By Leonard Pinto –
Anybody can make a claim to the fish in the open sea. But, once caught, it becomes the property of one who caught it. However, the Law of the Sea 1982, provides the proprietary country the exclusive right to its natural resources, including fishery resource within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles (1 nautical mile =1.151 miles) from the shore, and legal rights in the territorial water, extending to 12 nautical miles from the shore. As Rameshwaram and Mannar are about 15 miles apart and Indian shoreline and islands near Jaffna are about 48 miles apart, the EEZ and the territorial boundaries of India and Sri Lanka overlap. In such situations, the Law of the Sea says that both countries should come to an agreement on the line of demarcation, which is usually the median between the two countries. Sri Lanka and India have agreed on that line, including the ownership of Katchchathivu, which has still not been ratified by the Indian Parliament.
During the last few months many Indian fishermen have been caught allegedly fishing in Sri Lankan waters and a number Sri Lankan fishermen have been caught allegedly fishing in Indian waters. Unfortunately they end up in jails, causing great distress to their families and children. Navy surveillance radars clearly show that Indian boats are intruding into Sri Lankan water at mid night. Bishop Joseph Rayappu of Mannar says, “Indian boats come as close as 500 meters from the coastline and they come in their thousands. On the days these boats come our people do not go fishing because they are frightened.” This issue can be effectively solved, if the following steps are taken. (1) Both countries must be honest, sincere, truthful and trustworthy on what they say, as the Indians have lost confidence after retracting the 13 plus Amendment assurance. (2) Both countries must agree on the boundary. (3) Demarcate this boundary with anchored buoys with visible flags and solar powered lights for all fishermen to see the boundary during day and night. (4) Educate the fishermen in both countries on their responsibilities and consequences of crossing this boundary. (5) Sri Lankan and Indian Navy and border protection agencies establish a task force and conduct routine patrol. Now that the war is over, SL Navy should be able to direct their resources in this direction. (6) Both countries should agree that those who violate the Law of the Sea would face the legal proceedings according to the laws of each country. (7) Both countries should realize that politicians have a responsible role to play in solving this problem, but politicization of the problem, as in all social human problems is a betrayal of the tasks of their profession. Stop accusing each other and find solutions (i.e. technical) to the problem is the basic message.
Indian fishermen are coming to Sri Lankan water saying that their stocks are already depleted. Thus the root cause of the problem is the depletion of fish stocks. Therefore assessment and management of fishery resources in the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar using mathematical models and ecological data is an important aspect of this problem that the two countries should jointly undertake, research and implement with perhaps international cooperation and funds. Unlike, non-living resources (e.g. minerals), fish and crustaceans are living-aquatic resources, and are not depleted by extraction within limits. In fact limited fishing is necessary to maintain healthy fish populations. But, once overfished, the stock is lost forever, and the fishermen have to look for other fishery resources. Hence sustainable fishing is what everybody should aim at. The knowledge of standing stock, recruitment, fishing mortality, migration, level of exploitation, cost of fishing etc. for target species are necessary to introduce control measures in some situations to avoid over-fishing, and thus to replenish the stock periodically.
Sri Lanka has experience in solving fishery related problems at local town scale. In the past, typical fishing disputes have arisen in fishing provincial towns, such as Chilaw, which include disputes on overlapping fishing grounds of different communities (i.e. Valla, Vallavediya, Aluthwatte etc.), fishing methods that destroyed the prawn resources (i.e. boats trawling on seagrass beds) and interference in traditional prawn fishery rights (i.e. setting nets upstream when families by traditional rights have set their nets downstream to catch the sea-bound prawns). In 1950s following a court order, a tall tower was built on the Chilaw shore, dividing the sea into two, so that two main communities could fish in each fishing grounds. It worked well and deploying anchored buoys to demarcate the maritime fishing boundary between India and Sri Lanka would be an important step in resolving the current conflict in the Indo-Lankan marine basin.