Stormy waters ahead on talks over Indo-Lanka fishing dispute

Sri Lankan authorities have vowed to take action against Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters in light of the negotiations to be held soon with the Indian Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Sharad Pawar.

Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne told the Sunday Times that his ministry was engaged in bilateral talks with Indian authorities to resolve the long persisting disputes that exist between Sri Lanka and India over fishermen from both countries poaching in each other’s waters.

“We are now having bilateral talks with India. Our Foreign Ministry, their Foreign Minister and the Fisheries Ministers of both the countries are involved in the process. The Fisheries Minister of India, Sharad Pawar and I will be meeting either there or here soon,” he said.

Fishing in our waters: An Indian fishing trawler in the waters of Mannar last week. Pic by S.R. Lambert

The minister’s comments came a week after Sri Lankan authorities sought an urgent meeting with Mr. Pawar as more Sri Lankan fishermen, who had drifted into the country’s territorial waters, were taken into custody by Indian Coast Guard patrols.

Dr. Senaratne stressed that Sri Lanka is not only concerned over Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters but also over the fishing method used by the Indian poachers as well.

“We are objecting not only to the Indian fishermen coming into our territorial waters and fishing in them but also to their method of fishing — trawling. This method of fishing is banned in Sri Lanka. They are therefore carrying out a prohibited method of fishing within the Sri Lankan waters,” he said.

“The fishermen are also destroying our corals, seabed and fish too. The number of cowrie shells, sea cucumber and other marine life that they take every year from Sri Lanka amounts to five billion. We have come up with a plan of action to prevent this. We will also prevent our exporters from getting their supplies from illegally poaching fishermen,” he said.

Meanwhile, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupamo Rao said that a “practical arrangement” to resolve the dispute between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen would involve political compromise from both sides, citing that “reciprocal fishing access and cooperative management of shared fishery resources” are ideas coming from other countries.

Minister Dr. Senaratne said the proposal made by the Indian Government to make the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Sri Lanka accessible to Indian fishermen as a measure to resolve the dispute over poaching would be discussed at his meeting with Mr. Pawar.

An identity card being issued to Mannar
fishermen by the Navy

Fishermen from Sri Lanka and India crossing the maritime borders of the two countries have become a serious issue over the past few months with several fishermen being arrested by the Coast Guards and law enforcement agencies of both the countries.

In the latest development, 21 Sri Lankan fishermen and six trawlers were apprehended by the Indian authorities in two separate incidents last week, bringing the total number of Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian custody to 74.

Following the latest round of arrests made by the Indian Coast Guard, thousands of local fishermen from some 33 organisations announced their plan to form a human chain on the coast of Mannar on August 8 to draw attention to the fishing issues and the continuing arrests of local fishermen by the Indian Coast Guard.

“Our people are being held in Indian jails under poor conditions while the fishermen from that country have practically a free run to plunder the resources on this side of the Palk Strait,” Dinesh Fernando from the All Ceylon Fisher Folk Trade Union (ACFFTU) told the Sunday Times.

The disputes between the two neighbouring countries surfaced over the issue sparked after a fisherman from the Indian coastal district of Tamil Nadu was shot dead allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy – an allegation strongly denied by the Navy.

Later in another incident, Sri Lankan fishermen had been reported to have surrounded a group of Tamil Nadu fishermen involved in poaching in Sri Lankan waters and handed them over to the law enforcement agencies.

The government’s efforts to rescue local fishermen being held by foreign governments strengthened as the Maldivian government last week decided to release seven Sri Lankan fishing trawlers taken into custody when they were found within the country’s territorial waters.

The Maldivian government also released the 56 Sri Lankan fishermen, who were arrested some time ago.
Deputy External Affairs Minister Neomal Perera met Maldivian Fisheries Minister Dr. Ibrahim Didi and Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem were last week in Male where they discussed expediting legal procedures and a prisoner transfer agreement in order to finalise the release of Sri Lankan fishermen and their trawlers.

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