“Sri Lanka loses an estimated Rs.5.3 billion each year due to poaching. This money could have lifted the standard of living of the Northern fishing community with potential fish exports and revenue in foreign exchange.” – Quoted from an exquisitely elaborated article on Sunday Times on 14th November 2021, by Dr.Cdr. Lanka Prasada (Rtd.) RSP, narrating the core causes of the crisis between the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen, tossed back and forth for over five decades. The daily reported cases of Indian trawlers and poachers engaging in highly unsustainable illegal fishing activities cause tremendous harm to both, the local fishermen community as well as the marine life and environment.
For over 50 years, these conflicts have been stirred up for discussions and media reporting but they have been left as mere political agendas with no proper solution brought up against it.
At present an alarming situation is arousing, as fishermen try to take matters into their own hands as they are losing faith in Boarder control and government who seem to be powerless against the political pressure derived from India Tamil Nadu.
Hence, this issue is demand of an immediate, effective solution – one that can solve the injustice happening to the occupation of local fishermen, whilst also preventing potential revenue leakage of over 5.3 Billion rupees approx. to India through their illegal fishermen.
We need good ideas, strategies and plans to uplift the National economy as well as conserve the marine environment, and we need them fast. Addressing that need, this article hopes to publicize few solutions brought up by INORA – Institute of Ocean Resource Analysis.
The beginning of the conflict dates way back into history, increasing further, quite contradictory to the goals set in 1974 upon the joint demarcation of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between India and Sri Lanka. The boundary line was demarcated 3 miles west of Kachchativu Island, and passing on the ownership right of the island along with it to Sri Lanka, upon a claim brought in by the officials. It is suspected that the main reason Sri Lanka brought claims for Kachchativu was to stop illegal immigrants and in consideration of National security- to prevent potential close contact information and intelligence data gathering. This however, came with a cost of 4 nautical miles being transferred to the ownership of India in return.
Nevertheless, there have been many miscommunicated laws and rights in relation to the above passing rights to Kachchativu Island, which makes one wonder whether the benefits are actually worth the negative impacts caused by halting the island within our boundaries. It is because we claim ownership of Kachchativu that the Indian trawlers fearlessly enter our zones in shield of Article 6 stating that “The vessels of India and Sri Lanka will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein.” This clause is constantly abused, despite even after being disregarded upon the implementation of UN laws of the Sea, as defense for Indian trawlers even when they are within an extremely violating range of 2-3 nautical miles from land. No matter the frequent arrests we do the trespassing Indian trawlers, they immediately argue using Kachchativu as a reference point to try and justify their location. Indians still dwell on the ideology of Kachchativu being a possession of theirs, and was passed on to Sri Lanka later on. So is keeping Kachchativu really worth this continuous struggle? Personally, I think that it would be best to hand over Kachchativu back to India, obtain the 4 nautical miles we gave out in exchange, and re-mark our boundary lines in proper manner.
As India started promoting bottom trawling in early sixties, it also developed highly unsustainable fishing practices that resulted in disruption of economical as well as environmental resources. Within a couple of years, certain parts of Indian waters were completely exploited, into a state where marine life was completely wiped out lifeless.
As a result, more and more Indian trawlers started shifting towards Sri Lankan seas in search of a sufficient catch.
A large number of Indian trawlers would invade the waters at Palk Bay and Palk Straight area around Kachchativu Island during the nights, engage in damaging actions such as improper bottom trawling to catch the renowned Floury-Prawn; worth good money, whose habitats lie about 4” under the sea bed, as well as capture a huge proportion of the other fish that was supposedly belonging to the Sri Lankan fishermen.
India earned of around 1274 Million Dollars from shrimp exports and became the no 1 exporter to USA in 2015 while Sri Lanka struggles to earn as low as 300 Million fishery export earnings annually.
Practices such as bottom trawling; which is currently the easiest method of harvesting the floury-prawn worthy of an extensive price tag in the international market, are banned in Sri Lanka. The irony behind this is, as a result of the ban, the floury-prawns are left to breed freely with no disruption from local fishermen, only to be harvested illegally by the Indian trawlers invading our territory. Not just that, the trawlers also tangle in and destroy the local fishing nets which costs around Rs.400, 000 each – a cost unbearable by a regular fisherman’s wage.
Even though it is banned in our country, numerous other regions such as Norway, US, and England, still continue to practice trawling as a common fishing technique, but adapting unto much sustainable methods, so that the harm is kept at minimal.
For the way forward in bottom trawling, we need to discuss solutions and practices that can be used to reduce the disruption that is caused by trawling. Apart from the corals getting disrupted by the huge graters, there is a huge bycatch that gets caught in the process as well. Thus, we need to find solutions to not only minimize the destruction but also to minimize the bycatch along as well. Living in an advanced technology first world it should truly be possible to find a solution to the downfalls of trawling.
We cannot deny the harm that is likely to be happening as a result of legalizing techniques like bottom trawling in Sri Lanka. However the cons should be weighed out against the potential economic growth which can again benefit the local community as well as the environment conservation in the long run.
If we could adapt a strategy to promote trawling sustainably, or at least with the bare minimum harm that can be caused- in order for economic and social benefits to outweigh the cons, it would be a striking relief and new hope for the local fishermen who are currently under immense frustration due to economic crisis happening around the country.
In 2010 a project titled CENARA – ‘Capacity enhancement of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency –a research based on finding a solution for sustainable trawling practices that could be legalized within the country, took place. They have currently surveyed and declared potential trawling grounds as well as suggesting practical recommendations to manage the situation. However, a suicidal decision was made to impose total ban of bottom trawling which restricted implementing the above suggestions.
We at INORA- Institute of Ocean Resource Analysis, a non-profit guarantee LTD company, are ever ready to lend a hand to that research along with the Fisheries department. If the Department of fisheries is willing to come together and provide us with the necessary information we are willing to help and conduct extensive research to find long-term solutions to prevent and minimize the downfalls of trawling.
We INORA would like to submit followings with the experience we gathered through years.
1) First, we should look at initiating regulations and licenses to be issued to fishermen on the areas that are allowed for trawling and encourage the fisherman to get on board with this process by amending the laws stating total ban of bottom trawling, relating to the findings of the CENARA report.
Suggesting to go ahead with trawling would seem to be conflicting with the ‘saving the ocean’ concept at first. However, it should be logically and contextually argued- if Indian trawlers have been doing this for 5 decades, there is an abundance of floury-prawns to harvest, and the sea bed is now majorly comprised of Calcium Carbonate instead of corals – as proven by reliable research during a survey of boreholes near south of delft, a project by private company – why not improve the trawling mechanism through valid research, and come up with solutions that would reap economic benefits for the local fishermen, over name-sake conservation of a barely existing environment?
It must be further stated that our efforts mustn’t be discouraged as this would contribute to the sustainable development of the blue economy and preserve life in our ocean ecosystem.
2) Through research, we must also find a practical way to modify the gears on boats; such as introducing a suction system where they can boost the suction discharge from the boat itself, and high-pressure lines from the down to the ground to stir the ocean bottom or by way of air compressing system which will not destroy the corals.
3) The third recommendation – if we have no other choice left, our option would be to sign an MoU agreement together with India, allowing both parties to enjoy the waters, however though, with further documented limitations (i.e. installing vessel monitoring transponders regularizing horsepower of the engines, which prevents dragging large graters and/or restricting the number of days they are allowed to fish in our waters), to Indian fishermen entering the Sri Lankan sea boundaries and closing in as many loop holes in the laws presented regarding ocean resource sharing. These limitations can be formed in lines of Nautical mile distances as well as increasing the breeding period timelines in order to promote sustainable harvesting of the floury-prawn.
4) It would also be effective to implement a processing center in Delft which would allow to market these prawns at a competitive value; thereby providing Indian /local fishermen with an efficient selling or buying system, depending on their requirement.
5) And finally for efficient coordination of above mentioned suggestions, it would be highly beneficial if both Navies and Coast Guards could jointly open up a fusion center to overlook the activities.
History is past tensed for a reason; it is there to study, analyze, and learn and improve further as we step into future. Five decades of frustration and wasted oceanic resources is a result of unplanned, inefficient political agendas and so called “laws” with countless loopholes. It is time to step out of the controversial ideas and beliefs and evolve with sustainable and innovative solutions backed by effective, practical research.
INORA, together with other professionals in the industry have brought forward a list of all-encompassing solutions to the existing problems, however, implementation, monitoring and improvement of those suggestions should be duly taken over by the relevant responsible authorities.
Sustaining & managing the world of fisheries are given very little prominence. A presidential task force consisting only of intellectuals on the subject excluding any political bodies must be formed to implement methods on how we can use sustainably manage the operations of the ocean.
Together with those think tanks, the Navy also must contribute to taking the initiate this project. In countries like Australia, there is a separate division formed to help develop the blue economy of their oceans, Further, the Indian Chief of Naval Staff also has stated that the Navy must lend its hand for the development of Blue Economy. There is a responsibility that weighs on the Sri Lankan Navy to contribute to the development of this economy as the Navy has the resources that will vastly make a positive impact and make a huge difference in advancing the findings of the research is what we believe. It would open up much more possibilities of economic advancement for the country; not just in lines of fishery, but also considering other potential economic generators such as surveying and researching on high-value mineral deposits such as; Chromium and Uranium which is suspected to be inherited by the area.