Scores of northern Sri Lankan fishermen on Thursday took to the streets, blaming Indian fishermen for the recent death of two Jaffna fishermen “in a clash” at sea. The agitating fishermen protested the continuing use of the bottom trawling fishing method by Indian fishermen, “ravaging” their seas.
Long-festering tensions between fishermen in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and Tamil Nadu have escalated in recent weeks, following two clashes mid-sea on January 27 and 29, when Indian trawlers reportedly rammed into smaller Sri Lankan fishing boats.
Days later, the bodies of two fishermen from Jaffna peninsula were recovered, according to Annalingam Annarasa, who leads the Federation of Jaffna District Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Unions.
The current flashpoint has not only escalated an old conflict but has also set back proposed talks among fishermen and ongoing bilateral attempts to find a solution to the crisis. In the long history of the Indo-Lanka fisheries conflict, Tamil-speaking fishermen on either side of the Palk Strait have rarely resorted to physical attacks on each other, although the Sri Lankan Navy has often been accused of attacking and killing Indian fishermen. In 2021, five fishermen from Tamil Nadu died in the Palk Strait.
“After the bodies of two of our fishermen were found recently, everyone is outraged and very concerned. Today, we protested outside the Governor’s Secretariat, the Jaffna district Secretariat, and the residence of the Indian Consul General here, demanding that bottom trawling, which is the cause of all these problems, is immediately stopped,” Mr. Annarasa told The Hindu.
Sri Lanka banned bottom trawling in 2017, and the following year, imposed hefty fines on foreign vessels engaging in illegal fishing in its territorial waters. While the moves deterred Indian fishermen for some time, Sri Lankan fishermen, over the last two years, yet again flagged an increase in trawlers sighted along their coast.
“Both our governments and fisher leaders have been talking about this for more than a decade now, where is the solution? We are willing to speak to Tamil Nadu fishermen, but only on the condition that they immediately stop using bottom trawling, which has severely impacted marine resources in the Palk Strait and all our livelihoods that depend on them,” Mr. Annarasa said.
Northern Sri Lankan fishermen voiced frustration over their Tamil Nadu counterparts for stubbornly persisting with the destructive bottom trawling method, despite their repeated appeals. They also blamed the Sri Lankan Navy for inadequate action against violators, and Sri Lankan authorities for failing to implement laws passed specifically to address the problem.
Significantly, many in Sri Lanka’s Tamil polity — that rarely confronts Tamil Nadu owing to war-time solidarity and support — have joined the fishermen’s struggle over time.
In October 2021, Tamil National Alliance legislators M.A. Sumanthiran and Shanakiyan Rasamanickam led a large sea rally, demanding that laws against bottom trawling be strictly implemented. Earlier this week, Tamil National People’s Front Leader and Jaffna MP Gajen Ponnambalam led a protest against Indian trawlers and Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, also an MP from Jaffna district. Mr. Ponnambalam has sought the UN’s urgent intervention to resolve the fisheries conflict, the state-run Daily News reported on Thursday.
Addressing the agitating fishermen in Jaffna on Thursday, Mr. Sumanthiran strongly condemned the actions of Indian fishermen. “First, they [Indian fishermen] scooped out our marine resources with their bottom trawlers, then they came and destroyed our fishermen’s nets, and now they are coming for our fishermen’s lives,” he said, assuring his party’s continued support to the struggle “until there is a solution.”