A tug-of-war over marine resources in the Palk Strait has led to confrontations between fishermen from both countries, reestablishing the need to look at depleted fish stocks and find more efficient methods.
Fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are worried about their livelihoods
In January, two Indians were found dead at sea, allegedly killed by the Sri Lankan navy for poaching. The issue precipitated further last week when Sri Lanka arrested 136 Indian fishermen, sparking heated protests in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, from where the men hail.
Under pressure from their political allies in the south, the Indian government has since secured the release of the fishermen, but tensions are still high as poaching continues.
The sea may seem calm but the tension is high between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen
The fishing dispute has gained momentum ahead of the impending Assembly elections in May. While political parties jostle with each other to show their support to fishermen and women, the fear of losing their livelihoods is very real in the fishing villages at India’s southernmost tip in Tamil Nadu.
Fishermen are forced to cross over into Sri Lankan waters because there is no more fish available on the Indian side of the Palk Bay, says Ajantha, the leader of the Fisherwoman’s Worker Union in the fishing village of Nagapattinam.
"We are not allowed to go deep into the sea to catch fish," she told Deutsche Welle. "But even if we venture a few kilometers into the sea, we don’t find any catch at all. At this rate, the fishing community will be wiped out."
Resentment of competition
For many years, Indian fishermen and women enjoyed a monopoly over the marine resources in the region. After 1983, fishing was largely banned in Sri Lanka because of the ethnic conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
A ban was put on fishing in Sri Lanka until the end of the civil war in 2009
Now, with the war over, fishing operations have resumed in the northern parts of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen resent the competition from their counterparts in India.
Historically, fishermen from both sides shared amicable relations with each other and habitually crossed the maritime boundaries in search of fish.
But in the 1960s, India introduced mechanized deep sea trawlers that employ large nets to sweep the ocean floor, thus improving the fish catch. Sri Lankan fishermen now fear that continued trawling will lead to the same depletion of marine resources experienced by India.
Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner to India V. Krishnamurthy says the Sri Lankan navy has spotted nearly 6,500 Indian trawlers in Sri Lankan waters in the past two months.
"The main problem is that Tamil Nadu fishermen use the bottom trawling system of fishing which is banned in Sri Lanka," he explains.
"When you use bottom trawling, it scrubs the seabed, scoops up everything, destroying the marine resources, including fish eggs and fish nests, and affects breeding. So the sustainability will be lost and in the long run there will be no fish stock at all."
Proposals to form a Palk Bay authority
The Indian government, for its part, has objected to the use of force against trespassing fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities. A concerted effort needs to be made by both governments, taking all stakeholders into consideration, says V. Suryanarayan, an analyst at the Centre for Asian Studies in Chennai.
Bottom trawling scrubs the seabed and destroys marine resources
He suggests forming a "Palk Bay authority, consisting of representatives of both India and Sri Lanka – not only government representatives, but also fisheries experts, marine ecologists."
"They can determine the annual sustainable catch and the type of fishing equipment that can be used, how many days Indian fishermen can fish and Sri Lankan fishermen can fish. And if somebody violates that agreement, then an organization can be set up to identify who is violating what, and their licenses can be revoked by the two governments."
In a meeting held between the foreign secretaries of India and Sri Lanka in January, it was decided that an agreement between fishermen should be pursued. Hopes are now pinned on a session of the Joint Working Group that is scheduled to be held in March this year.
Author: Pia Chandavarkar (Chennai)
Editor: Anne Thomas