External Affairs

India and Sri Lanka Agree to End Bottom Trawling, But Differences Still Remain

Despite making progress, with talks on November 5, both sides are still conflicted over the timeline by which bottom trawling should be brought to an end.

Indian fishing boats. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indian fishing boats. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Even as Sri Lanka rejected the proposal for a three year grace period to transition from bottom trawling, a Sri Lankan Tamil leader who was part of the official bilateral talks, claimed that there was some progress owing to India’s acknowledgement that this environmentally harmful practice has to end.

On Saturday, Indian and Sri Lankan ministerial delegations held talks on the vexing issue of fishermen, which resulted in some terms of reference being drafted for a joint working group to meet frequently and find a permanent solution.

The Indian delegation included external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh and shipping minister Pon Radhakrishnan. The Sri Lankan side included foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, fisheries minster Mahinda Amaraweera and Sri Lankan member of parliament from Jaffna district, M.A. Sumanthiran.

“We made significant progress in the talks that were held yesterday,” Sumanthiran told reporters on Sunday morning.

The Tamil National Alliance leader measured progress in terms of the Indian government accepting that bottom trawling will have to be eliminated.

“Yesterday’s discussion ended with the Indian government agreeing with bottom trawling coming to an end,” he said.

Bottom trawling is a fishing method where the net is trawled, or dragged across the seabed, which according to scientific reports, have led to the destruction of deep sea ecosystems in several parts of the world.

Differences over timeline

The advisor to the Sri Lankan fishermen delegation, Thiyagaraja Waradas told The Wire that he felt that there was a change in tone from the Indian central government during this round of talks. But, the proposal for a long ‘grace period’ showed that there was still no credible solution from the India.

India had sought a grace period of three years to transition Indian fishermen to a more sustainable method of fishing. But, this was rejected by the Sri Lankan government and fishermen.

“Three years’ time [for bottom trawling] is not practical. By the end of that period, they themselves will stop fishing as there will not be any fish left,” said Sumanthiran.

He pointed out that the first of the three terms of the reference of the joint working group – “expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest” – was a reflection that the crisis had to be addressed immediately.

Sumanthiran said that the issue of bottom trawling was “90% of the dispute”.

“We have shown satellite images of 500-1000 Indian boats coming near the Sri Lankan coast for fishing. We have also got images of before and after images after bottom trawling occurs,” he said.

The Sri Lankan Tamil leader had introduced a Bill in the Sri Lankan parliament to ban bottom trawling, earlier this month. He hoped that it will be passed in the budget session next year.

He indicated that once the bottom trawling issue was solved, the other concern of fishermen straying into each other’s waters can be easily tackled.

The other terms of reference for the joint working group was to draw a standard operating procedures for handling arrested fishermen and ascertaining possibilities for patrolling.

“It is inevitable that fishermen will stray into each other’s waters. That’s why there was stress on using modern technology to help in communication,” he said.

The joint press release issued after the Saturday meeting noted that there “was support for expediting the provision of communication tracking sets to the fishermen”.

The joint working group, with the new terms of reference, will meet every three months – and at their first meeting, take up the issue of detained fishing vessels.

However, Sumanthiran was not in favour of releasing bottom trawlers which had been taken into custody by the Sri Lankan navy after they crossed into Lankan territorial waters.

“It would be a contradiction to put those bottom trawlers back to work,” he said.

The fisheries ministers from both sides have also agreed to meet every six months, with the first meeting scheduled for January 2, 2017.

The fishermen associations of the two countries will also meet every six months. They had recently met on November 2 in Delhi after a gap of over one and half years. However, there was still considerable gap to be bridged between the two sides, with Indian fishermen demanding that they should get 85 days over next 3 years to fish in Sri Lankan waters. This was predictably rejected by the Sri Lankan fishermen delegation, which comprised of fishermen leaders from the Tamil majority-northern province.