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Net the Big Fish

Net the Big Fish

20 Nov 2023

Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters has been a contentious issue for the cross-strait neighbours for the past decades. While there have always been promises of tougher action by the Sri Lankan authorities, a visit to Colombo from New Delhi, and a few “ministerial level” discussions, saw many measures in the pipeline, shelved, and measures enacted, backpedalled.

While there are disputes about traditional fishing grounds and what happened before the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) was drawn, and what happened before the conflict in the North exploded in the 1980s, there are three facts that need to be taken into consideration.

First, that the practice of bottom trawling is highly destructive, it destroys ecosystems and does irreversible damage to fish stocks, and is now banned under Sri Lankan law which should be enforced in every inch of Sri Lanka territorial waters. Secondly, the lucrative profits from this illegal enterprise of poaching in Sri Lankan waters, is sustained by a few South Indian boat owners. These owners have never been taken to task, and are tied to powerful political figures in India. Which is likely to be a key reason why there is hardly any tangible progress in “stopping the boats” – to borrow an Australian slogan. Given the reinforcement of Indian coastal security measures, and the resources poured in to the Indian Navy and Coast Guards, post Mumbai attack in 2008, monitoring Indian fishing fleets and ensuring that New Delhi has a clear maritime domain awareness picture of what happens along the Southern coast has been a top priority of the Indian defence and security establishment. So, let’s not fool ourselves by believing that the concern about the livelihoods of fishermen who crew the trawlers is the sole reason that there is no progress from the land across the Palk Strait. Think about it? Will India allow Pakistani fishermen to fish as they have done “traditionally” in what is now Indian waters? Thirdly, under international law, such poaching falls under Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, a practice which many powerful nations engage en masse for decades and is seen as a major transnational problem. Countries like Taiwan, China, and North Korea are also documented to be involved in such “black enterprises” which bring tasty seafood to the tables of many capitals.

IUU is a global problem, and very soon, like in the South Atlantic and South Pacific regions, roaming fleets of Chinese long-range trawlers may come calling to waters close to us. Given the spike in Chinese marine scientific research (MSR) vessels “calling” on Colombo, Chinese trawling fleets, who are known to “go dark” (switch off tracking system to avoid being monitored) may well be the next challenge that Indian Ocean island nations will have to deal with.

If we can’t get India to play by the “rules-based order” mantra which all the big players seem to be singing in chorus to the smaller states, how will we deal with “assertive China”, who already has a South China sea track record, which isn’t glowing.   

Last week, after many years of relaxed enforcement of weak laws, the Kayts Magistrate Court gave a repeat offender - an Indian fisherman - a two year jail sentence. It is learnt that the offender was arrested, warned and released in April last year. The Kayts Magistrate Court has also ordered that summons be issued to the detained vessels owners via diplomatic channels to appear before the court by 12 February next year. It seems like Sri Lanka is finally enforcing the laws it introduced on the IUU matter, and that there may be hope for the Sri Lankan fishermen of the North, and the East Provinces whose livelihoods have been seriously impacted by poaching from Indian bottom trawlers.  It is learnt that the Ministry of Fisheries, is also keen to persecute repeat offenders and go after the “big fish” who own the mechanised trawlers. And that’s how it should be. Sri Lanka should enforce its law and sovereignty in its maritime domain. Go after the big fish.  

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