Poaching fisheries resources: quick action required


A large number of media reports, feature articles, and editorials have appeared during the last three to four years and continue to appear highlighting the issue of organized and large-scale poaching of shrimp and fish resources in the historic waters of Sri Lanka in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar by Indian fishers.

This high-handed activity has caused and continues to cause colossal losses to the economy of the country, heavy damages to the marine environment in the respective areas and immense inconvenience to the local fishers in the North. The annual loss to the economy due to poaching by Indian fishers has been estimated at over Rs. 6 billion. Indian trawlers also damage gillnets laid by local fishers by running over them. Scholtens, Bavinck and Sosai have reported in their article, Fishing in Dire Straits: Trans-Boundary Incursions in the Palk Bay (Economic & Political Weekly Vol. XLVII No. 25 of June 23, 2012) that due to gear destruction by Indian trawlers, the Karainager Fisheries Co-operative Society has suffered a loss of Rs. 2.898 million from 1 February 2010 to 1 April 2011, while Mathagal FCS has lost an amount of Rs. 6.459 million from 2 July 2009 to 16 October 2011.

This is only the loss suffered by two cooperative societies with 162 fishers during a period of less than 14 or 15 months. The total number of fishers resident in the Jaffna and Mannar districts amounts to over 22,000. What would have been the total loss suffered by them due to the destruction of their fishing gear by the Indian trawlers?

Although the problem is so severe, apart from the arrests of poachers made by the Sri Lanka Navy no other action appears to have been taken by the government to protect these valuable shrimp and fish resources, which are under threat of total destruction due to the uncontrolled poaching by Indian trawlers. They have already ruined the resources on the Indian side beyond revival and that is why they cross over to the Sri Lankan side. Similar thing happened in 1940s to Sri Lanka’s famous pearl fisheries in the in the Gulf of Mannar. Those fisheries which were in existence since the early Anuradhapura Period, totally collapsed due to over-exploitation by pearl fishing companies under license from the government of Sri Lanka over a period of over 10 years. If this poaching by Indian trawlers continues it will be the same fate before long for the shrimp fisheries and other fisheries of Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and in the Palk Bay.

Waters of the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, where poaching is mostly taking place have been declared as the historic waters of Sri Lanka by a Presidential proclamation made under the Maritime Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976 (Gazette Extraordinary 248/1 dated 15 January 1977). The same proclamation has also declared that the historic waters in the Palk Bay form part of the internal waters of Sri Lanka while the historic waters in the Gulf of Mannar form part of the territorial sea. These declarations have been acquiesced upon by other states without any dispute. Accordingly, the areas where Indian fishers encroach comprise part of the internal waters and the territorial sea of Sri Lanka. Further, these waters fall in the area of jurisdiction of the newly established Northern Provincial Council (NPC).

When the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) was established there was speculation that NPC, which represents the people of the North, could take action to address this problem. What official action can NPC take to control this poaching problem? The Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution (1987), which provided for the establishment of Provincial Councils, has placed the subject of fisheries, other than fishing beyond territorial waters, i.e. fishing in territorial waters and internal waters, in List III or the Concurrent List. Fisheries in other maritime zones, i.e. the Exclusive Economic Zone and high seas, come under the List II or the Reserved List. Accordingly, any Provincial Council can exercise authority in respect of fishing in territorial waters and internal waters falling in its area of jurisdiction by making a statute for the purpose. Such a statute has to be made in consultation with Parliament. If such a statute is made, then, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act will become inoperative in that province and then only the Provincial Council will have the statutory power of governance of fisheries in internal waters and territorial waters in the particular province.

However, for some reason or other not a single Provincial Council has made such a statute and taken over the responsibility of governing fisheries. Therefore, at present, it is only the central government that governs fisheries in all parts of the Sri Lanka waters, i.e. the internal waters, territorial waters, Exclusive Economic Zone, and with the recent amendment made to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act, No. 2 of 1996, in high seas in respect of fishing by local fishing vessels.

If as provided in the 13th Amendment to the constitution, NPC makes a statute in respect of fisheries with agreement from Parliament and takes over the subject of governance of fisheries in the Northern Province, then it will be its responsibility to take action against illegal fishing by Indian fishers in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar and other parts of the territorial waters around the Northern Province. However, NPC will not have authority to negotiate with the government of India and come into any agreement in regard to fishing by Indian fishers as such activities come under the subject of Foreign Affairs, which is listed in the Reserved List or List II.

Even to take action against poaching by Indian fishers, NPC will need an efficient vessel monitoring and surveillance system (VMS) that includes a cadre of authorized officers, trained manpower, monitoring and surveillance vessels, communication facilities, etc. Further, they will need the assistance from the Sri Lanka Navy, the Sri Lanka Coast Guard or Sri Lanka Police to arrest the violators and prosecute them. In this context it will not be practical for NPC to take over the subject of fisheries and address the issue of poaching by Indian fishers.

What is practical for NPC is to raise this issue in its council meetings and other appropriate forums highlighting the difficulties faced by fishers in the Northern Province owing to poaching by Indian fishers. MPs who are supposed to represent people in the Northern Province in Parliament, are not much heard raising this issue in Parliament or any other forum.

Quick action is required to control this problem. Delayed action is worse than no action as it only results in wastage of funds.

A. Hettiarachchi


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