India fishing in troubled Sri Lankan waters

Why the long-standing dispute between India and Sri Lanka over fishers crossing maritime boundaries remains unresolved

By Sugandh Juneja
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Many Indian bottom trawlers fish in Sri Lankan waters. These are blamed for damaging marine ecosystem and destroying smaller nets and boats of Sri Lankan fishers (credit: M.arunprasad)

It's not just the alleged atrocities on Tamils because of which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apparently skipped the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) in Colombo this week that is straining India's relations with Sri Lanka. Indian and Sri Lankan fishers trespassing into each other's territorial waters is another big sore point in the relations between the two nations.    

Last week, two fishers from Tamil Nadu drowned when their boat capsized as they were reportedly being chased by Sri Lankan naval vessels for crossing the international maritime boundary line. Thirty other fishers were arrested in the incident. Last month, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 32 Indian fishers for illegally fishing in their waters. There are similar incidents this side of the marine boundary as well. According to the Sri Lankan ministry of fisheries, around 97 of their fishers are in Indian custody.   

The conflict between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu over fishers is a long-standing one. In the 1970s, both the countries agreed on a maritime boundary. During the time of civil war in Sri Lanka,  Indian fishers operated freely in Sri Lankan waters, disregarding this boundary. With the end of the civil war, the situation changed and the Sri Lankan fishers returned to the sea to find their fishing grounds encroached.

Bottom trawlers from India pose threat

It is common knowledge that many Indian bottom trawlers fish in Sri Lankan waters. These are commercial fishing vessels that operate by dragging multiple nets through water. There are also allegations that Indian vessels use the kind of fishing net that is banned in Sri Lanka. Bottom trawlers essentially scrape the seabed, disturbing the marine environment. Identified as an internationally banned illegal, unregulated, unreported (IUU) fishing practice, bottom trawling is banned both in India and Sri Lanka. This fishing practice also creates a lot of fish wastage—as high as 30 per cent.

Herman Kumara, secretary general of World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), says in 2010 when a delegation of Sri Lankan fishers visited Tamil Nadu, the Indian fisher group had agreed to reduce accessing Sri Lankan waters from 130 days a year to 70 days a year. But this was not accepted by the governmentsHerman Kumara, secretary general of World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), which works with communities dependent on fishing for livelihoods, blames the Indian trawlers for catching a lot of fish and also destroying the smaller nets and boats of Sri Lankan fishers. “We have long used our waters in a sustainable manner but these trawlers do not follow this model,” he says. The Sri Lankan fishers stray into Indian waters allegedly to fish for tuna.

Kumara informs that in 2010, close to 30 people from Sri Lanka went to Tamil Nadu to try and find a solution to this problem. In August 2011, a consensus was reached between the two fisher groups. The Indian fisher group agreed to reduce accessing Sri Lankan waters from 130 days a year to 70 days a year but this was not accepted by the governments, he adds. Nimal Hettiarachchi, director general Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR) of Sri Lanka informs that there is a joint working group with members from both the countries trying to resolve the conflict.

The joint group was to meet every six months but the second meeting has not happened in a long time. Some allege this is because the Indian government has refused to give a date. Some government officials in Tamil Nadu who do not wish to be named inform that most of these trawlers are owned by rich people or those with a political clout, which allows them to operate as they please. “In this situation, where a mafia like situation exists in Tamil Nadu, the small fishers become the victims,” says an official. While some of these small fishers go fishing independently, some are also employed on trawlers. “Owners of these trawlers are the new class of fishers who have flourished because of mechanization,” says V Vivekanandan, secretary of the Fisheries Management Resource Centre in Kerala. “The trawler issue is a complex one and not resolving this is a failure of the Tamil Nadu state,” he adds.           

Chinese intervention

Interestingly, Sri Lanka has now allowed foreign (mostly Chinese) vessels to park in its waters and fish. “These Chinese vessels are big and fitted with modern satellite systems which helps them track fish much better than the traditional fishers. Also, with their advanced equipment they are able to catch more fish,” says Kumara. Such arrangements usually take place under the distant water fishing arrangement that allows a country to fish in another country’s exclusive economic zone for money.

But Sri Lanka has reportedly allowed the Chinese trawlers even beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); a Chinese company has entered into an agreement with the Sri Lankan Board of Investment for this. Under the agreement, 90 per cent of the catch would be exported to China while the rest will be sold to the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation at US $1/kg fish. But Kumara says this is not the case. “The Chinese trawlers sell their catch in the local market and that too at much lower prices than the local fishers, which further adds to the losses of traditional fisher people.”

Overfishing causing extinction

WFFP fears overfishing. “Overfishing is set to become a big problem for Sri Lanka in the near future. What’s more is that rich people are getting most of this fish catch as they are the ones who have the financial resources to operate high yielding methods unlike the traditional fisherfolk,” adds Kumara.

Overfishing is causing certain species of fish to fall under the threatened or extinct category. For instance, the popular edible fish Kelawalla (yellow-fin tuna) is now a near threatened species in the country because of overfishing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Tuna accounts for over 40 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total fish catch and about 50 per cent of marine fish catch. Last year in November, Greenpeace also warned of tuna overfishing in the Indian Ocean and called for monitoring.

The Sri Lankan Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development (MoFARD) says that population growth in the country and the lack of alternative income generating opportunities has led to immense pressure on coastal resources. The fisheries development programme of the government says that overexploitation of fisheries at the very least means lower returns and at worst leads to elimination of a biological species. The ministry says that it is certain kinds of harmful fishing methods that are responsible for this overfishing problem (see 'Harmful fishing methods').

Hettiarachchi acknowledges that overfishing is becoming a problem in certain areas. “We know this is an issue in some places and we are trying to ban certain fishing methods being used which are harmful. This is mainly because of increased demand from hotels and restaurants.” But he contradicts himself by saying that the traditional fishing methods are keeping the fish catch lower than potential in the country. DFAR is trying to promote fish production and fish export by introducing modern technology.

Fishing in Sri Lanka is a family activity by tradition. MoFARD attributes this to low education levels, lack of alternative livelihoods and high independent income. Fish is also the cheapest source of protein for people in Sri Lanka. The department is aiming to increase the per capita consumption of fish from 11kg per person to 22kg per person, keeping in mind the malnutrition levels in the country. It accounted for 1.8 per cent of GDP in 2012 (SLR 134,967 million). The coastal fish production in the country stands at 590,766 MT in 2013 according to DFAR, which is more than an 85 per cent rise from the 2010 levels.

Arjan Rajasuriya of IUCN tries to put this in perspective, “Thresher shark have almost vanished as have some other very important species mainly due to an increased demand and wrong fishing methods. The government needs to give this a serious thought.” The government is allowing even foreign vessels to fish in its waters, further aggravating the problem of overfishing. There is a need to provide better market access and prices to the local fishermen with a view to gradually improve their socio-economic conditions, he adds.


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  • Interesting!!!! Now I am able


    Now I am able to understand why there was so much issue on fishing between India and Sri Lanka.

    Overfishing is an important issue which has to be dealt with seriously. Option could be to allow only limited fishing to meet the requirement of Sri Lanka; Chinese can fish in their territory.

    China came to Goa for iron ore, not mining its own resources and now even for fish they are coming to Sri Lanka.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I don't understand as what

    I don't understand as what you mean by alleged atrocities happened in eelam. What more evidence of photo and videos will make you realise?

    Shame on this magazine to belittle Tamils.

    We understand Bengalese, Oriyans are genes for present Sinhalese. Hence like Pranab Nukerjee, Mamta Banerjee,
    all Patnaiks, even your magazine will indirectly support sinhalese. Thanks.. for your contributions to Tamils.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The article is well grafted

    The article is well grafted as a whole but lacks information on Indian fishers which is much needed to solve the dispute.

    Thanks for mentioning Indian fishers instead of Tamil fishers.

    From the article I think that Indian government is not concerning about the marine environment and it is high-time to do it and educate the fishers all over the country regarding the innovative and proper ways of fishing ( which will be difficult but no other go)

    The fishers are basically illiterate (mostly) and practising conventional ways of fishing and using nets that are cheap and available. so govt should take the initiative either by supplying or promoting the proper acceptable nets or by installing restrictions by banning the improper nets and monitoring it. This will help us to conserve the country's fishing bed and fish wastage.

    Srilankan govt allows chinese company to fish in this economic zone and I think this is the major concern for the srilankan govt rather than Indian fishers.

    I had a visit to my native place tuiticorin where I spoke to fishers (although not affected much by the dispute) they told me that there is no clear demarcation of the International boundaries. It is imperative for the coastal guard to alert the Indian fishers regarding the boundaries this will solve major part of the dispute.

    Regarding the species destruction, there are many fisheries institutes in India, I dont know where those graduates go ( same case in the agri graduates) . It is their job to prevent this as they know the biology and breeding time of the fishes they should alert the fishers about it and enable the fishers to do fishing smarter. The food chain is meant to utilize the resources and not to destroy it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Very informative article.

    Very informative article. This is again a proof of how political instability and lack of consensus have severe impact on the environment. We always get to hear only our side of story in our media which is always biased. The issue of illegal fishing by both sides needs to be highlighted instead of just blaming the Sri Lanka navy. The decision of Indian pm not to attend the commonwealth summit sends a very wrong signal. We need to engage with Sri Lanka to resolve all issues rather than staying away from it because of political sentiments.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Nivit Thank you for your

    Dear Nivit

    Thank you for your comment. The problem is much more complex than just the boundary issue as it is in the background of a number of sentiments too. But demarcating boundary strictly could be at least the beginning of tackling this issue Also I feel dialogue between the fishers on either side is what is needed much more than all the political atmosphere around it.

    Overfishing seems to be a concern for Sri Lanka for sure due its own demand (tourism-related) and now because of allowing CHinese vessels to fish. The case of Goan iron ore is a little different in the sense that Indian companies are mining and shipping it to China/Japan so the assumption is that Indian companies are making profit (of course this is fraught with illegality and issues). But here Chinese companies are allowed to fish in Sri Lankan waters which is different.


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Arul I respect your

    Dear Arul

    I respect your sentiments and the intention of the magazine is not to hurt either side. This was just an effort to present the Sri Lankan perspective which I felt is lacking in the Indian media.


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 3 years ago | Reply
  • The article was good.I

    The article was good.I appreciate the efforts that she took to bring the background of this dispute and help people to realize the decades issue. I could see many hidden news that I am unaware ..And I could see her interest over Tamil Nadu and current issue..Good effort and was interesting.Keep up the good work.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you for your comment.

    Thank you for your comment. This was an attempt to present the Sri Lankan perspective so your point on less information about the India fishers is well taken. I agree with you on better demarcation of the international boundary.

    I was in Tamil Nadu 2 weeks ago and I was surprised to meet fishers who actually are using GPS when they go fishing so I think we should not to under-estimate their understanding. But it would be imperative to have a warning system if a fisher approaches the boundary on either side to avoid unfortunate incidents. This would need the coming together of both sides which I am not sure is possible in the present political environment. The Joint working group is pending because officials in Sri Lanka allege the Indian government is not giving them dates for the next meeting which is supposed to be held here.

    There seems to be ample information on what kind of nets are banned but there are allegations on either side that fishers still use certain banned kinds as it provides better catch. In fact there is a lot of concern around the trawlers also in terms of them producing much wastage of the catch and also capturing larvae thus disrupting the cycle of certain species. That is why there is concern about certain species (eg. yellow fin tuna) in these waters.


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you for the comment.

    Thank you for the comment. This was exactly what you took it as - an attempt to present the Sri Lanka side of the story. But this is no way means that I think less about the Indian side on the issue. The Indian PM not attending the summit comes from a number of things but the most important of course has been the pressure from Jayalalitha's government. Only a dialogue between the two sides - government and fishers - can help resolve this issue.


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Well drafted article. You

    Well drafted article. You have revealed the environmental aspects of the Indian - Srilankan fisherman disputes. Certainly over fishing should not be allowed considering the amount of wastage.

    I didn't understand the concept of allowing Chinese firm in fishing and selling the fishes in Local markets knowing that it affects the traditional fishing people. In my perspective, local political issues should be solved to solve the International fishermen disputes.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply