Plight of Northern Sri Lankan fishermen

Fish production in Sri Lanka contributes a fair portion to the country’s economy with Northern Province playing a significant role; which was substantially reduced by the three decades of bloody civil war. Tied to the sea and dependent on the fisheries sector for survival these fishing families are still struggling to rebuild their lives after the brutal war. 

After the civil war ended in 2009 Sri Lankans expected to see speedy economic recovery in the country. Anticipated real growth in economy failed to materialise due to negative peace that prevailed in the country. Government of Sri Lanka failed to achieve its revenue targets and there were many reasons for this failure.  In the fishing industry the targets were kept low by the state due to the significant losses from poaching by Indian fishermen, who cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) demarcating territorial waters in the narrow Palk Bay and involve in Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the High Seas along the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar; it is clear that this illegal fishing due to the usage of bottom-trawls method by Indian fishermen has made a considerable impact on the economic security of the country and has directly endangered the livelihood of northern fishermen. The civil war ended in 2009 and seven negative peace years have passed; sadly the northern fishermen’s problems of rebuilding after civil war, infiltration by the Indian fishermen, clashes between local fishermen and wrong methods of fishing all still remain unresolved, with little or no redress in sight.

Poaching is the trespassing of IMBL by fishermen of both Sri Lanka and India for fishing; it is a security threat challenges to the survival and well-being of peoples and states due to irregular migration, smuggling of persons, drug trafficking and other forms of transnational crimes Even though maritime boundary crossing for fishing purposes was prohibited after enacting the maritime boundary agreement, still these violations continue in the Palk Strait, Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar. Fishermen of both countries rarely respect the maritime boundary, because the earnings by fishing are far more important to them; both countries are victims of this illegal act and yet neither country could entirely prevent these illegal fishing activities. The prime reason for the Indian fishermen to cross the IMBL and trespass into the Sri Lankan waters is because of the main detriment around Tamil Nadu waters that are depleted of fisheries resources as consequences of illegal fishing by the Indian fishermen and the availability of good quality fish and brown prawns, which they extensively harvest, meanwhile raping the marine resources and disturbing the fragile eco-system. It has a detrimental impact on the marine environment of the northern sea of Sri Lanka, they destroy the entire sea bed and are not capable of regaining marine resources anymore and stepped into depletion. It will take thousands of years for the marine resources to replenish and sometimes these may vanish forever.

In addition crossing the IMBL and trespassing facilitates drug trafficking, smuggling, gun running, human trafficking and illegal trading taking place which pose a threat to the security of Sri Lanka. In particular during the civil conflict in Sri Lanka, the northern fishermen were prevented from fishing by the Sri Lankan state to prevent illegal trading and smuggling of arms and ammunition along with fishing activities. The Indian fishermen had the Sri Lankan sea to them for the full duration of the civil war years that lasted three decades and are now finding it difficult to do without. After the civil war ended northern Sri Lankan fishermen were allowed to go to the sea and resume their fishing activities. Bulk of the fishing community was war fatigued with many dead, injured or had left the trade like most of the northern population. A new generation fishermen with the fishing knowledge in their blood made up the unskilled and ill equipped have ventured to the sea to earn a living in boats with fishing gear purchased on loans to resume the trade of their families. They were surprised to see thousands of fishing well equipped large boats from India in Sri Lankan waters. Due to the competition over the resources in Sri Lankan waters confrontation was the norm and fishermen lives have been lost and many injured during clashes.


In the Sri Lankan waters of the Palk Bay, today there is a major asymmetry of power between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen; some 6,000 motorised 18-feet boats and over 5,000 ‘kattumarams’ of 9 to 15 feet length face as many as 2,000 Indian trawlers 30 to 60-feet-long with very powerful engines. With the risk of losing their fishing nets that were obtained with loans following the end of the war and what remains of their modest fishing equipment, the northern fishermen do avoid venturing out to the sea during the three days of the week when they expect the Indian trawlers in large numbers on the prowl. Sri Lankan fishermen are familiar with Indian’s whereabouts, who rather than taking considerable risk to venture out to sea for fishing tend to stay away from sea to keep their nets safe. The loss of fishing days for Sri Lankan fishermen means loss of earnings on the poorly equipped northern fishermen, who are facing hardships and their life is at stake; their catch has fallen due to the repeated assault of trawlers and consequently, they are trapped in debt. The several clashes between these two groups and the illegal acts by the Indian fishermen have posed a serious threat to the security of the northern fishermen.

The Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar record one of the richest Biological Diversities in the Indian Ocean which includes 20% of Indian Ocean creatures. Indian trawlers illegally enter into the Sri Lankan waters to catch huge fish stocks by using destructive fishing methods which ruins the fragile relationship between nature and man; bottom trawling is permanently destroying the seabed environment and is ruining the marine life off the northern coast of Sri Lanka and the region may soon be barren if these activities continue affecting the marine eco system of Sri Lanka. All these marine habitats are really crucial to overall function of the marine eco system. Sea Cucumbers and Pearl Oysters are also the targets of bottom trawling in these seas that are famous for Pearl Oysters and Sri Lanka could soon lose the economic benefit of these resources because of the encroaching Indian fishermen. The five endangered marine turtles also inhabit this area and can get entangled in these nets easily while feeding on the sea grass at the bottom. Bottom-trawls are designed to dig in to the top foot or so of the sea-bed and dredge up everything therein. In this method two heavy metal panels are fixed at both sides of the mouth of the Bottom Trawling net to make sure that it remains at the bottom of the sea floor. By dragging iron bars along the seabed, poachers destroy everything including coral reefs and seaweeds. In addition to altering seafloor habitats, bottom trawling also results in huge amounts of unwanted fish and marine life discarded because they are damaged, wrong size or species is thrown back – mostly dead- to the sea and destroy the sand banks, rocky outcrops and patches of coral reef, which has made a detrimental impact on the environmental security and the country is set to lose billions of Sri Lankan Rupees per annum and the resolving of this issue will greatly boost Sri Lankan fish exports and foreign exchange earnings.

It is unfortunate over the negative peace years after the end of civil war in 2009 no one spoke for the Sri Lankan fishermen including Tamil National Alliance (TNA). However, the northern fishermen have recently found the support of the TNA, who had for a long time refrained from raising the issue, fearing they would antagonise political supporters in Tamil Nadu. With the situation of northern fishermen getting worse, the TNA broke its silence and for the first time raised the fisheries conflict with the visiting External Affairs Minister of India in February 2015. More recently in October, Opposition Leader and TNA veteran made a powerful speech in parliament on the plight of northern fishermen, who spoke at length on the hopeless condition of fishermen who were growing indebted by the day and of the serious damage being caused to Sri Lanka’s marine resources. Upon his request, the President met with the fisher leaders and the various arms of the state to heighten efforts to address the fishing conflict and urged the foreign ministry to have discussions with both New Delhi and Tamil Nadu to find a solution. President has proposed that the Indian Navy or the Indian Coast Guard collaborate with the Sri Lankan Navy in a joint patrolling exercise. There is now a national consensus in Sri Lanka calling for strict measures to end poaching by Indian trawlers. There is growing pressure for larger fines and the permanent seizure of trawlers. However, there can be no drastic change without political will in Tamil Nadu. Furthermore, leaders in both countries have to consider the livelihoods of the Northern fishing community as well as the ecological sustainability of the ocean resources, which has to necessarily begin by ending bottom trawling.

Sadly Tamil Nadu stands increasingly exposed with the Palk Bay crisis. After proclaiming political solidarity for decades to Sri Lanka’s Tamils it has now emerged the chief culprit in this fisheries conflict. How can Tamil Nadu claim to have any sympathy towards the Tamils in Sri Lanka when it strongly backs its fishermen who so ruthlessly exploit livelihoods of the war-torn Tamil fisher-folk? Sri Lankan Navy has arrested a fraction of Indian fishermen on charges of poaching; but has oscillated between being very stringent or lenient depending on Indo-Lanka relations at a given point. Several rounds of talks between fisher leaders of both countries have proved futile. The arrested Indian fishermen, often daily wage earners, are pawned in the diplomatic tussle between the two countries manipulated to an extent by Tamil Nadu and are released around major bilateral meetings. As New Delhi consolidates its ties with Colombo and pursues its economic vision in Sri Lanka, it has the responsibility of addressing the fisheries issue convincingly and with a sense of urgency. In spite of unreasonable demands from Tamil Nadu, New Delhi will have to come up with a sound strategy to address this problem.

The revival of the fisheries sector in Sri Lanka’s north is a crucial component of post-war reconstruction; yet at present there are around 400 trawlers of northern Sri Lankan fishermen from Valvettithurai, Gurunagar, Pesalai, and Pallimunai-Mannar operating in the northern seas indulging in this type of illegal fishing that has gone unchecked. The failure of the authorities to ban these trawlers operating in the north, a private member’s bill was submitted by an active TNA Member of Parliament from North to make bottom trawling an offence in law and to completely ban its use, rather than by regulation which does not really have the bite of proper provision in law.  As a part of routine procedure the Central Government has requested consent from all the Provincial Councils on this regard to implement the said law. Unfortunately, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) has made suggestions which in effect would delay the banning of these 400 trawlers; as implementation of a stern law would affect 1,500 families depending on income from fishing activities utilizing these trawlers. It is not an intelligent or progressive response from a responsible body; they have failed to consider the 48,500 fishermen families that are being affected by these 400 trawlers and over 2000 larger trawlers from India still pursuing illegal fishing. Naturally the Northern fishermen took to the streets and held a demonstration opposite the NPC, calling for action to prevent their Indian counterparts from poaching in Sri Lankan waters. It is time for the NPC to stop pussyfooting on matters of this nature and take a firm stand on the issue affecting the livelihood of thousands of fishers in the North; by agreeing to the new law and to provide necessary support to the fishermen with the 400 trawlers to enable them to take up legal fishing like the rest.

In this current scenario another burning issue that is affecting the livelihood of northern fishermen is the interference of Southern fishermen in the northern seas particularly along the eastern cost of Northern Province. Even though this particular problem was connected to a well-planned colonization programme deceitfully instigated during the negative peace years with the support of the security forces, it has encouraged the southern fishermen to live in the properties belonging to locals by force and fish in the northern waters. The central government must stop their illegal entry into northern waters and regularize it by following the age old accepted practice of cooperative fishing arrangement that still exist among the northern fishing communities. Where fishermen from a group of villages form themselves into cooperative societies and each society restricting their membership to fish in a pre-defined zone agreed with other neighbouring cooperative societies.  They should follow the example and adopt the system in operation for many years by fishermen from south operating in the western costs of the province without much hassle; they come and live in temporary accommodation during the appropriate fishing season and return to their homes in south off season.

Finally, the industry got a boost when Sri Lanka finally overcome the EU ban on fishing and the time is now apt for the government to completely halt the destructive practice of illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters. The EU ban on fishing was a blessing in disguise; for it made the government to act and will shortly seek parliament approval for new legislation to license fishing in the high seas that would make it mandatory for those fishing in the high seas to obtain licenses for their operations. The new laws are being enacted in keeping with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international agreements to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing in the High Seas. ‘High Seas’ means areas beyond Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, or beyond waters within the national jurisdiction of any other State. The operation license issued by the Director General (DG) of Fisheries will require local fishing boats engaged in any fishing operation in the high seas, to be equipped with communications equipment which enables the DG and his staff to communicate with that boat and exercise control over its activities. They are also required to carry the license onboard the vessel all the time, but it cannot be used to engage in unauthorized fishing in waters under the national jurisdiction of another State. However, the law does not allow for fishing operation licenses issued to foreign fishing boats to fish in Sri Lanka Waters. Therefore fishing in Sri Lanka’s waters by any foreign vessel would be treated as IUU fishing, and legal action taken against those engaged in such fishing activities, under the Foreign Fishing Boats Act. The Bill also provides for educational programme undertaken for those engaged in fishing, to create awareness of the measures taken by the government to conserve fish stocks and minimize pollution. At present, both Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Coast Guards (West) patrol monitor and nab the offenders at the maritime boundary of both countries. The proposal that the Indian Navy or Coastguard join the Sri Lankan Navy in jointly patrolling the international boundary to prevent trespassing when floated in the past and was rejected by India and has met with no formal agreement to resolve this problem to date. Both countries have taken collective efforts to prevent this act by initiating Joint Working Groups and engaging in a series of discussions, yet the piracy continues on an ever increasing basis. The fishermen issue between the two neighbours across the Palk Straits has not received proper attention from the rulers of the two countries perhaps they were occupied with the three decades of bloody civil war in Sri Lanka and India too was involved in it from start to finish.  Sri Lanka was the looser in terms of loss in foreign earnings revenue and the biggest loser was the Northern fishing community and the now time is ripe to remedy it.