The third round of talks between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen held in Chennai may have given hope to end the bitter fishing rights issue between the fishing community of two sides but experts question how far both Indian and Sri Lankan governments agree when they draft a laws on issues pertaining to fishing.
Fishing in Palk Strait has been a bone of contention between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu for a long time now. The State has challenged in the Supreme Court the 1974 and 1976 accords under which Katchatheevu islet was ceded to Sri Lanka by India.
“It is a sensitive and difficult issue. But we should not be fishing in Sri Lankan territory,” says Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) principal scientist Dr K Sunil Mohamed. The Centre is planning to come up with a dispute redressal mechanism to address the territorial dispute on fishing between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. “It is still in the mind and paper. It will be drafted by June 2015,” Mohamed says. He says the CMFRI is mooting a Fisheries Management Council for all the coastal states to resolve conflicts.
“Under this, we have also mooted Gulf of Mannar Regional Fishing Council. This will also have the participation of Sri Lankan fishermen,” Mohamed points out. He adds that the idea is to have a Panchayat Raj sort of three-tier system to resolve territorial fishing disputes amicably. This mechanism is expected to be drafted by June 2015. Mohamed also stresses on the need for Regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), which are formed by countries with fishing interests in an area.
India has a huge coastline and it has conflicts with all its neighbours over fishing, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. “It is time India spearheaded formation of RFMOs,” observes Mohamed. He says the proposals put forth by both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen is a welcome move. However, India should now look into reducing the number of fishing vessels by providing alternate livelihood for those who are willing to give up trawling, he opines.
N Sathiyamoorthy, Director of Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation says that the proposals like Indian fishermen agreeing to abandon trawling in the Palk Strait in three years time is a welcome move.
But the biggest challenge would be when international maritime boundaries are to be zeroed in upon and when legislation will be drafted. “Palk Strait is a delicate issue for the State government, which has moved the Supreme Court on this issue. It is also a sensitive issue and could have political connotations,” points out Sathiyamoorthy. He also says that the concerns of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen were also highlighted for the first time with Tamil National Alliance raising the concerns of northern Sri Lankan fishermen at the party’s meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
He also backs the proposal that the entire trawling fleet from India should be turned into deep sea fishing vessels. “Deep sea fishing requires a lot of preparation and fishermen should be trained,” he says. The State fisheries department is already considering Tuna Long Line Fishing in deep seas. “We have sent in a proposal to the government,” an official informs. He adds that the government is implementing the ban on purse seine fishing nets.
However, civil society seems to oppose deep sea fishing. “Fishermen should not venture into Palk Straits for fishing. It is an IMBL. What will the Sri Lankan fishermen do,” a civic official functionary questions. He says the government should work on ways to regulate fishing to improve the stock. “Deep sea fishing is not the solution,” he says. “We need to reduce bottom trawling.” Mohamed says that the blame on Indian fishermen violating the IMBL also lies with the coast guard. “They should have stopped the fishermen from crossing into Sri Lankan waters and should have detained them,” he opines, adding that he has taken up the issue with coast guard officials.