Home Anti Corruption 500 Indian fishing trawlers in the North Sea; silence from the government, leaving the fishermen vulnerable and at risk

500 Indian fishing trawlers in the North Sea; silence from the government, leaving the fishermen vulnerable and at risk

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500 Indian fishing trawlers in the North Sea;  silence from the government, leaving the fishermen vulnerable and at risk
(Tharindu Jayawardhana)
Reginold is a fisherman who has been battling sea waves for twenty years while carrying out his job. He is currently facing a greater struggle than he has experienced in the past two decades, as he fights against the relentless force of the wind and powerful waves. This struggle is not just for himself but also for the well-being of his family, including his three children.
Not only Reginold, but also fishermen in the northern province, are facing a severe crisis. The reason for this crisis is the fishing activities of Indian fishermen who enter the Sri Lankan Sea area with trawlers.
Despite the fishermen raising their voices and demanding necessary measures for many years, no proper solution to this problem has been found thus far. It’s particularly notable that hundreds of Indian fishermen enter the Sri Lankan Sea even while being monitored by the Sri Lankan Navy.
Reginold, who resides on Delft Island under the supervision of the Sri Lankan navy, began his fishing venture with his father. He embarked on his sea-faring career after marriage, starting with a small boat.
“I’m using my boat without a motor. I don’t have enough money to buy a one. Because of this, I can’t go too far. In the past, I used traditional nets for fishing. Indian fishermen who came by trawler boats damaged them. So, now I use a small net for fishing. Because of this, I can’t catch as many fish as before. So, I spend two to three hours in the sea. I have three children. My eldest son is in grade five. There are many expenses for them. The cost of many items is much higher than before. It is very difficult to provide for the well-being of the family.” Reginold said.
According to a report presented by Dr. Sanath de Silva at a working committee meeting organized by the US Defense University in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2008, the sea border between Sri Lanka and India is divided into three sea areas: the Bay of Bengal in the north, the Straits of Palk in the middle, and the Bay of Mannar in the south. The report states that the average distance between Sri Lanka and India across the Palk Strait is about 32 km. Reginold, who commented earlier, does his fishing in the sea area around the Palk Strait. Many fishermen, like Reginald, had the same problem many years ago. Therefore, the need to divide the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka is also one of the historical junctures. How it was separated, Sanath de Silva has described in that paper as follows.
‘In 1957 Sri Lanka proclaimed her sovereign rights over the continental shelf in order to take conservation measures and to regulate fishing in the sea within her territorial waters. Then onwards we can identify a period of silent relationship till 1970s was a significant landmark period since Sri Lanka resolved her maritime boundary disputes with India during this time. The Government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike pointed out the need of delimiting the waters of the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay, and Palk Strait to the Government of Mrs. Indira Gandhi of India. Both countries agreed to the proposition that in order to regulate the activities between the two countries there should be a formal demarcation of the maritime boundary that is acceptable to each other.’
‘On the other hand, the over exploitation of resources in the Palk Strait was also a concern highlighted by both governments. After a few rounds of talks the two governments agreed to recognize the territorial waters as defined by the maritime legislation enacted by Sri Lanka and India in 1974 and 1976. On 15th January 1977 the Sri Lankan government formally declared Sri Lanka‟s side of maritime boundary. Katchchativu Island was left to Sri Lankan ownership as a result of this agreement.’
The distance from Kachchatheev Island in Sri Lanka to Rameshwaram in India is approximately 14 nautical miles, which means it’s about 26 kilometers. The Sri Lankan navy, which has extended its authority approximately 60 kilometers to Kachchatheev from Jaffna, has taken occasional action regarding Indian trawler boats that enter the Sri Lankan Sea by crossing the line of international waters. However, the leaders of fisheries associations in the north claim that the entry of Indian trawler boats into the Sri Lankan Sea area occurs daily.
“This is a significant issue. The failure of institutions, including the Sri Lankan Navy, to take necessary action against Indian fishermen is the main reason why this continues to happen. Normally, numerous Indian trawler boats enter the Sri Lankan sea area, but the number of arrests and court cases against them is minimal. However, this could be prevented with the necessary attention from relevant institutions. It doesn’t seem that the Ministry of Fisheries is taking action to address these issues. The trawlers used by Indian fishermen are larger than those owned by northern fishermen. They enter our sea area daily, causing numerous problems. One major issue is the push towards a significant economic crisis. This affects the income of fishermen in the north by depleting fishing resources and causing damage to the nets of Sri Lankan fishermen by Indian trawlers. There have been incidents involving damage to boats owned by our fishermen,” said Mr. Annalingam Annarasa, President of Kytes Fisheries Corporation.
As Annarasa stated, Sri Lanka already has a legal system in place to prevent the arrival of trawlers from India. Section 04 of the Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act No. 59 of 1979 states that foreign fishing boats should not be used for fishing in Sri Lankan waters for activities related to fisheries without a permit issued under Section 06 of the act. Section 05 of the Act states that if a foreign boat enters Sri Lankan waters, the fishing gear on that boat must be stored in a proper manner so that it cannot catch fish.
The relevant authorities are empowered to stop foreign boats, conduct searches, seize boats with or without a warrant, and arrest individuals. In 2018, amendments were made to this law, introducing additional clauses assigning responsibility to commanders of the armed forces in Sri Lanka and the head of the Coastal Conservation Department for its enforcement. The punishment for illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters by foreign boats includes imprisonment for up to two years and a large fine. The law stipulates that court trials related to this offense shall be concluded within a month. The minister responsible for executing this law has been granted extensive powers, including the ability to create regulations. Regulations were issued under this act in 1981, outlining the procedure for obtaining permission to enter Sri Lankan waters.
The ministry of fisheries and the department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources have an irrevocable responsibility to implement these laws. A discussion was held on January 24th, 2023, under the chairmanship of the Minister of Fisheries, Mr. Douglas Devananda, regarding the necessary measures to completely stop the illegal fishing activities carried out by Indian fishermen in the North Sea. Additionally, the respective institutions were made aware of illegal foreign fishing vessels and fishermen in 2023.
However, the government has still failed to provide sufficient assistance to address the issues faced by fishermen in the North due to Indian trawlers. The problem continues to worsen.
In response to an inquiry made to the Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries, Mrs. KN Kumari Somarathna, regarding this issue, she stated that it should be resolved through negotiations between the two countries. “Discussions on this matter have been ongoing between the two countries for several years. We have requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to initiate discussions on this matter once again. We are aware that the Foreign Minister is also actively working on it. Necessary measures are being taken to amend the existing laws concerning this issue, and it is currently in the final stages. Currently, the law specifies the punishment for the first arrest and the punishment for repeated arrests,” Mrs. Somarathna said.
When asked why the navy has not been instructed to use its power to make arrests under the act, the Secretary stated that the act is still in effect, and arrests are currently being made accordingly. “However, it is preferable to resolve this issue through negotiations between the two countries,” she added. When questioned about the worsening of this problem in the north in recent days, she also acknowledged that it is true.
As stated by the secretary, bilateral discussions were held to resolve this issue. In 2017, a diplomatic group, along with Sri Lankan fisheries representatives and civil activists, visited New Delhi, India, and held discussions with Indian fisheries representatives and government officials. Dr. Waradas Thyagaraja, also participating in the discussions as a Fishermen’s Society advisor, was a member of the expert committee appointed by then Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera to address this problem. However, He does not have a good idea of how to solve this problem through negotiation.
“We went to Delhi in 2017 and discussed. Discussions have been ongoing for many years, but there has been no solution. For negotiations to succeed, both parties need to show commitment. While Sri Lanka has demonstrated commitment, the same cannot be said for India. In 2018, then Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera took steps to amend the relevant Act, which was a positive decision. The amendment empowered the Magistrate’s Court to hear cases related to arrested Indian fishermen and increased the associated fines. Another significant aspect of the amendment was the provision to confiscate and auction off the boats of offending fishermen. To effectively tackle this issue, Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters should be arrested by the navy. We refer to this as the Domestic Deterrence policy’ said Dr. Waradas Thyagaraja.
The number of Indian fishermen arrested by the Navy this year is over 150. Although this is a large number, but it is minimal in comparison to the daily arrival of Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan waters, as noted by leaders of the fishing society. Consequently, the Minister of Fisheries has submitted a cabinet paper to establish a voluntary group known as ‘sea guards’ in the North to monitor Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters. The Ministry estimates that the daily economic loss caused by the Indian fishing problem is around 350 million rupees.
The current Minister of Fisheries is believed to have been elected to Parliament by the votes of the northern island fishermen. Leaders of the Northern Fishermen’s Unions have stated that he has not intervened enough to resolve this issue since taking office as the Minister of Fisheries. Mr. J. Yardsan Figurado, the head of the Mannar Social Economic Development organization, who works closely with fishermen in the north, expressed surprise that the navy, which is active around the islands in the north, did not take necessary action when Indian fishermen entered Sri Lankan waters. Mr. Yalson remarked that they could easily do so, but they are not fulfilling their responsibilities.
Although necessary steps have been taken to prevent Indian fishermen from entering Sri Lanka’s waters for fishing purposes, Navy’s media spokesperson Captain Gayan Wickramasuriya stated that it is practically difficult to take action when about 500 boats arrive at a time.
‘One is the Indian fishing boats entering Sri Lankan waters. Another thing is engaging in illegal fishing by incoming boats. So far in 2024, we have arrested more than 150 Indian fishermen, and about 20 boats were taken under our custody. About 500 Indian fishing boats arrive at the same time. We try to prevent as much as possible. In addition to this, the Navy does many other things. So, maximum force is used to stop this. We first inform them not to come to the Sri Lankan water. The fishermen who enter the sea limits without considering our notification are arrested. About 500 boats are coming, which is a huge number. No navy can stop all this. It comes from Indian fishermen. We cannot fire to stop them. Therefore, the two countries should discuss this and find a solution. Until then, we will make arrests and preventions to the best of our ability,” said Mr. Wickramasuriya.
Responding to this matter, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda said that not only the central government of India but also the state governments are in discussions to find solutions to this problem. The minister said that steps will be taken to strictly implement the fishing and foreign boat laws brought in 2017 and 2018.
‘This is not a problem from yesterday. When Indian boats coming to the sea are caught by the navy, they go to India and say that the navy is causing trouble. This issue has been discussed for so long. Three discussions were held at the ministerial level of the two countries, and there were about five rounds of discussions among the fishing community. We requested that steps be taken to make progress from those discussions. That is why we are going to present alternative measures. Since this is a problem between two countries, problems may arise when the navy intervenes. Trawlers in India are very large. Our boats are very small, like lorries and three-wheelers. Illegal gear can be removed from seized boats and provided to our fishermen for fishing activities. When they go in those big boats and do fishing under the supervision of the navy, the arrival of Indian fishermen decreases. Also, the Act brought in 2017 and the Foreign Fishing Boats Act brought in 2018 are strictly implemented.’
‘Similarly, the people’s representatives of the Northern Province should go to India and explain the true situation and explain how this situation affects the Tamil fishermen in the North. Discussions should be held not only with the central government of India but also with the state governments. The Chief Minister of Puducherry sent me a letter saying that he is ready to discuss and also sent the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Due to the election there, I hope to discuss with the election commissioner and send a letter. I am ready to discuss. Currently, 98 Indian trawlers are in custody in Sri Lanka. Also, 79 Sri Lankan boats are in the custody of India. We can talk about releasing them during the negotiations. But when starting the negotiations, it should be ensured that not a single boat is sent to this side. Indian trawlers are not only destroying our marine resources but also destroying the fishing gear of our fishermen.” the minister said.

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