Dozens of northern fishermen on Sunday set out on boats from the coast of the eastern Mullaitivu district to Point Pedro in Jaffna in the north, demanding that Sri Lankan authorities implement laws banning the destructive bottom trawling method of fishing.
The protest comes in the wake of an increase in reported intrusions by Indian trawlers over the last few weeks into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. On October 13 the Sri Lankan Navy, arrested 23 Indian fishermen and seized two fishing vessels on charges of trespassing, resuming action months after limiting arrests of foreign fishermen, fearing COVID-19.
Northern Sri Lankan fishermen have been resisting Indian trawlers in their seas for over a decade. Bilateral talks and governmental mechanisms have not delivered a solution yet. India is unable to prevent its fishermen from crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), and has not been successful yet in diverting them to deep sea fishing practices elsewhere.
The tensions have persisted, at times with a human cost like in January this year when Tamil Nadu four fishermen were found dead following an attack allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy.
The protest on Sunday was led by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs M.A. Sumanthiran, S. Shritharan and Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, and former MP Shanthi Sriskantharajah, and sought to pressure Fisheries Minister and Jaffna MP Douglas Devananda to use Sri Lankan laws to initiate action on those engaged in illegal fishing.
“We have joined this protest to demand that our fishermen’s livelihoods are protected, and to demand that the Fisheries Minister initiate appropriate legal action against fishermen using the bottom trawling,” Mr. Sumanthiran told the media in Jaffna.
Sri Lanka banned bottom trawling in 2017 and imposed hefty fines in 2018 to deter illegal fishing, which has been a recurring concern in the narrow Palk Strait running between northern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. The 2017 law banning trawlers was based on a Private Member’s Bill tabled by Mr. Sumanthiran in 2015.
The new law and stiff penalty saw a reduction in the number of Indian fishing vessels spotted in Sri Lankan waters briefly. It brought some relief to thousands of northern Sri Lankan fishermen whose post-war livelihoods were severely affected by the Indian trawlers ravaging their coastline.
But the trawlers from India are back again in large numbers, according to northern fishermen, some of whom wrote to the Indian Consulate in Jaffna recently, seeking compensation.
While Indian fishermen, from Tamil Nadu, are repeatedly caught trespassing, the TNA has avoided a frontal challenge to Tamil Nadu on the issue, due to the solidarity extended by the state to Sri Lankan Tamils during the civil war years and after. The TNA rarely challenges India, seeing the country as an ally and arbiter in its call for a long-pending political solution from the Sri Lankan government.
The largest grouping of Tamil legislators — with 10 seats in the 225-member Parliament — from the north and east, the TNA also faces criticism for “ignoring” its voters’ economic concerns.
“As an Alliance they don’t show a shared understanding or clarity on our problem and how we ought to respond to it collectively and responsibly. Tamil politicians should not use our problem to settle scores between themselves. That will only dilute our struggle,” said Annalingam Annarasa from the Federation of Jaffna District Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Unions.
“We are neither supporting today’s protest, nor opposing it,” he said. For the northern fishing community, it is hard to turn away rare support coming their way. It is also difficult to antagonise the politically influential Fisheries Minister, a local MP, whose intervention they will need in resolving their crisis, fishermen observed.