Indian fishermen continue to find themselves in deep water in Palk Bay

The Indian fishing grounds are depleted of their resources and the fishermen move over to the Sri Lankan waters for their rich aquatic fauna.
Representative Image.
Representative Image.

When the Sri Lankan navy on June 22, 2024 arrested 22 Tamil Nadu fishermen, the total number of fishermen arrested till date this year went up to 204, which was almost 75 percent of the 240 fishermen (approximate) held in 2023.

In the latest incident, the Indian fishermen were detained from the North Sea on charges of poaching in Delft island or Neduntheevu. Their boats were also seized by the Sri Lankan navy.

This year, including the Saturday's incident, a total of 27 trawlers have been seized, apart from the arrests.

Transborder fishing has been a thorn in the flesh of both India and Sri Lanka for over three decades. Fishermen in Tamil Nadu continue to find themselves in troubled water. Their lives and livelihood is at stake.

Since the start of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1983, Tamil Nadu fishermen from the districts adjoining Palk Bay and Palk Strait have braved arrests and detentions and even risked their lives to fish in Sri Lankan waters.

During the war, many fishermen lost their lives, either caught in the crossfire between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Navy or being mistaken by the Navy as foes.

A few hundreds, who were arrested, had spent weeks and months in Sri Lankan jails and detention camps. Hundreds of boats have been damaged or seized, forcing many boat owners into bankruptcy. Yet, transborder fishing by Tamil Nadu boats continues unabated. The fishermen claim they cross the international maritime boundary line unwittingly.

There are several other reasons why the fishermen land themselves in trouble, according to fishermen community and the various fishermen societies in Tamil Nadu.

The major reason outlined by them is the declining catch in the Indian waters. The Indian fishing grounds are depleted of their resources and the fishermen move over to the Sri Lankan waters for their rich aquatic fauna which, among other reasons, is rich due to the near absence of fishing during the war.

V Vivekanandan, Advisor, South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies, said that the fishermen who end up in Sri Lankan waters are mostly 2nd or 3rd generation fishermen.

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During the war in Sri Lanka, the oceans were open to the Indian fishermen who could come freely and find their catch. It is after the war that this issue under discussion increased.

“This has been going on for 40 years, it's a generational thing,” Vivekanandan said.

However there are more pressing issues under this. In recent years, a burgeoning crisis has emerged, pitting the small scale Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen against the destructive forces of industrial bottom trawling. This has profound implications not just for the fishermen’s livelihoods, but also for the ecological health of the Indian Ocean.

The destructive bottom trawling

Bottom trawling is a method of fishing that involves dragging heavy weighted nets across the sea floor, in an effort to catch fish. It’s a favoured method by commercial fishing companies because it can fetch them a huge haul in one go.

The problem with bottom trawling as a fishing method is that it’s indiscriminate in what it catches. When dragging the large, weighted nets across the seafloor, everything that happens to be in the way gets swept up in the net. For this reason bottom trawling has a large bycatch impact, with many non-target species being fished in the process.

This has an impact on the biodiversity of the ocean, and also means many species are being fished to the brink simply as a consequence of commercial activities, not as the target of them. Deep sea coral forests, thought to be some of the most biodiverse ecosystems with high degree of endemism (species found only there), can take centuries to form. But when a trawler runs over them again and again to catch fish, they’re destroyed, and so is the whole community that had formed around them. This is exactly what has happened to the Indian fishing grounds. “All the bottom trawling done here has depleted the Indian fish reserves. Many countries like Sri Lanka , Indonesia, Hong Kong and Greece have banned bottom trawling”, says Vivekanandan.

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It is these bottom trawlers that are causing a problem to the Sri Lankan fishermen as well.

Buwanaka S Perera, Sri Lankan Journalist and activist says that there is a sort of camaraderie between the indigenous fishermen of both countries. Their relationship dates back to decades. During the war, Tamil fishermen would go to the Northern island of Sri Lanka to trade or even provide asylum to some Sri Lankan Tamils. But most of the folk on these big trawlers are not the Indian coastal Tamils. They don't understand the dynamics between these two groups.

“These trawlers come in hundreds. Some days it's even possible to read the names of the boats. They come so close to the Sri Lankan shore”.

The Sri Lankan Navy

While there has been a picture painted of the Sri Lankan Navy that they arrest and detain the Indian Tamil fishermen, it is important to note the context. Vivekanandan, in his paper titled, ‘The Plight of Fishermen of Sri Lanka and India, The legacy of Sri Lanka’s civil war’, says that it needs to be understood that over 1000 Indian trawlers crossed into Sri Lankan waters three days a week for over 25 years. Add to this the few hundred country boats that would cross over on the remaining four days of the week. If the Navy were to take action against all of them, it would lead to a geopolitical disaster.

Buwanaka, who has done extensive research into this issue in Sri Lanka, says that there have been reports of boiling water and glass shreds being thrown at the Navy vessels from the huge trawlers. These boats are huge when compared to the Navy’s Dvora boats. When the Navy is not able to catch them all, imagine the plight of the small scale fishermen from India and Sri Lanka.

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The plight of the fishermen and proposed solutions

The Sri Lankan fishermen predominantly using small, traditional dinghy boats, face immense challenges. Their livelihood depends on the rich but delicate marine ecosystems close to their shores, which are at risk from these bottom trawlers that are meant for deeper waters.

In India too, the small-scale fishermen suffer due to the dominance of large-scale trawling operations. Most often than not, it is these folks with their smaller mechanised boats that are captured and seized by the navy.

There have been a number of solutions proposed by fishermen associations. When representatives from both countries met in Chennai during 22 - 24 August 2010, the following suggestions were put forth that were agreed by both countries. (i) reduction of fishing days to twice a week, with an overall cap of 70 days in a year; (ii) maintaining a distance of three nautical miles from the Sri Lankan shore to avoid destruction of small fishing nets and corals; (iii) reduction of fishing time in Sri Lankan waters to 12 hours per trip; and (iv) establishing a monitoring and enforcement system on the Indian side that will punish violations; (v) putting an end to bottom trawling within one year.

It's been more than a decade and many of these are still to be enforced and enacted.

“The government should streamline their mechanisms”, says a source from the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF), Chennai.

“The plans proposed in the fisherman- fisherman dialogue should be enforced”.

Vivekanandan says that the Government must enforce stringent regulations on trawling and find a middle ground on this issue.

“Methods like deep sea fishing as an alternative to bottom trawling, which has been in consideration by the government should be done immediately not only to resolve this issue but also to save our oceans from dying”.

Representative Image.
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