Amid recent arrests of Indian fishermen along Sri Lanka’s coastline — on charges of illegal fishing — representatives of the island’s northern fishing community urged the two governments to help fishermen from both sides resume talks at the earliest, in order to find a solution to the festering problem in the Palk Strait. 

“It is crucial that we resume discussions to build on the 2016 agreement. Northern Sri Lankan fishermen are willing to constructively engage with our brothers in Tamil Nadu to address this enduring problem,” said Annalingam Annarasa, northern coordinator of an island-wide federation of fishermen’s organisations.

Following ministerial-level bilateral discussions in 2016, led by then-foreign ministers Sushma Swaraj and Mangala Samaraweera, both governments agreed to set up a joint working group, with the aim of “expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest”, besides setting up Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and exploring joint patrolling. It was also agreed to encourage the fishermen associations of the two countries to meet every six months to take forward deliberations.

Still suffering

“That was an important agreement. But now, both sides appear to have abandoned that position and we are back to square one, with our fishermen continuing to suffer huge losses because the trawlers are destroying our fishing gear and livelihoods,” Annarasa told a press conference in Jaffna on Sunday.

Fifteen years since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, northern Tamil fishermen are struggling to rebuild their livelihoods. At the heart of their struggle is a relentless appeal for a ban on bottom trawling, a destructive fishing method used by their Tamil Nadu counterparts.

The method has fetched huge profits for the owners of the fishing vessels in coastal Tamil Nadu while exposing daily waged fishermen to the risk of frequent arrests by the Sri Lankan Navy and at times, violent attacks at sea. In 2023, as many as 230 fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy. New Delhi facilitated the repatriation of all the fishermen, barring one repeated offender who is serving a sentence. Within the first three months of 2024, over 130 Tamil Nadu fishermen have been arrested. A total of 31 fishing vessels were seized during 2023-24, according to official sources.

‘Progressive solution’

On the Sri Lankan side of the conflict, is a war-affected fishing community using modest fishing methods to make a living, while enduring the impact of the crippling economic crisis of 2022. “Politicians in both countries have politicised this issue for their personal gains, without being sincere about a durable solution,” northern fisher leader N Varnakulasingham noted. If the two countries are serious about resolving the conflict, bilateral talks among fishermen must resume immediately, the fisher leaders emphasised.

Reaching out to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, northern Sri Lankan fishermen in 2022 sought a “progressive solution” to the problem affecting fisherfolk in the State and war-hit region of the island. The fisheries conflict was “threatening” the historically strong relationship shared by the two Tamil communities, they said in a statement then.