Echoing laments of the Northern fishing population

Halting destructive fishing and improving livelihoods:

A policy seminar on “Halting Destructive Fishing in the North”, organised by the Universities of Jaffna, Colombo and Ruhuna and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), was held on July 14 in Jaffna. The seminar revealed the pervasive practices of destructive fishing in Northern waters, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of fishing households in the Northern coastal areas and the sustainability of marine and lagoon ecosystems.

Indian trawlers

The first session of the seminar was devoted to the long standing issue of Indian trawl intrusion into Sri Lankan waters and associated issues related to livelihood threats, ecosystem damage and the diverse strategies so far undertaken to deal with these issues. In Northern Sri Lanka, over 37,000 fishers operate over 11,650 boats, the majority of which are 18 feet FRP boats propelled by outboard engines of 8 to 25hp. Including post-harvest sector employment and dependents, about 200,000 people in the Northern Province are dependent on the sector. They don’t stand

a chance against the 2500 odd 30-60 feet trawlers from Tamil Nadu propelled by 70-190 hp outboard engines. It was noted that, although several studies have been undertaken since 2010 to probe into various facets of the problem from different vantage points; fishers, the two governments, and ecosystem specialists, the state authorities of both countries have remained quite silent, while the northern Sri Lankan fishers have been vehemently protesting against poaching by the Indian fishers.

While the North was in turmoil, the Tamil Nadu government was hiding behind the “Kachchativu Myth”, for which even the local political actors in the North and the South, turned a blind eye. Two important issues in this regard were highlighted; the livelihood threat confronted by Northern Sri Lankan Fisheries and the serious damage to the Palk Bay ecosystem. It was revealed that the annual monetary loss due to resource smuggling and ecosystem degradation amounts to 4-7 billion rupees. However, the livelihood dimension appears to surpass all other dimensions of the issue, because the affected population has suffered 30 years of war and have lost their dear ones, property and other means of livelihood.

The cessation of war in 2009 has not led to any sizeable improvements in their livelihoods, because of intrusion of Indian trawlers into their waters three days a week and expropriate their resources. Furthermore, the state of under-development of the region fails to provide them with alternative income earning opportunities. There is widespread and crippling indebtedness affecting the fishing communities in the North.

Results of field studies carried out during 15 months in 2010 and 2011 with 162 fishers attached to Mathagal and Karainagar Fisheries Cooperative Societies in Jaffna, have revealed gear damage of Rs. 9 million caused by intruding Indian trawlers. Considering the fact that there are nearly 37,000 fishers in the North, one could imagine the colossal amount of losses suffered by these fishers. Moreover, studies on ecosystem health have shown that trawling the sea bottom of the Palk Bay waters has caused gigantic losses of marine life, browning the sea floor and making the trawling areas a dessert. The sea grass beds which provide the breeding places for an innumerable number of resources have disappeared leaving little life in the sea for the future generations. The Tamil Nadu Government, who has a prime responsibility of withdrawing its trawl fleet from intruding into Sri Lanka waters has done very little so far. It was pointed out that, although trawler buy back schemes, converting trawlers into deep sea vessels etc. were in the pipe line, nothing has gained momentum. While fisher-fisher dialogues appeared to have gained some headway during the early years of this decade, they too stopped for lack of support by the governments. Nevertheless, fisher-fisher dialogues were successful to the extent of recognising the livelihood dimension of the issue and the need to stop trawling, particularly conveying the predicament of the Northern fishing community to the Indian officials and public.

The moves by the Sri Lankan Navy in recent years to arrest the Tamil Nadu trawlers and confiscate fishing equipment was considered an important move in exerting pressure on the Tamil Nadu trawlers. It is also a reassuring sign to the Northern Sri Lankan fishers that their government is actually taking their problems seriously. Maintaining and possibly expanding deterrence is therefore an important part of moving forward.

The recently passed law to ban trawling was noted as the most important step taken recently towards resolving this issue. However, it would be naïve to believe that Indian trawlers would withdraw overnight. The problem of Indian Trawl fishers is also an economic issue and affects the livelihoods of many. Thus enacting the trawl ban and expecting the Tamil Nadu Government to immediately withdraw the trawl fleet may not pay dividends, unless a trawl withdrawal plan is worked out jointly with the Tamil Nadu authorities.

Since Indo-Sri Lankan relations are currently on a record high, the priorities for both governments are in furthering trade and defence ties between the two countries. In this environment, although the fisheries conflict is probably the single biggest issue of contention, a full confrontation on the fisheries front is unlikely to take place. Deterrence therefore, needs to be combined with a broader strategy that asserts pressure at different levels to corner Tamil Nadu towards conversion or decommissioning of bottom trawlers. Raising the issue both by the Sri Lankan Government towards the Indian Government and the TNA towards Tamil Nadu would be strategic, given the political realities. Furthermore, the national consensus in Sri Lanka on the fisheries issue has to be strongly conveyed to Indian officials.

In this context, the Indian trawling issue being raised by the President and the TNA leadership to the highest levels of the Indian Government over the last two years, culminating in the high-level meeting between the Foreign and Fisheries Ministers of both countries and the formation of the Joint Working Group in November 2016, was an important step towards addressing the conflict. However, the actual outcome of this initiative will depend on the implementation of mechanisms such as joint patrolling by the Navy/Coast Guard of both countries and the speedy conversion and decommissioning of Tamil Nadu trawlers.

Destructive fishing and well-being

On the flip side of the coin, the trawl fleet in Sri Lanka is also seriously affected by the recent ban on trawling. In fact, this trawl fleet remained dormant for a long time since fishing permits were not issued to them. However, expansion of the intruding Indian trawl fleet in Sri Lankan waters saw the local fishers gradually reverting back to trawling, to which the Department of Fisheries turned a blind eye. The local trawl fleet of more than 300 small trawlers are now dispersed over four centres; Pesalai, Velvetithurai, Gurunagar and recently, Pallimunai. The local trawl fishers too would confront a serious livelihood crisis once the trawl ban law is enacted, as stated by the Tamil political actors present at the seminar. This is another issue needing serious attention.

Evidence from the NSF study on destructive fishing also showed that, the trawl intrusion issue and cessation of war has caused escalating conflicts in the north on another front; the pervasive use of environmentally unfriendly gear. Resource smuggling threatening the livelihoods coupled with lack of alternative employment opportunities made the lives of fishing populations very vulnerable, pushing them into poverty. In the absence of livelihood assets to cope with such vulnerabilities, fishers have fallen back on common property resources; the sea and the lagoons, and have used them intensively. While this would meet the needs of the resource users in the short run, the long run impact would be further degradation of resources, pushing people and their families further into the dumps of poverty.

Dynamiting of fish, wing nets with galvenized pipes, trawling, monofilament nets, brush-pile fisheries (use of cut mangrove branches as fish aggregating devices) and purse seining are on the rise and conflicts among different stakeholders are emerging, although they still remain latent. The first three techniques were identified as the most pervasive while dynamiting and the use of monofilament nets were considered as the most destructive. The incidence of the use of stake net has shown a 15-fold increase and trawling, a 60-fold increase from 2007 to 2015. Among the reasons given by fishers as to why they use such gear were, resource smuggling by Indian trawl fishers, rising fishing pressure (increasing entry into fisheries), lack of alternative employment and the persistence of high security zones. High income and relative ease of use were also pointed out as reasons for pervasive use of destructive gear. It is quite evident that destructive fishing would perpetuate destructive fishing binding fishers into a vicious cycle of vulnerability, poverty and ecosystem degradation. It was also highlighted at the seminar, the un-regulatory nature of technological change in fisheries in Sri Lanka, which fuels the use of environmentally unfriendly techniques. It was disclosed that, rather than specifying banned gear, it would be more effective in specifying what ‘permitted’ gear are, in respect of ecosystem health.

Studies on well-being of the Northern fishing populations have shown that people rank social relationships, children’s education, basic needs and safety and security quite high among factors most affecting their well-being. The lament of the people is that Indian trawl intrusion, destructive fishing, poor educational facilities of children, drug trafficking and lack of security etc. have pushed them into a serious ill-being crisis. More than 40 percent of the people have stated that government assistance is not adequate in effectively addressing the ill-being factors and improving their livelihoods.

Way forward

The first fisher-fisher dialogue organised by ARIF (Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen), took place way back in 2004 in Sri Lanka (called the ‘goodwill mission’), where Indian fishers agreed that ‘trawling is bad and to stop four types of trawl techniques’. It is now apparent that rather than a ‘missed opportunity’, it was the apathy of the governments to address this issue, which has now caused destruction, disorder and havoc in the North, some 13 years after such promising discussions. The governments, political parties and other interest groups have taken various ‘positions’, while the crux of the issue is sometimes forgotten, which is the human suffering and resource degradation. The tremendous indebtedness of the fishing community in the North and the weakening of their institutions such as fisheries co-operatives reflect a serious crisis that the fishing community is facing despite the war having ended eight years ago.

The escalation of the migrant fisher conflict in Mullaitivu in recent years, between local small scale fishers and new Mudalalis from the South who are far more capitalized, has not been addressed by the Fisheries Ministry. The escalation of such conflicts, including conflicts between the fishers in the various districts in the North due to the use of destructive methods, undermines the historic co-existence between local and migrant small scale fishers. Addressing such conflicts requires political will and a policy vision for fisheries co-management where local fisher co-operatives can play an important role.

Bringing in laws of various nature, banning trawling and strictly enforcing laws and prosecuting culprits will not be enough to stop people from slaughtering their resources. Rather, the socio-economic well-being of the fishing community needs to be addressed, which requires various kinds of assistance and credible forms of small scale fisheries development to these thousands of families depending on fisheries in the North.

The MPs who attended the seminar representing the Northern populations showed great interest in the issues and actively participated in the discussions. They thanked the organisers, especially the scientific community, for inviting them to the seminar and emphasised the need for such interaction which will pave way for better governance. They suggested the formation of an advisory and monitoring committee consisting of parliamentarians, researchers and the fishing communities, to continue the momentum gained in recent times to address fishing conflicts and fisheries development.

Needless to say, the political leadership have an important role in resolving the conflicts in the North and pull the fisher people out of the dumps of poverty and exclusion, while the scientific community can only provide them with appropriate policy inputs. 

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