Colombo Telegraph

Fishing In Troubled Waters, Tamil Nadu And Sri Lanka

By S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

The Crisis

No fish to fish. This is the plain truth. This reality explains why the waters separating Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka continue to remain troubled. Though hyperbolical, it describes aptly and bluntly the true reason for the predicament of fishers. A phenomenon that holds for the world, is more pronounced in certain regions, notably Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. In recent times inadequate availability to sustain the fisher community has caused a major conflict between the two states. For these troubled waters, a truthful statement is hurtful. It finds lesser acceptance than euphemistic phrasings of declining resources and depleting stocks. So with little thought of an enduring resolution, attempts are made to contain the problem through arrests and confinement of the fishers by both sides.

Fish in Perspective

Global food fish production at 130 million tons is 34% of animal protein, compared to 250 million tons of meat – beef, pork and broiler + turkey. An estimated 55 million people are fishers and fish farmers The importance of fish as a food commodity and fishing as a means of livelihood are easily understood. There are also fears about current shortfalls and serious anxieties of future non-availability. They derive from over exploitation and stock depletion. These are better appreciated in the light of relevant statistics. Fishery resources under exploited at 86% in 1950, declined to 3% in 2000. Fully exploited of 14% rose to 34% in the same period. The picture applying to the world holds for Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka as well. Hence the intensifying conflict and calls for urgent resolution.


Exponential consumption patterns in the sixty years of the post war world, efforts at meeting need through over fishing and limited success at self-regulation have created shortages in supply. A cursory glance at the world scene will be helpful. From the fifties to now, per capita consumption of fish doubled globally. This was despite a more than doubling of human population. For half a century needs were met through expansion of the industry.

While this is the global picture, how does it unfold regionally? Even four to five decades ago, growth in consumption in the developed world was modest since saturation had been reached. Of the growth in consumption, 90% was recorded in the developing world. Population growth and rising per capita consumption accounted for this phenomenon. Full exploitation of resources was also more pronounced in the fishing grounds of the developing world.


Production of marine fish increased five-fold in 50 years from 1950. This was however not spectacular enough. Production figure of 95.5 million tons in 2000 declining to 93 million tons in 2010 buttresses this fact. When consumption went ahead of known resources, over exploitation came about. FAO highlighted the fact that 72% of world’s marine resources were either fully exploited or in decline. Limits had to be called for and they came in year 2000.

Like settled cultivation overtaking nomadic existence, fishing too eschewed its reliance on capture and forayed into human intervention at stock multiplication. It expanded to fish farming which was a form of fish domestication. In a sense it meant involvement in rearing process like stocking, feeding and protection from predators similar to cattle breeding for milk and beef. Genetic breeding and scientific management can lead to very high levels of productivity as in dairy and beef production. The world also prospected for fresh avenues of development.

Aqua Culture

Among the varied approaches to change the level of production, a particular strategy showed promise. What was successfully hit upon rather early was Aqua Culture (AC) which made its phenomenal mark. Production escalated 88 times between 1950 and 2010 with appreciable performance in the last 20 years. China, India and Sri Lanka too were drawn into the process. It may be noted that AC supplemented marine and together production touched 154 million tons with 90 for marine and 64 for aqua by 2012. Even so, of the total, 85 % goes for humans and 15% into livestock feed and fish oil. Therefore availability gets reduced.

The shortfalls have already manifested in too many fishers chasing too few fish and consumers paying too high a price in a context of continuing scarcity. The visible success of aqua culture has established the viability of production and acceptability in consumption. Exponential achievement by China has demonstrated the potential for Asia. Promoting its expansion is a priority for TN and SL. FAO has quite advisedly cautioned against expansion of marine capture fish and forecasts a freeze at 90 million tons. It is pointed out that in the world, 50% of seafood comes from aqua Culture. In Sri Lanka, 90% is wild caught. All incremental demands in the world amounting to 90 – 95 million tons by 2030 have therefore to be met by Aqua Culture is the view of FAO.

A mismatch of measures for regeneration and channeling of resources for innovative programmes have compounded the problem. A world crisis of supply is reflected in microcosm in the TN-SL conflict. There being two ethnicities across the divide only confused issues. If there be a single ethnicity in the two states, will there be no confrontation? No, it will be of the same dimension, perhaps with lesser emotive overtones. In the current century much energy is being spent to manage the symptoms.

Some suggestions have been to demarcate the fishing zones and to deploy buoys. These would be like a cadjan fence for the North and an electric fence to ward off elephants. Kachchathivu is more a red herring, a deflection and grist for the political mill on either side of the Straits. The issues are complex and approaches have to be different. The path to resolution lies elsewhere – on tried and tested AC production where potential is established and a growing market is assured.

Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

Fish production of India composed of marine and aqua increased ten-fold in the period 1950 – 2010. Fishers engaged in it are 14.5 million. Tamil Nadu produced 620,000 tons in 2012 of which marine was 428, 000 tons and AC 192,000 tons. The fishing families were 198,000. Sri Lanka’s production is ??? (A reader can contribute a credible figure).The economic and social importance of fishing to the two countries and to the state of Tamil Nadu are thus apparent. Hence the political weight exerted by fishing.

Economic Compulsions

When issues such as population increase, better affordability and compulsive economic pressures on the fishing community assail the peoples and their governments on both sides of Palk Straits, tensions build up. Fishers of two ethnic entities never sinking, nor swimming but remaining afloat at all times are always immersed in want. In a bid to creep out of poverty line they cross the demarcation line only to get clapped up in jail. With little concern and no sympathy both governments pounce on the incursions, call the violators intruders lock them up and the pattern repeats.  It is not argued that infractions of the law be overlooked or the laws themselves be changed. It is certainly urged that a discerning probe be carried out for the economic compulsions to be appreciated and amelioration programmes be put in place for the two entities.

Affirmative Action

Study and action would result in their moving out in great numbers to different fields of study and other avenues of employment. Therein lies a possible solution – in the path of education and through the course of trade oriented technical education. Substantial sections taking to new areas of study, getting into fresh fields of battle and spreading out to new geographical areas appear to be a sustainable approach though it is long drawn out. This applies to both sides. A festering sore that would remain perennial is the tragedy otherwise. To one who never engaged in fishing or eating, the issues remaining unresolved seem a fishy business or some atrocious default.

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