Despite Sri Lankan laws prohibiting bottom trawling, and illegal fishing by foreign vessels, Indian fishing trawlers continue to poach in the island’s northern seas without facing legal consequences for the violation, according to fisher leaders from the island’s northern province.

Addressing a media conference in Colombo on Wednesday, they accused Sri Lankan authorities of swiftly releasing arrested Indian fishermen, without adhering to the law. “It is as if there is no consequence for poaching. They are arrested and released within days, while our livelihoods are getting destroyed,” said A Annarasa, leader of a Jaffna-based fishermen’s federation.

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His remarks come days after the Sri Lankan government released 22 fishermen from Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, who were detained by the Sri Lankan Navy on charges of trespassing on November 18. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is said to have intervened, to expedite the release of the arrested Tamil Nadu fishermen.

“We read in the media that the Indian Minister made a request and our President [Ranil Wickremesinghe] released them. Then why do we need laws or regulations? This only shows that neither government cares about us,” Annarasa said, voicing frustration over an enduring problem.

Problems of bottom-trawling

For well over a decade now, fishing communities from Sri Lanka’s war-affected region have been relentlessly highlighting the destructive impact of Indian trawlers engaging in illegal fishing along their coastline. The fishing vessels, originating in Tamil Nadu, use the bottom-trawling method which indiscriminately scoops out marine organisms, resulting in a drastic fall fish production over time.

Fisherfolk from northern Sri Lanka have participated in several rounds of bilateral talks, besides agitating frequently, with the demand that the two countries arrive at a durable solution to the problem that threatens marine biodiversity in the Palk Strait. Although India and Sri Lanka in 2016 agreed to “expedite the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest”, there has been no respite in these six years.

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Further, Sri Lanka banned bottom trawling in 2017 and introduced stiff fines in 2018 to deter foreign vessels, but that has not proved an effective deterrent. This year alone, a total of 164 Indian fishermen were arrested in Sri Lanka’s northern seas on charges of poaching. A total of 115 have been repatriated already, and more releases are likely this week, according to official sources.

Recently, Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Ministry has warned of tough action against owners of foreign boats found trespassing. However, the fisher leaders remain sceptical, citing “poor implementation” of laws on the ground.

Several blows

Meanwhile, the island’s fishing community has also had to cope with the pandemic and the island’s painful economic crash that led to a steep increase in fuel prices, pressuring fishermen who were already suffering huge losses.

The Sri Lankan government offered no meaningful relief to the fishing community in the latest Budget and further, is amending fisheries laws to make way for multinational corporations to operate in the sector, the fishermen said.

“If our own government has forgotten us, India is focussing only on countering China in our country, including the north. Our own brothers in Tamil Nadu are also not appreciating our plight. We feel abandoned by all sides,” said N.V. Subramaniam, a senior fisher leader from Jaffna.

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Last year, Sri Lankan fishing community leaders wrote to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, seeking a “progressive” solution to the fisheries conflict affecting fisherfolk both Tamil Nadu and war-hit northern Sri Lanka. “Every time Tamil Nadu fishermen are arrested by the Navy here, the media in Tamil Nadu frames it as a conflict between the Sri Lankan Navy and their fishermen. It is in fact Tamil fishermen on this side who are most affected in this. They cannot continue ignoring that truth,” said Mohamed Alam, a fisher leader from Mannar.

In the past, the Sri Lankan Navy has been accused of fatally shooting Indian fishermen spotted in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. New Delhi has repeatedly emphasised that Colombo must ensure that a humane approach is adopted.

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s correspondent in Colombo.