The Palk Strait, a narrow strip of water in the Indian Ocean that separates Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu in India, is a hotly contested area between the fishing communities of the two countries. Indian fishermen are often arrested, sometimes even shot at, by Sri Lankan authorities for allegedly venturing into their waters in their mechanised trawlers. Last week, too, nine fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested for fishing in Lanka’s waters.

In May, the Tamil Nadu government came up with a plan to reduce the number of trawlers in Palk Bay by converting 2,000 such boats into deep-sea fishing vessels by 2020. The Central and state governments would contribute Rs 286 crores in financial subsidies for this.

In the government order, the Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries Department said:

...frequent apprehension of fishing boats by the Sri Lankan Government is causing a sense of anxiety and insecurity among the fishermen community of Tamil Nadu as a whole. During the Fishermen level talks, the Fishermen of Tamil Nadu have expressed that they are willing to diversify the trawling operations into deep sea fishing operations in a phased manner over a period of three years provided that the Government of India provides financial support for the same.

The shift from trawling to deep-sea fishing would mean that fishermen would be able to move out of Palk Bay and fish in the waters of the Bay of Bengal.

The fishing community in Tamil Nadu has welcomed the move. “We don’t really have another option if we want to avoid getting in trouble with Sri Lankan authorities,” said M Ilango, chairperson of the National Fisherfolk Forum and one of the fishing community leaders to propose the shift to deep-sea fishing.

But uncertainty remains about whether the fishing community will adapt to deep-sea fishing and if this will de-escalate tensions in Palk Bay.

Deep-sea fishing

Under the joint project of the Union and state governments, 500 large trawlers will be converted into deep-sea fishing vessels, with gills nets for tuna fishing in the Bay of Bengal, by 2018. By 2019, another 500 will be converted, and 1,000 more by 2020. A sum of Rs 80 lakhs will be spent on each boat – half of which will come from the Centre, 20% from the state, another 20% through institutional finance and 10% from the boat owner.

The Centre has already released Rs 200 crores for the conversion of 750 trawlers in the first phase. The state government will be contributing Rs 86 crores to the project, including a subsistence allowance of Rs 5,000 for each family for the last three months of construction.

“Only traditional/artisanal fishermen and their societies/associations/SHGs/FPOs are eligibile for the benefits under this component,” said a letter from the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries dated March 9.

The Palk Strait. (Credit: Google Maps)

G Ramakrishnan, leader of the fishing community in Pudukottai district, said his fellow fishermen were ready to start deep-sea fishing if they received the money. “Fishing is our livelihood, so we can adapt easily to deep-sea fishing if we need to,” he said. “Many of us from Pudukottai may move north to Karaikal for better access to the ocean.”

Trawling and its effects

The planned switch to deep-sea fishing comes over 60 years after the government introduced trawling technology along India’s coasts in 1954 in partnership with Norway. The heavy trawl nets, however, damaged the sea bed ecosystem by scooping up centuries-old corals, plants, turtles and marine mammals along with the targeted fish. They are banned in Sri Lanka.

“At that time, we were not aware that trawling was harmful to the environment,” said Ilango. “One cannot help but think the Norwegians purposely dumped the worst technology they had on us to damage our marine ecosystem.”

In the following decades, artisanal fishermen took to mechanising their boats and equipment. Since bottom trawling was lucrative in the short term, it was used extensively till the waters were overfished. “Today you can barely find any fish close to shore,” said Rahul Muralidharan, a PhD candidate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.

In the 1980s, fishermen from Ramanathapuram, Nagapattinam, Pudukottai, Tanjavur and Thiruvarur districts in Tamil Nadu and Karaikal in Pondicherry started moving further into Sri Lankan waters. “The area is very easy to fish in since the water is only 10 meters deep in the bay,” said Muralidharan.

This coincided with the start of the civil war in Sri Lanka, between the government and the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demanding a separate state in the country’s north. As the conflict grew more violent, thousands of people were killed and the livelihoods of artisanal fishing communities were disrupted for years. However, the trawling of Palk Bay by Tamil fishermen continued uncontested till 2009, when the war ended.

According to Ilango, while fisherfolk in Sri Lanka’s south used technology “way more advanced than what we use”, their counterparts in the north still took out their wooden catamarans and gill nets to sea. And it was when they realised the difficulty of fishing in the heavily trawled waters that tensions with Indian fishermen started. According to reports, Indian fishermen stole their nets and equipment. Several altercations between Sri Lankan authorities and Tamil fishermen later, bilateral talks were held where Sri Lanka said it would not allow Indian trawlers in its waters.

“For many years, Tamil fishermen had argued that since they traditionally crossed the bay to fish, they would continue to do so,” said Ilango. “But my organisation and some others have been trying to convince the fisherfolk that we are only going to face more problems if we continue to stray into their territory. After meetings, they have agreed that deep-sea fishing in the Bay of Bengal is a conflict-free and lucrative option.”

Fishermen in Ramanathapuram. (Credit: Rahul Muralidharan)

Slow adaptation

Though the leaders of fishing communities in Tamil Nadu seem optimistic, there is scepticism among people who work closely with the community about whether this scheme will help resolve the Palk Bay conflict.

Roosevelt, a marine conservation activist in Rameshwaram, said fishermen in his area have not shown much interest in the deep-sea fishing project. This is because most fisherfolk here are adept at using the gill net while they will need to be trained in the commercial fishing technique of long line, which is used in the deep sea, he said.

Moreover, the industry, like any other, is profit-driven. “In deep-sea fishing, you have to be at sea for weeks or even months, only then you can break even,” he said. “Currently, people using mechanised boats come back from sea in two or three days. Things will take a long time to change. People will naturally want to go to the nearest point to catch fish.”

S Vaidyanathan, a researcher at the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning, meanwhile, pointed out that since the government order made no mention of regulation of the boats, it was unclear how it would solve the problem of fishing in Sri Lankan waters. “Everybody is fishing everywhere, whether you are a small fisherman or a trawler,” he said. “Nothing in the current policy framework says that only certain kinds of boats should fish in certain waters. We don’t know how this scheme is going to be regulated.”

Vaidyanathan also said that as each boat owner is required to put in Rs 8 lakhs to convert his trawler into a deep-sea fishing vessel, the scheme would only benefit the well off while smaller fishermen would be left out.

Depleting fish stock

The assistance provided by the government for deep-sea fishing is part of the Centre’s larger “Blue Revolution: Integrated Development and Management of Fisheries” scheme. Yet, the push for deep-sea fishing has led to concerns about depleting fish stocks.

In 2015, after the B Meenakumari committee – set up to review the deep-sea fishing policy and guidelines – in its report recommended allowing foreign vessels to fish in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (the marine zone over which a country has exclusive rights to explore and use its resources), fishing communities along the Bay of Bengal protested, saying this would deplete their catch.

This despite the fact that deep-sea fishing or tuna fishing has not yet been developed in India’s east coast. Tuna is a high-value commercial sea food. Since it is not a staple along the east coast and eaten only in parts of Kerala and Karnataka, most of the catch would be exported, earning foreign exchange.

However, concern remains with studies showing a drastic fall in fish stocks in oceans across the world. In the Bay of Bengal, there is still plenty of catch in the deeper waters than in the waters closer to the shore. But the deep sea is also characterised by slow-growing organisms, which, once fished, may take a long time to recover their stocks. As Senthil Babu of the People’s Coastal Rights Movement put it, “The deep sea is the last resort for fishing.”

Trawlers out at sea in Rameshwaram. (Credit: Rahul Muralidharan)