Palk Strait - lets get it straight! The illegal fishing menace in the Palk Straits by Cdr Sanjeewa Kathriarachchi

Sri Lanka is a small island situated in the Indian Ocean narrowly separated by the Palk Straits from India with the closest distance over sea being less than 20 nm. Despite size and power disparity of two states, Sri Lanka has been the cynosure of all eyes since the sea faring age due to its strategic location - lying in the east-west sea lines of communications, the gifted beauty and the richness in natural resources. , thus Sri Lanka earned the world renowned nickname of ‘the pearl of the Indian ocean’. However, these very same reasons as well as some unknown reasons have invited for unfavourable attention and exploitation by the external forces, mainly from the European powers and neighbouring India.

Given the geopolitical landscape being separated by such narrow water mass, the island has been subject to massive influence from its neighbour India since time immemorial which has led to scepticism and distrust between the two countries. Apart from numerous historical events, the most recent and notable are the training, funding, backing and arming Sri Lankan Tamil separatists in Sothern India. At one point, India intervened Sri Lankan military’s on-going Operation Vadamarachchi in 1987, and subsequently influenced then government to sign Indo-SL Peace accord, which further resulted in sending Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. This, in the eyes of many, is an incident of disdaining and disrespecting the island nation’s sovereignty and self-governing rights.  Thus, these incidents have affected the bilateral relations between the two countries.

Following the end of the protracted conflict, Sri Lanka is at the verge of experiencing a new challenge from South India due to illegal fishing and poaching in the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Straits. This ceaseless and ominous presence of the South Indian Fishing Trawlers have raised serious and lasting concerns for both sides but largely to the oppressed; the Sri Lankan fishermen in the Jaffna peninsula, whose livelihood is threatened and robbed everyday by their Indian counterparts.

The Indian fishermen’s encroachment into Sri Lankan water is apprehensive due to several reasons.    The types of fishing gear and methods employed first raise huge concerns of the enormous and persistent damage caused to the marine ecology which is further amplified by marine pollution and permanent deprivation of the legitimate stakeholders’ livelihood. Bottom trawling and poaching are strictly prohibited by the international maritime laws and the use of unregulated fishing gear and the pollutants they leave behind pose a huge threat to marine life where the risk of making once dynamic Palk Strait a ‘dead sea’ in the Indian Ocean cannot be ruled out. This conscious disrespect to the international laws and norms reflect an unpleasant image about the perpetrating nation to the outside world. The livelihood of the coastal Tamil communities in the northern peninsula is severely affected. Thus the whole social fabric in the island’s north can be badly affected and so can be the two countries’ relationship.

Sri Lanka’s 3-decade long war against terrorism and ‘the 60 hour long Mumbai Attack’ taught the island and the rest of the world including India, certain bitter lessons. Of such, unnoticed and uncontrolled maritime activities take more prominence as the errors leading to otherwise could have prevented terror activities for any country. It is a fact that Sri Lanka is not in a position to afford war or acts of terrorism for it is still recovering from the damages caused by the previous protracted conflict. Thus the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) keeps round the clock surveillance as the first line of defence of the island with their battle exhausted limited vessels and sensors. The amount of gun running, drug trafficking and smuggling are quite common in these waters and the ex-sea tiger cadres were the masters of such.

In this backdrop, it is logical to wonder as to why these two countries still have not taken any substantial measures in addressing this issue. Serious concerns for petty political gains? Is that “genuine” empathy springing up purely to protect the interests of the own underprivileged fishing community at the stake of internal and regional security stability?

Sri Lankan stance was clearly stated by the Hon Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe at the turn of 2015 with the elect of the new government when an Indian journalist from Thanthi TV based in Chennai asked about the same festering fishing issue. Despite the Indian agitation to his remarks, he stated that SLN might shoot if they (Indian fishermen) crossed the line, and elaborated further urging that “India must keep their people on their side and we will keep ours on our side and let’s look after our own issues without pointing fingers and calling the other ‘foul’ ”. That’s the simplest and the straightest forward answer anybody who has grown up with sense of justice and respect for sovereignty of nations can easily understand. In fact, if this issue is taken up at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the court will certainly rule in favour of the complainant.

There are few suggestions which are deemed imperative to cite at this stage.

  • Cease bottom trawling and other related activities.
  • Establish a Joint Task Force to manage affairs in the Palk Strait.
  • Introduce large scale shrimp farming along the coastal belts of the both sides so as to minimise the quest for wild catch.
  • Develop/modify the existing trawlers for deep sea fishing with few larger mother vessels in company.
  • Intensify fishing regulatory mechanisms such as, marshalling and monitoring systems
  • Enhance public awareness.
 Sri Lanka, being a small island nation cannot address this issue alone. It requires the support, and prudent actions from the Indian counterpart in mitigating the situation.  If we achieve a neo-permanent solution then it would be possible for the both parties to enjoy equal benefits. . Let this small island which is approx. 1/60th of the size and population of the big neighbour enjoy her freedom and sovereignty bestowed upon her by legitimate means. As cricket loving and god fearing nations who have solid cultural, historical and religious ties, our earnest wish is that India will be our most trusted ally being the closest neighbour, not by virtue of the geographical location, but by all means!
The author is an officer of the Sri Lanka Navy attached to the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). This article does not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka.