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Fishing-a multi-billion dollar business for India - Navy Commander Jayanath Colombage



Navy Commander Jayanath Colombage

Navy Commander Jayanath Colombage told the media yesterday how the fishermen's issue involving Sri Lanka and India will be resolved.

Excerpts of the interview.

Q: In which way did the the Sri Lanka Navy(SLN) contribute towards the discussions between the Fisheries Ministers of both countries and to prevent poaching of Indian trawlers in Sri Lankan waters?

A: SLN is a stakeholder because we function under the Ministry of Defence and we are the guardians of the sea boundary. It is our duty to prevent poaching in our waters. In preparation of the Ministerial talks the Navy was part of the team and there is a team under the Minister of Fisheries to settle the problem. The Navy is represented in that forum.

We try our level best to prevent them from crossing the IMBL by showing our presence. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't because they come in the thousands. We can chase away 100 or 200 boats but then another 800 boats come. We don't want to shoot and harass them. It is easy to shoot but we don't do that. Our instructions to our officers and the crew are very strict and we have instructed them not to use force under any circumstances and to treat the fishermen in a humane manner.

Q: Isn't there any mechanism on the Indian side to detect those boats?

A: From the Indian side they can do this if they wish. This is a lifeline issue for our fishermen but for India it is multi- billion dollar business. They are the largest exporters of shrimp to the EU, Japan and even to the US. They are supposed to be having 600 processing plants which are even certified under the EU to process prawns before they are shipped. It is really a mult-i billion dollar business for Indian fishermen. But for our innocent fishermen it is really a livelihood issue.

Q: Has the EU done anything on this issue?

A: The EU will not move unless somebody complains. That is their system and we have not complained as yet.

Q: Do you get the support of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to prevent Indian fishermen coming to Sri Lankan waters?

A: The Indian Coast Guard and Indian Navy is patrolling their areas. Like for us it is impossible to monitor thousands of boats coming out. Sometimes they also deploy additional patrols and additional ships to prevent them from coming here. The two Navies alone cannot stop this. Even the two Coast Guards cannot stop this because it is a huge area and the number of boats coming are very high.

Tamil Nadu fishermen accidentally venturing here is false because Tamil Nadu fishing boats have GPS now. They know exactly where they are. When they see the lights of lands so close in Pesalai or Delft they know where they are. They deliberately come because that is where a large prawn catch is.

Q: The Indian Navy and Coast Guards are cooperating with the Sri Lanka Navy?

A: We never had a problem with the Indian Navy and the Coast Guards. Because we respect each other . We have an excellent understanding between he two navies and two Coast Guards.

Q: If the Navies cannot stop this in which way can this be stopped permanently?

A: Both countries have to agree to respect the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). TQ: Are Sri Lankan fishermen not violating IMBL?

I am not saying that they are not violating 100 percent but the scale of the violation by Sri Lankan fishermen is much less than that of the Tamil Nadu Fishermen. Sri Lankan fishermen normally look for Tuna. Sometimes they venture quite far in the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea to catch Tuna. There are instances they also venture into the territorial waters of other countries.

Q: What is the next move in settling this issue?

A: We have a joint working group addressing this issue. We have to meet at the next working group to discuss these issues, the outcome of the Ministers visit, the outcome of the fishermen's visit and the possible implications on national security. We should discuss at bilateral level.

Q: When is the joint working group is meeting?

A:The Indians should give us the date. We have requested and they have informed us that they will give us a date.

The long drawn issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters was the talking point when India and Sri Lanka worked out a permanent solution to the problem after Sri Lankan Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Rajitha Senaratne and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar met in New Delhi early last month. Though it was expected that the issue will come to an end after the two countries released the fishermen in their custody following the talks, the Indian fishermen continued to violate the agreement by poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

S LN has to play a key role in resolving this issue.

Q: The issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters is still simmering. Is there is any dispute over the International Maritime Boundary (IMBL)between Sri Lanka and India over Kachchathivu island for this issue to drag?

A: As far as we and the central government of India is concerned there is no dispute about the IMBL. That was established in agreements reached by the two countries in 1974 and 1976. There is not a problem about Kachchathivu which Tamil Nadu says is disputed and wrongly ceded. Even during British and Portuguese times Kachchathivu was considered a territory of Ceylon.

Indian surveys have confirmed way back in 1876 that Kachchathivu was a part of Ceylon. Kachchathivu is close to Delft island of Sri Lanka than Pamban in Tamil Nadu. In 1974 and 1976 agreements there are rights given to Indian fishermen basically to dry their nets and for religious purposes.

The shrine is built by Delft residents and it comes under the Delft Diocese. Pilgrims can come for the feast.

There is no dispute on the IMBL and Kachchathivu. Tamil Nadu says they should have the fishing rights around Kachchativu. The 974 and 1976 agreements clearly say that there are no fishing rights for them around Kachchathivu. It is not about Kachchathivu when they come to Delft, Pesalai, Iranathivu is the problem.

Q: From Tamil Nadu they talk about traditional fishing grounds around Palk bay, the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait. Is there any basis for this?

A: They are talking about traditional fishing grounds about 50 years ago.

Before the IMBL came into being the fishermen from both countries used to cross to the other side, but after the agreements on IMBL was signed there are no rights for fishermen in either country to fish in each others water. That is clear in the agreement and the subsequent clarification letters by the two Governments of that time also have clearly indicated that.

Q: How has this poaching issue become a problem for fishermen in Sri Lanka, specially in the North?

A: Fisheries plays a key role in the livelihood of the people on both sides. Fishermen on both sides of the IMBL depend on fish as a source of cheap nutrition, for employment and income. During the 30 year terrorism period fishermen were restricted.

Local fishermen suffered then. Now they had renewed hopes and want to venture into the sea and engage in fishing. They still have very basic boats. Once they move into the sea they face problems with the Indian boats which are sophisticated. They complain that Indian fishermen poach in Sri Lankan waters because their livelihood is affected.

Q: Now Sri Lankan fishermen talk about destruction caused to the marine environment due to the poaching of Indian trawlers?

A: Initially they did not talk about environmental damage only about the large number of Indian boats. But now they talk of destructive fishing methods of Indian fishers. The waters in the Palk Strait, Gulf of Mannar and Palk bay are shallow and there are a lot of corals, sea weeds, fish like prawn lobster. Indian fishermen are engaged in bottom trawling here.

Bottom trawling is like ploughing the sea bed then it creates mud clouds and distorient small fish and then net them. This destroys corals, the marine habitat, marine environment sea weeds and disturbed the little fish. When they create turbidity it is there for some time and it doesn't dissipate. It can also travel.

When there is a mud cloud the sun light is prevented from reaching the bottom. Sun light is needed by small fish as well as marine plants.

It is estimated that about 35 to 40 percent of what they take is by catch which is of no use to anyone. Pieces of coral and sea weeds are destroyed.

Bottom trawling adds poisonous chemicals to flow into the human body as sediments of chemicals coming to the sea are disturbed by bottom trawling.

Q: How does this process become illegal under international accepted standards?

A: The internationally accepted term is Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing. Illegal means the vessels are operated in violation of the laws of the other country. Fishermen are supposed to report the catch and from where they caught it and how much they have caught.

Since we do not know any data what Indians are taking from here it becomes unreported fishing. Therefore Indian fishermen are violating two rules by violating the rules of our country and by not reporting the catch.

Q: Is there any possibility for this issue to become a security threat to Sri Lanka?

A: During LTTE time the LTTE used these Indian trawlers to transport diesel petrol detonators, medicine cadres and sometimes food items from South India. Now when Indian trawlers come in large numbers it poses a grave threat to national security as it can lead to smuggling, narcotics, gun running and also human trafficking.

There is a huge danger when Indian trawlers come close to our land even from the national security perspective.

Q: Tamil Nadu is pointing fingers at the Sri Lankan Navy for harassing innocent Indian fishermen?

A: Tamil Nadu accused the SLN of killing, harassing their fishermen and destroying their boats. But we never crossed the IMBL. The Indian Central Government on January 21, filed an affidavit in the Madras High Court saying that the Sri Lanka Navy(SLN) has not killed a single Tamil Nadu fishermen since 2011.

In the same affidavit they said the SLN boats have never crossed the IMBL to the Indian side. This affidavit was filed by the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defence.

Q: The Fisheries Ministers of both countries met recently and reached an agreement to release fishermen in custody and work out a solution to stop poaching. Has this effort brought positive results to end the poaching issue?

A: The Ministry of Fisheries has taken a keen interest in this and the Minister has met his counterpart in India and they agreed to address the issue. But unfortunately it did not stop. The Tamil Nadu fishermen returned in large numbers.

They have violated the bilateral agreement. First we arrested 25 fishermen in five boats and we repatriated them.

After that we arrested 38 Indian fishermen in six boats. Right now six boats and 38 fishermen are in Sri Lankan custody. There are some boats which were seized but not released. SLN is compelled to arrest illegal fishing boats coming close to our boundary.

Q:Fishermen from both countries are trying to reach a consensus. How do you view this?

A: Fishermen from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan met in Chennai and had discussions to settle the issue but they cannot take decisions on national security. This is a teritorial issue for Sri Lanka.

According to reports Indian fishermen were seeking permission from their Sri Lankan counterpartsat least 70 days a year. Sri Lankan fishermen ask the Indian fishermen not to use bottom trawling.

These were the major demands between the two sides. Now they do not talk really about the IMBL. So fishermen to fishermen talks is good. They should understand each other.

But they cannot compromise national security, they cannot compromise the sovereignty and overrule what the two government have agreed upon. But it is good to talk.

Definitely having linkage and to invite our fishermen to there and their fishermen to here is good to mutual understanding.

Q: So how do you think that issue can be solved?

A: I think this has to be addressed by the bi-lateral manner by the Ministerial and diplomatic channels. We should respect each other. Although Sri Lanka is a small country they have accepted the International Maritime Boundary Line .

I request both sides to respect the IMBL and not to engage in destructive fishing methods what the Indian trawlers are using at the moment. That will really lead to better relationship between the two countries and better bilateral prosperity between the two countries.

Q: What is you opinion on their demand from the Indian side if to have 70 days fishing in Sri Lankan waters?

A: I think we cannot allow even a single day for illegal fishing using destructive fishing methods.

That is our contention. We are mostly concern about this environmental damage by using bottom trawling the Tamil Nadu fishermen are engaged in.

Q: Are you saying that if they can come to a compromise on bottom trawling will they be allowed to fish here?

A: I cannot comment on right now. We are mainly focusing on bottom trawling and that is the biggest issue. Tamil Nadu trawlers are designed only for bottom trawling. It is banned in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

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