, why do we have to request the Indian Government to prevent Indian trawlers from coming into our waters?” the fishermen leader asked, while stressing that over the years, the number of local trawlers also multiplied with political support causing conflicts among local fisherfolk.

The former president of Jaffna District Fishermen Cooperative Association also alleged that Minister Douglas Devananda who is from the Northern province, failed to resolve the conflict amicably but made it worse by issuing directives such as distributing seized Indian trawlers to local fisherfolk to capture poaching Indian fishermen and encouraged manhandling of Indian fishermen.  

Four such trawlers were distributed to four different fishermen unions in the North. Still, they are anchored in local harbours as those trawlers require a huge amount of fuel and manpower to run the high-horsepower mechanised vessels.

“After all these, the minister wants the Tamil Parliamentarians to speak with Tamil Nadu chief minister on this issue ahead of his visit to India. Our Parliamentarians also kept mum on this issue for a long time until we took to the streets,” Mr Varnakulasingam noted.

On recent proposals that are under consideration to issue fishing permits for Indian fishermen in Lankan waters as a solution to the conflict, he reiterated that Northern fisherfolk will never allow such proposals to be implemented.

Northern fishermen also alleged that a key common understanding of introducing alternative fishing methods for bottom trawling that was reached at the minister level talks between the two countries in 2016 was never implemented even after six years.

“If they are genuine about resolving this issue, they should’ve fast-tracked the implementation of alternative fishing during these years. Other decisions that were taken at the meeting including conducting fishermen-level talks every six months, joint patrolling etc were never followed up,” Annalingam Annarsa, leader of Kayts Fishermen Union and former president of Jaffna Fisheries Cooperatives Federation told the Sunday Times. He took part in earlier fisherfolk talks between the two countries

With President Wickremesinghe scheduled to undertake an official visit to India later this week, the Northern fisherfolk community urged him to find a lasting solution to ensure the livelihood of some 50,000 fisherfolk families in the province.

“Even before the ministers-level talks, we had fishermen-level talks since 2014 where they (Indian fishermen) agreed to give up bottom trawling and requested us for a two-year grace period to switch to other fishing methods. Nothing happened as they continued trawling,” Mr Annarasa said.

The last and the 5th Meeting of the India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on fisheries took place on March 25 last year virtually where, the “Sri Lankan side raised its concerns on the methods used by fishing vessels and stressed that it is imperative for the two countries to work together in drawing up effective measures to mitigate the loss of livelihood’’.

The Indian side took a constructive approach in its response and assured its assistance, according to the joint statement issued at the end of the meeting.

Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda confirmed to  the Sunday Times that the fishermen issue will be taken up at the bilateral discussions between President Wickremesinghe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi next week.

“We have already made it clear that we won’t tolerate bottom trawling fishing methods practised by Indian fishermen in our waters considering the impact on our fisheries resources,” Mr Devananda said while stressing he is also trying to secure livelihood support from India for the affected fishermen.

Addressing Parliament last week on the Indo-Lanka fishing dispute, Mr Devananda said at least 5,000 bottom trawlers from India’s Southern districts — Pondicherry, Karaikal, Rameshwaram and Nagapattinam — enter Sri Lankan waters throughout the week to engage in bottom trawling at the expense of the livelihoods of local fishermen.

“After the 1976 agreement, the Indian mechanised trawlers which were 36 feet long with 120 horsepower capacity at that time turned out to be 50-60 foot long massive vessels with 350-550 horsepower engines after 2000,” Mr Devananda pointed out on the scale of fishing by Indian fishermen.

Another pressing issue President Wickremesinghe is expected to take up with the Indian side is seeking innocent passage for Lankan fishermen under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to access the Arabian Sea via India’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

“Our fishermen who go deep sea fishing in the Arabian Sea have to undertake a long journey around 400 nautical miles near the Maldives to access international waters. By accessing Indian waters under innocent passage, they can save time and fuel as well,” Mr Devananda stressed.

The fisheries minister who is from the Northern province also urged his fellow Tamil Parliamentarians to undertake a visit to Tamil Nadu and brief the chief minister and opposition leader on the damage caused by Indian trawlers to Northern fisherfolk in order to reach a lasting solution.

“Over the years, we urged everyone from president to minister in charge to local Tamil MPs to look into this matter urgently and provide us relief but all of them failed us,” Vadamarachchi fishermen leader Varnakulasingam said.

The Sunday Times, SL.

Leave a Reply