Northern fishermen caught in a net of issues

By Sarah Hannan

Sri Lanka’s northern seas are considered to have the highest density of crustaceans, which automatically attracts a larger school of fish. Given that these international waters are required to be shared with India and the Maldives, many of the fishermen in the region are in a constant battle to secure their catch for the day.

During a recent visit to the northern peninsula, The Sunday Morning met up with several fishing communities along the northern coast to inquire about how they are managing their trade, especially with international competition, to secure the biggest possible catch each day.

We were told that at least 60% of the population is dependent on fisheries, with the rest of them either opting to work in state or private institutions.

The geoposition of the peninsula allows the fishermen to exploit the various resources of aquaculture to add to their line of products they offer consumers.

“The fishermen here can choose to specialise in lagoon breeds, freshwater breeds, and coast and offshore breeds of aquaculture. The biggest threat we face is when the multiday trawlers from India cross into these international waters. If we have just three trawlers, they would arrive with 50 trawlers, and it is difficult for us to compete with their numbers and the illegal techniques they use to catch fish,” Amal from Mullaitivu explained.

Amal pointed out that most often the fishermen from India employ the bottom trawling method, which in the long run will not be sustainable for marine aquaculture as it easily destroys mariculture that is setup.

Furthermore, the Sri Lankan fishermen get outnumbered in international waters and also can’t compete against the various techniques used by all the multiday trawlers from India.

The struggle to secure their catch is partly due to the fact that fishermen in northern Sri Lanka still employ conventional fishing methods, while their counterparts all over the world use state-of-the-art techniques in this regard.

Knowledge expansion lacking

“The majority of the populations in the Mannar, Jaffna, and Mullaitivu Districts depend on fisheries. The lack of investments towards upgrading fishing techniques and knowledge expansion within the fishing communities is further challenged due to foreign fishermen. Their boats are equipped with the latest tracking and fish harvesting devices and when we have to share the catch with them in international waters, we are always at a loss,” Noel Peiris from Talaimannar told The Sunday Morning.

Peiris’s request is that the Government and other private entities put enough focus on uplifting the livelihoods of the fishing community, as there is a higher density of fishing products that can be harvested from the northern seas.

He also said that the Government should look at providing relief or concessions to the fishing communities, enabling them to upgrade their trade tools so they may be able to improve their market share.

Upgrading vessels and techniques

When contacted to inquire about the steps the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is taking to improve the fisheries sector, Department of Fisheries Director General G.P.J. Kumara replied that last Wednesday (29), a special meeting had been called by the Presidential Task Force appointed to oversee the issues of the fisheries sector, where they had discussed matters at length.

“The fisheries issue in the northern seas has been long standing, and both the GoSL and the Indian Government are constantly discussing how both countries could fish in the shared space. We cannot blame only the multiday trawlers belonging to the Indian fishermen, as even our fishermen at times cross international waters and enter Indian territorial waters. So, fishermen in both countries are at fault,” Kumara elaborated.

However, in order to ensure that Sri Lankan fishermen stick to international waters when offshore fishing, the Department of Fisheries employs the Sri Lanka Navy to monitor them.

The presence of the naval surveillance teams somewhat keeps the situation under control as they are patrolling international waters from time to time, and are also able to apprehend any trawlers involved in illegal poaching or that use bottom trawling techniques.

At present, Sri Lanka has apprehended close to 150 such fishing vessels and has taken legal action against the fishermen and confiscated their fishing equipment in accordance with Sri Lankan law.

“If we have stronger laws and regulate any type of illegal fishing techniques that are currently in use, we should be able to have sufficient catch as well as streamline the methods of fishing employed by the Sri Lankan fishermen as well,” Kumara added.

The Navy conducts regular operations for the prevention of illegal fishing practices that adversely impact legitimate commercial fishers as well as marine ecosystems.

During 25-28 July, the Sri Lanka Navy managed to nab 15 persons engaged in illegal fishing and also seized the fishing gear belonging to them; the Navy took four unauthorised fishing nets, four dinghies, and fishing gear into custody, apart from the 15 accused.

The suspects together with the seized items were handed over to the Assistant Directorate of Fisheries in Mullaitivu, Fisheries Inspector of Kuchchaveli, and Assistant Directorate of Fisheries, Trincomalee through the Sri Lanka Coast Guard Regional Director of the Eastern Region for further investigation.

Kumara also affirmed that there is an issue with the vessels the Sri Lankan fishermen use at present, and said that in comparison to the vessels used by Indian fishermen, the trawlers we have are much smaller.

That provides them an advantage to gather more fish stocks than Sri Lankan fishermen.

Co-operation between civilians and Navy needed

Mannar Fishermen’s Association President Y. Baskaran, speaking to The Sunday Morning, revealed: “We have also lost a lot of fishing grounds due to the naval command that is set up in Mullikulum and Silavaturai, which hold the highest density of fry fish that attract all the commercial fish closer to the coastline.

“Our fishermen have to now venture into the deep sea using multiday trawlers, which is when we encounter the Indian fishing boats. We are discussing with the Sri Lanka Navy to allow fishermen to continue fishing activities within their naval command area under their surveillance.

“We hope that once the new parliament is established, there will be a considerable amount of co-operation between civilians and the Navy.”

Baskaran noted that recently, the Navy had allowed a handful of fishing families to resettle in Mullikulum, and they will be able to go to sea in the area in the coming weeks.

He also noted that there is a lot of coastal land that belongs to the Fisheries Department which has been repurposed for resettlement by former MP Rishad Bathiudeen. “We had a 25-acre land area but at present we have only five acres as the former Minister forcibly acquired the lands to resettle people that were moved from Puttalum.”

Photos Saman Abesiriwardena
Featured photo Sarah Hannan