The Shrimp War
Indian fishermen illegally poaching in Sri Lankan waters are harming the Lankan fishing industry as well as marine life.
On March 4, the Sri Lankan Navy claimed that it had apprehended 32 Indian fishermen who were illegally fishing in Sri Lankan territory. Only a few months ago, India and Sri Lanka had agreed to work together to combat poaching. Ships belonging to Indian fishermen allegedly encroached on Sri Lankan waters in the Palk Bay and caught fish and shrimps that belonged to Sri Lanka. The quantity of fish caught by Indian vessels is so huge that it has threatened marine life in Mannar, Kilinochchi and Jaffna.
To make matters worse, the use of advanced fishing methods by Indian fishermen is devastating marine resources and destroying the fragile ecosystem. Equipped with powerful engines, Indian ships practice bottom trawling. It involves two boats using drag nets that sweep the ocean bed, which results in killing many marine creatures that are found in the ocean depth. This has damaged the ecosystem and there is also scarcity of fish and shrimps in the waters. Bottom trawling is regarded as an unfavorable practice all over the world for its devastating effects on marine life. According to some reports, it has completely exhausted fish stocks in Indian waters. This is why the Indian fishermen are now raiding Sri Lankan waters.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the use of bottom trawls is now widespread. In an experiment off Alaska, 55 percent of the coldwater
coral damaged by one pass of a trawl had not recovered a year later. When covered with marine life, these seabed areas provide a rich habitat for juvenile fish, shrimp, cuttle fish and other species. This practice can be likened to removing a forest, as eradicating the corals decreases the area available for marine species to live and thrive in.
Fishing is a major source of livelihood for the Tamils who live in the north of Sri Lanka. Since the war ended in 2009, they have been given the freedom to fish in Sri Lankan waters without any restrictions and limitations. During the war, they were allowed to go only one kilometer into the sea because of regular clashes between the LTTE and the Navy. Ever since the war ended, the government has given them more fishing rights, new boats and improved access to other parts of the island.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister of Sri Lanka Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has said that the country’s fishing industry loses an estimated U.S. 730 million worth of fish due to illegal poaching of South Indian fishermen. For 2013, the Sri Lankan government had fixed a target of U.S.$ 500 million in revenue, but it had to keep its expectations low due to significant losses from poaching. In total, Indian fishermen poach at least 65 million kilogramkilograms of fish every year. The loss of a mamajor revenue source for Sri Lanka has angered local fishermen who throw stones aat Indian poachers aand even handcuff aand chain Indian fisfishermen if they are cacaught. This maritime coconfrontation has also turned into a majmajor diplomatic row between the two councountries.
InIndia feels it has done a lot for Sri Lanka, even cceding the disputed KachcKachchativu Island in the 191970s to its small neighboneighbor. The Indians are unhunhappy with the ill treatmentreatment of its fishermen in custcustody of Lankan authorities. India has also accused Sri Lanka of torturing and even killing Indian fishermen.
The killing and arrest of Indian fishermen by Sri Lanka is not a recent phenomenon. During the Sri Lankan civil war, when clashes took place between the fighters of the rebel LTTE and the Lankan Navy, hundreds of Indian fishermen were caught in the crossfire or were killed by the Sri Lankan Navy on suspicion of being Tamil Tigers or smuggling goods for them. Observers say that the Sri Lankan Navy has always dealt with Indian fishermen rather brutally, maltreating them and even killing them despite the fact that their crime – violation of maritime boundaries – was not so grave. While this may be true, the Indian government has done little to address the problems of Indian fishermen. It has often resorted to the demands of the powerful trawler lobby.
Many proposals have been made from time to time to resolve the issue, including a proposal to lease the Kachchativu Island in perpetuity or on the basis of reciprocal licensing. Unfortunately, the government of Tamil Nadu as well as the central Indian government did not pursue it vigorously. Now it is time for concerted action. For peaceful bilateral relations and well being of fishermen, India must take some actions, including sensitizing Indian fishermen about the need for staying within Indian waters. Another solution can be granting of licenses to Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters in specified areas or on specified days and vice versa.
Hundreds of fishermen in both India and Sri Lanka are dependent on fishing as it is their only source of income. The issue is delicate and must be dealt with utmost care, keeping in mind the impact it can have on IndoLanka relations. The authorities in both countries must act quickly and decisively. If the issue is not resolved soon, it will continue to affect the Indo-Lankan relationship, apart from affecting the lives and livelihoods of fishermen in both countries.