Saving small fish

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Indo-Lanka fishing issue is currently in limbo. Sri Lanka has appointed a high-level committee to conduct talks but has received no response from New Delhi and with Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne reportedly at Harvard for a study session, it is likely to remain so for a few more weeks. Northern Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 28,000 fishermen who have been affected by illegal poaching of Indian fishermen. Indirectly as many as 100,000 people survive on the sector in this part of the country. Yet, with little political representation, the community remains largely marginalised, with the poaching issue provoking many to leave their traditional way of earning. They are also unhappy about Colombo’s repeated release of Indian fishermen, especially since it was not reciprocated in the latest instance. With political forces deciding which way the tide turns, local fishermen feel they are merely a pawn in a larger power game. According to Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the industry loses an estimated $ 730 million worth of fish from illegal poaching from South India. The Government had targeted $ 500 million in revenue for 2013, but has had to keep its expectation low due to the significant losses from poaching. Fish production in the Districts in the North and East, which was increased by 37% to 99,190 metric tons in 2011 continued to increase to 154,974 metric tons in 2013. Sri Lankan studies estimate that an average of 1,056 Indian boats cross into Sri Lankan waters illegally, which means $ 19.72 million is lost from their shrimp catch alone. In total Indian fishermen poach at least 65 million kilograms of fish each year. Satellite images suggest that the poaching is done in a highly-organised manner as the bulk of the boats operate in the night and scramble across the international maritime boundary line by four in the morning. Colombo has previously defended its soft-peddling of the issue by pointing out that if reports are made to international bodies, most of South India’s fishing industry will be shut down and this could not be allowed because of the close relationship enjoyed by the two countries. As many as 400 fish processing plants subsist on this catch and hints have been made by the Minister that strong political backing is given by the Tamil Nadu Government. Several rounds of talks, the latest one last week, ended in a stalemate as the Indian side requested entry into Sri Lankan waters, a request that was rejected. Sri Lanka has repeatedly called on Indian fishermen to end an internationally-banned practice known as “bottom trawling” where weighted nets destroy the seabed including coral reefs that form the breeding grounds for fish. Sri Lanka is also reportedly planning to spend more than a billion rupees to provide satellite links to all fishermen in an attempt to ward off export restrictions to the European Union. While the delicate balance of politics and fishing have to be admitted, Colombo cannot afford to let the opportunity to negotiate with New Delhi pass by. Support of India, while crucial to defending against a probe by the United Nations, cannot come at the cost of the northern fishing community. But it is looking more and more likely that fishing concerns will get swept to the sidelines by the stronger waves of international politics.