With 49% seafood processing facilities and registered export processing facilities in India located in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which depends largely on fish from disputed waters, Indian trawlers continue encroaching on Sri Lankan territorial waters, causing losses in excess of US$ 59.18 million annually to Sri Lanka. Fishermen from Sri Lanka and neighbouring India, who both share the Indian Ocean, have a history of fishing illegally from each other’s territorial waters.
During the war, however, these Northern waters were out of bound to fisherman from both countries. Now that the war is over these waters are open to fishing, and the abundance of aquatic resources are attracting fisherman from both countries.
Fishermen from Tamil Nadu, in the South of India, and fisherman from the North of Sri Lanka both prefer to fish in the area near the Katchatheevu island; an area within the strait, where the presence of deep waters and rocky formation created ideal environs for marine biology.
The Katchatheevu island is located within the maritime boundary that separates Sri Lankan territorial waters from India’s, which makes the Indians fishermen using the area guilty of violating international law, and Sri Lankan fishermen are resentful of their presence, seeing it as encroachment on their territory, resulting in the depletion of their marine resources.
Sri Lankan fishermen also accuse Indian fisher-folk of damage; they say Indian fishing trawlers damage their fishing nets and destroy a fragile eco-system by utilizing bottom trawling, which rips the entire sea bed. For a community in the process of recovering from restrictions imposed on them during three decades of war, the actions of Indian fishermen are seen as an impediment to economic revival. The Sri Lankan Navy reported that last year alone, over 600 Indian fishermen had been arrested for entering Sri Lankan territorial waters illegally, while the Fisheries Ministry says that they have satellite images that evidence between 800 to 1000 Indian trawlers and mechanised boats cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) to fish close to the Sri Lankan coast. This tussle over fishing in the Palk Strait is turning into political confrontation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Nadu government, and the danger is that it could spiral into a major diplomatic row between the two countries.
The Sri Lankan Navy has in the past handed over Indian fishermen to Indian Coastguards, subsequent to arrest and detention. Now, however, with an increase in the number of trawlers entering Sri Lankan waters illegally, and the scale of destruction effected, local authorities have begun to arrest Indian fishermen and charge them, as per the law, for encroaching on Sri Lankan territorial waters. The Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, speaking to The Sunday Leader said that Sri Lankan authorities were compelled to take strict action against Indian fishing trawlers. “The destruction is unimaginable, as these trawlers enter our waters in large numbers and are depriving our fishermen their livelihood.
If they are allowed to continue in this manner they will soon destroy the entire marine resources in our region. There were certain self appointed groups that had met with the Indian fishermen earlier and agreed to allow them to fish in our waters on three days of the week. Now these groups are trying to palm the blame on us, but the Ministry of Fisheries has at no point ever agreed to allow these Indian fishermen to fish in our waters, and this is why we are taking strict action to prevent these Indian trawlers from entering our territorial waters,” he said. When questioned on reports of Chinese vessels fishing in Sri Lankan territorial waters, previously published by The Sunday Leader, Minister Senaratne explained that the Chinese had obtained permits from Sri Lankan authorities, and were hence, not engaged in illegal use of marine resources. He pointed out further, that the Chinese vessels were engaged in deep-sea fishing in the areas close to Indonesia and Malaysia, and were not depriving Sri Lankan fishermen of their livelihood, as neither India nor Sri Lanka possess the kind of fishing vessels required for deep sea fishing. Furthermore, he said, Chinese vessels handover 10% of their catch to the Fisheries Department, before exporting the remainder to China. “Chinese vessels do not unload any fish to the local market.” he said. ‘Taiwanese trawlers, on the other hand, unload their stocks at the local harbours – this has been happening for some time now, and supply fish to local exporters, even though they are not supposed to sell the fish here.”
The Minister assured The Sunday Leader that there was no threat whatsoever due to Chinese vessels fishing in Sri Lankan deep-sea waters, adding that their presence in Sri Lanka territorial waters close to Indonesian and Malaysian waters only threatened European vessels that also fished in the area.
He explained that the European vessels gained access to these waters via the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) and said that although it was the Indian Ocean, these waters were referred to as ‘British waters’ by the European vessels as the area belonged to the British during the time of the Raj. The Minister made assurance that the licenses of any Chinese vessels found to be fishing in waters encroaching local fishing territory would be cancelled immediately.
He also said that only 50 or 60 Sri Lankan boats entered Indian waters, in comparison to the thousands of Indian vessels that encroach on Sri Lankan waters. Due to this fact, he said, the Fisheries Ministry had acquired permission from the Defence Secretary to arrest Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters. “We have arrested 263 Indian fishermen and 85 vessels are in our custody.” said the Minister. “Earlier Jayalalitha intended to arrest 500 Sri Lankan fishermen in order to gain more votes, but now we have started arresting Indian fishermen, and now they are in a really difficult position. Because of this situation, the Tamil Nadu government now wants to hold discussions with us,” he said. Meanwhile, Secretary General of the National Federation of Fisheries (NFF) Premasiri Perera, told The Sunday Leader that sea cucumbers, conch shells and pearl oysters were targets of bottom trawling. “Trawling could also impact endangered marine turtles and other creatures that do not have a commercial value. They are the unavoidable, unfortunate victims of bottom trawling. When the net drags, it also disturbs underwater sediments and thousands of little creatures that find refuge in the soft sands are exposed to predators.” He said. “According to an estimate of economic losses due to Indian vessels fishing in Sri Lankan waters”, he said, “on average around 1056 Indian vessels operate on our waters per day, reportedly catching around 25 kgs per boat of shrimp.
In total around 65,102,400kg of shrimp is caught by the Indian vessels annually, amounting to a colossal SL Rs 2,170 million (US$ 19.72 million) loss. According to a report by a Senior Lecturer of Geography, University of Jaffna, Dr A. S. Sosai, the above is a very conservative estimate as the shrimp catch per boat (25 kg/ boat) is often very much more. The total value of the catch by Indian vessels (assuming 1:18 ratio) 65,102,400 kg. Assuming the value of other catch at Rs 100/kg (@ 1US$ = SL Rs 110) =SL Rs 6,510 million =US$ 59.18 million. Total value of raw material shrimp + by-catch US$ 78.90 million. The value realized through exports and value addition is much more than above and can be 30-50% higher (approx. US$ 105-120 million) He added that there are 908 seafood processing facilities and 508 registered export processing facilities in India, out of which 267 are EU registered.
Out of this 131 (or 49%) are located in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which depends very much on fish from disputed waters. The value of sea cucumber (beach-de-mer) and conch shells etc has not been considered. Damage to fish habitat and eco-system, both short-term and long-term, is incalculable. Foreign Fishing Boats Act no 59 of 1979 is mandated to regulate, control and manage illegal fishing exercises by foreign fishing vessels in Sri Lankan waters. Under Section 15 of the Act, any foreign fishing boat entering Sri Lankan waters illegally, if convicted, is liable to a fine not exceeding 1.5 million Sri Lankan Rupees. Though thousands of Indian boats contravene this law, Sri Lanka has been magnanimous to withhold action against Indian vessels. On the other hand, as per IOTC guidelines, vessels convicted by Indian courts are de-registered, operational license cancelled and sold by Sri Lankan authorities, with a suspension on fishing on the convicts. But India has not maintained a semblance of reciprocity in this respect.