For many years, Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen have been emphasising their diminishing catch and heavy losses as a result of Indian fishing trawlers that habitually fish near their shore. | Picture credit: File photograph/Meera Srinivasan.
Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen said on Sunday that they “vehemently reject” the federal government’s proposal to provide licences to Indian fishermen to access Sri Lankan seas, calling the move a “major setback” in their almost 15-year struggle.
On February 22, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told Parliament that authorities were considering granting licences to Indian fishermen as part of Sri Lanka’s attempts to resolve the long-running fisheries dispute via “cordial” bilateral negotiations. The Minister’s words have aroused serious worry among northern fishermen, according to Annalingam Annarasa, president of a Jaffna-based fisherman’s association. “We’re really concerned; this might be a key defeat in our 15-year battle to keep Indian trawlers out of our waterways,” he reported .
Fisher leaders, along with him, presented this viewpoint to Tamil MPs representing northern districts on Sunday, asking for their assistance in opposing the Sri Lankan government’s proposal and convincing Colombo to fully implement Sri Lankan legal guidelines that prohibit bottom trawling and illegal fishing. During the meeting, Jaffna MP M.A. Sumanthiran, whose bill against bottom trawling was passed by the Sri Lankan parliament in 2017, said that parliamentarians across events agreed that no licences should be provided to Indian trawlers. “Even without permission, Indian trawlers are already entering Sri Lankan seas and harming marine resources. Issuing permits would just exacerbate the problem,” he said, adding that MPs and fisher leaders will submit a combined request to the federal administration.
The fisheries conflict impacting Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen has been a source of contention in Indo-Lanka bilateral relations. Since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, Tamil fishermen in the country’s northern districts have consistently protested Indian trawlers originating in Tamil Nadu fishing alongside their shoreline, citing the destruction they cause to marine biodiversity and their livelihoods, which are inextricably linked to it. Sri Lankan fishermen also often claim significant damage to their fishing nets and equipment, as well as substantial losses, as a result of the bottom trawlers.
After a number of rounds of bilateral meetings and discussions amongst fisherman’s representatives from both sides of the Palk Strait, the problem has yet to be addressed, putting northern Sri Lankan fishermen in a hazardous position as they struggle to resuscitate their war-battered livelihoods. In 2016, the 2 countries decided to “expedite the change in direction of ceasing the use of backside trawling on the earliest”, admitting the Sri Lankan fishermen’s demand as “genuine”.
Yet, with no end in sight, northern fisherman have remained agitated. Last year, they wrote to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister requesting his assistance to resolve the issue decisively. They also presented many petitions to the Indian embassies in Sri Lanka.
According to Ahilan Kadirgamar, a senior professor at the College of Jaffna who studies northern livelihoods, the planned licencing scheme would “undermine fishing as a lifestyle” for future generations of Sri Lankan fisherman. “The fishermen’s fight because the conclusion of the war has been to locate a diplomatically negotiated answer to this key challenge due to Indian trawlers. “They believe both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments have deceived them,” he said.