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Sunday, 20 September 2015

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Fishing in troubled waters

Left to their own devices, northern fishermen will stage a protest demanding government intervention:

With nothing positive achieved over their decades-long poaching issue while India and Sri Lanka continue to engage over the issue of fishermen, the disconsolate northern fishermen hope to stage a massive protest and demonstration next Wednesday, September 13, in Jaffna.

There will be no fishing when Jaffna fishermen strike.

With repeated talks over the years having failed, agreements reached not honoured by the Indian side, the Sri Lankan fishermen had pinned much hope on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who had, since the formation of the new government, strongly voiced his protest against poaching.

This was also an issue on his agenda for discussion with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. But the two leaders appear to have mutually agreed to leave the issue to the fishing communities of the two countries for talks and settlement.

According to representatives of fishermen's associations here, this was very disappointing.

Permanent dilemma

President, Northern Province Fisher People's Unit (NPFPU), Noor Mohamed Alam, told the Sunday Observer that assurances given by the Indian fishermen and agreements signed with them at many previous discussions to the effect that they will stop poaching and take up alternative professions, were not honoured. These talks were held under the patronage of the two governments and the participation of fisheries authorities, he said.

As such, fishermen's associations of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar will stage a protest march and demonstration in Jaffna on September 23, Wednesday, demanding government intervention to stop poaching, Alam said. The procession will start from the Pannai junction in Jaffna and reach the Jaffna Government Secretariat, about 5 km away, to hand over a representation to the Government Agent and a copy of it to the Assistant Director of the Fisheries Department, he said. As a mark of protest, the Jaffna Secretariat and the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Jaffna will be blockaded by the protesters on that day, Alam said.

He pointed out that President Maithripala Sirisena after his January 8 victory had pledged that fishing vessels entering the Sri Lankan territorial waters for poaching will be confiscated while Ranil Wickremesinghe, assuming office as Prime Minister of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), had promised the northern fishermen that poaching will be strongly resisted.

It was a matter of 'life and death' for them, the fishermean said, because their fertile fishing resources were being plundered and depleted due to poaching which involved prohibited methods of fishing , especially bottom-trawling, Alam said. The poachers who came in hundreds of trawlers and other fishing vessels did not allow the Northern fishermen to venture into their territorial fishing grounds and damaged their fishing gear and boats if they did, he added.

Delhi discussions

After the New Delhi talks between the Sri Lankan delegation led by the then Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and the Indian delegation led by Sharad Pawar, it was announced that the talks were successful and the thorny issue of poaching would end. But it never happened, Alam said.

The northern fishermen are continuing to be deprived of their livelihood and they face the threat of their fertile fishing grounds being completely obliterated of all fishing resources because the type of gear used and the size of fishing vessels and the methods of fishing would contribute progressively to the total destruction of marine resources, he said.

In addition, due to the operation of the Indian trawlers, local fishermen often suffered damage to their fishing gear such as drift nets and traps, causing severe financial losses.

Fishermen's representatives of Tamil Nadu had violated an agreement that they had reached during talks in Chennai on January 27, 2014. They agreed to keep away from poaching and take recourse to bottom trawling. But they resumed their destructive bottom trawler fishing and other banned methods of fishing which they had agreed to discontinue totally, another source said.

This undertaking was signed by both sides and endorsed by the Secretary to the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Ministry, before it was sent for approval of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the source said. Talks were also held during the previous government between External Affairs Minister G.L.Pieris and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj, on the same lines, he added.

Deadlock

General Secretary of the NPFPU, N.V. Subramainam told the Sunday Observer that although both the Indian and the Sri Lankan prime ministers had decided on further talks between the fishing communities of the two countries to reach a settlement, the northern fishermen did not believe in talks because undertaking reached and assurances given at previous talks have been observed in the breach. This means, the fishermen want the government to act and to urgently negotiate with India on the issue without skirting the issue any further.

Agreements and undertakings reached with the Indian fishermen's representatives are not being honoured because there is Tamil Nadu politics that promotes such practices, another source noted.

Fleets of fishing vessels in Tamil Nadu are owned by politicians and big businessmen having a political clout, Subramaniam said. He had observed it during his delegation's visit to coastal areas from Nagapatnam to Rameswaram to meet fishermen's representatives. The fishermen regretted the damage they had done to the fish resources and the livelihood of the northern fishermen.

They wanted to discontinue it and gave an undertaking but later they were forced to resume poaching against their will, Subramaniam said. They were opposed to further talks between the fishing communities because it would drag on the issue indefinitely, he added.

President of the Union of Mullaitivu District Fishermen's Associations (UMDFA) Anthony Pillai Mariarasa told the Sunday Observer that they already held protest demonstration in Mullaitivu, requesting government action to end poaching. Apart from the problem of Indian trawlers, they also faced problems due to encroachments, poaching and prohibited methods of fishing by the Southern fishermen, he said.

They have requested the seven parliamentarians and three Provincial Council members representing the Vanni to be present on September 26, Saturday, at a meeting with fishermen's representatives, Mariarasa said. They would also join the protest march and blockade to be held on September 23 in Jaffna, he said as a mark of solidarity.

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