Subscribe By RSS or Email

  • hwdVideoShare is not installed, you can not use module ID .

Notice: Undefined variable: module in /mnt/data/vhosts/ on line 105

Notice: Trying to get property of non-object in /mnt/data/vhosts/ on line 105
Published on Wednesday, 05 November 2014 11:24

SLFisher 630px 14 11 05“Small-scale fishers are powerless in the face of decisions taken at the level of states and international forums.” Picture shows a Sri Lankan fisherman casting his net into the sea at Cheddi Palayan, east of Colombo. Photo: AP

In Sri Lanka, encroachment by Indian trawlers, joint ventures with East Asian vessels and the recent EU ban on seafood exports have a common impact: they cripple small-scale fishers

On October 20, hundreds of angry fishers from south Sri Lanka protested in front of the Fisheries Ministry in Colombo against a European Union (EU) ban on seafood exports from Sri Lanka and the government’s promotion of joint ventures with East Asian fishing companies. Over the years, there have been numerous protests by Northern fishers against poaching by Indian trawlers. These are a reflection of a larger crisis in Sri Lankan fisheries; the fishers face dispossession and fear the end of their way of life.

More than 12 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total population — 2.4 out of 20 million — is dependent on the fisheries sector; in the Northern Province this is as high as 20 per cent. Fish provides a source of vital food security to the poor, with Sri Lankans on average eating 24 kg of fish per year.

Trawling by Tamil fishers

Fisheries in the North, recovering from a devastating war, are crippled by the persistent poaching by trawlers from Tamil Nadu. However, in Tamil Nadu, fishers and politicians have projected this issue as one of bona fide fishers being hauled by the Sri Lankan Navy.

Over the years, Indian trawlers have damaged expensive nets resulting in increased indebtedness of Northern fishers. And now, on the three days of the week when Indian trawlers venture into their waters, Northern fishers either stay home or go for smaller near-shore fishing. The result is a substantial loss of income.

Sadly, the Palk bay fishing conflict has become entangled in the politics of polarisation, without a solution for fishers’ livelihoods and Tamil Nadu’s overcapitalised trawler fleet.

SLFisher 600px 14 11 05

The Southern fishers of Sri Lanka involved in deep-sea fishing were relatively unhindered except for occasional arrests in the Indian waters. This deep-sea fishing fleet is famous throughout the world for deploying the relatively small 10-16 metre vessels packed with water, ice and rations; making journeys lasting weeks; and travelling thousands of km into the Indian Ocean in search of tuna and shark.

However, in a shocking development, the EU, on October 14, announced a ban on seafood imports from Sri Lanka, from January 15, 2015. This is likely to have severe economic consequences for Southern fishers, as 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s fisheries exports are to Europe. The EU argues that Sri Lanka has failed to cooperate in eliminating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. According to newspaper reports, the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the ‘red card’ was the sighting of Sri Lankan-flagged fishing boats in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Diego Garcia, a ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’.

What led to this development? One factor has been Sri Lanka’s questionable allocation of licences to relatively large East Asian fishing vessels. These joint ventures are linked to the overambitious targets for increased fish production, inspired by Sri Lanka’s post-war high growth development regime.

Sri Lankan boats are regularly sighted in foreign waters, going against the EU mantra of regulated and traceable fishing. But it is the Sri Lankan-flagged multinational vessels that were reported to the EU for illegal fishing in Diego Garcia.

Yet, this ban is fishy! The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission database reveals that in 2013, Sri Lanka’s fleet of 2230 boats caught 10 per cent of tuna, while the EU caught 16 per cent of the total tuna landings from the Indian Ocean.

The EU fleet consists of 81 industrial vessels with an average capacity 50 times that of one Sri Lankan vessel. The contribution of this European fleet to employment and food security is not only nil to the people of the Indian Ocean, but also marginal to Europeans themselves.

How have European fleets ended up in the distant Indian Ocean? And how can the EU reprimand Sri Lanka for fishing near Diego Garcia?

As per the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a treaty which added 200 nautical miles (360km) territorial extension called the ‘exclusive economic zone’ (EEZ) to nations’ territorial waters, exclusive resource exploitation rights were provided to European countries occupying strategic colonial islands. Thus, in 1982, the U.K. gained exclusive exploitation rights over 639,000 of seas around Diego Garcia, a barren archipelago used as a U.S. military base. Since then, an Indian or a Sri Lankan fisherman in these waters is considered a ‘poacher’, subject to punishment by the EU.

Seen from this historical perspective, banning Sri Lanka’s tuna exports in the name of sustainability and non-compliance is both paternalistic and hypocritical. In Sri Lanka, officials and fishermen alike have been wondering why the EU hasn’t applied the same IUU sanctions in relation to Tamil Nadu’s intense poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

When law trumps lives

There is no doubt that fisheries require some form of regulation. However, at present, international law; science-based management; ideas about state sovereignty and territory; and grand development visions are increasingly determining fishery policies.

Fishers’ concerns have been ignored in the larger geopolitical game of state interests. With dialogue between fishers from both sides of the Palk Bay deadlocked, the two governments are now driving the negotiations.

Significantly, President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the release of all Indian fishermen in custody, immediately after India abstained from backing a U.N. human rights resolution against Sri Lanka early this year. Similarly, Southern fishers may face new rules, negotiated between their government and the EU, which may aggravate ground realities. Few decades back, it was the India-Norway statist modernisation vision that led to the introduction of the ecologically devastating practice of bottom-sea trawling in India.

The encroachment by Indian trawlers; the Sri Lankan companies’ joint ventures with East Asian vessels; and the EU ban have a common impact. They cripple small-scale fishers who are powerless in the face of decisions taken at the level of states and international forums.

The development argument in Sri Lanka, that supporting technologically ‘inefficient’ small-scale fisheries is economically unrealistic and naive, does not hold water.

The alternatives for men and women from the fishing community have been to migrate to work in the Middle East and countries such as Italy, or work in the garment factories in the Free Trade Zones. Both options require getting separated from their communities and families and carrying out mainly unskilled and precarious work elsewhere. By comparison, small-scale fisheries continue to provide decent livelihoods with dignity.

(Joeri Scholtens is a researcher at the Centre for Maritime Research, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands; Ahilan Kadirgamar is a researcher and political economist based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.)

- Joeri Scholtens

(The Hindu)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 November 2014 11:24