Indo-Lanka fishing dispute and quest for sustainable solution – ICSF (2024)

The maritime dispute between India and Sri Lanka over illegal fishing by Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters in the Palk Bay, the Gulf of Mannar, and the Palk Strait has reached a critical juncture. Recent incidents of Sri Lankan authorities detaining Indian fishermen for allegedly crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) have reignited longstanding tensions. This article will attempt to delve into the heart of the conflict simmering for many decades, explore the environmental and socio-economic impacts, and highlight the need for an urgent resolution that respects the livelihoods and traditions of Sri Lankan fishing communities in the northern, north-western, and north-eastern parts of the island while ensuring marine conservation.

The core of the conflict

At the centre of the dispute is the narrow, biodiverse-rich Palk Bay separating India and Sri Lanka. Despite the demarcation of maritime boundaries in the 1970s after protracted negotiation, Tamil Nadu fishermen have continued their illegal excursions into the Sri Lankan waters of the Palk Bay, the Gulf of Mannar, and the Palk Strait, leading to clashes with local fishermen. The latter accuse their Indian counterparts of employing bottom trawling, a practice prohibited by law in Sri Lanka and a destructive technique that ravages the marine ecosystem and depletes fish stocks.

They do so, claiming traditional rights enjoyed by their forefathers, ignoring that the bilateral agreements of 1974 and 1976 conclusively decided on the dividing line between the two countries. In this process, they also ignored that Sri Lankan fishermen withdrew from their traditional fishing grounds in the Wadge Bank located south of Kanyakumari and the northern part of the Pedro Bank in the Palk Bay, which came under the Indian jurisdiction following the two agreements.

Voices from the ground

Fishermen from districts and areas including Mannar-Pesalai, Jaffna-Gurunagar, Chilaw, and Kalpitiya have shared their longstanding distress over the environmental and socio-economic ramifications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing by Indian fishermen. The advanced equipment used and practices employed by Indian fishermen, such as bottom trawling, pose a significant threat to marine life and the livelihoods of local communities. The situation is further exacerbated by perceived inaction by the local authorities, leading to a palpable sense of abandonment among Sri Lankan fishermen.

The narratives of local communities reveal a multitude of issues: technological disparities deployed by Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen, with the latter’s advanced equipment and practices like bottom trawling causing significant harm to the sea-bed, corals, breeding grounds, and marine life; ineffective response to the issue by the state leading to frequent encroachments by Indian fishermen; accusations against the Sri Lankan Navy for treating alleged intruders with kid-gloves instead of safeguarding national interests; and the economic strain and desperation faced by the local fishing communities, who are warned by the Indian counterparts not to venture into the sea three days a week when they encroach Sri Lankan waters, as Sri Lankan fishermen struggle with damaged fishing nets and gear and diminished catches due to the continuous encroachment and engaging in environmentally harmful practices by foreign fishermen.

The Kachchatheevu Island controversy

Kachchatheevu Island, a small, uninhabited piece of land nestled between Rameswaram (India) and Delft Island (Sri Lanka) in the waters of the Palk Bay, stands as a symbol of the intricate and enduring maritime dispute between India and Sri Lanka. The waters around the islet, historically utilised by fishermen from both countries for fishing and drying nets, have become a focal point of contention and a litmus test for the bilateral relations between these neighboring countries.

The controversy surrounding Kachchatheevu Island traces its roots back to the early 20th century when questions of sovereignty began to surface while the two countries were still under colonial rule. In a significant diplomatic move in 1974, after long-drawn-out negotiations, India formally recognised Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island through a bilateral agreement. This recognition was aimed at quelling emerging disputes and delineating fishing rights in the waters surrounding the island. The 1976 Agreement sought to solidify these arrangements by explicitly addressing the fishing rights issues, allowing conditional access to fishermen from both countries.

The two bilateral agreements of the 1970s have not eased the Indo-Lanka fisheries dispute, with Tamil Nadu fishermen asserting traditional fishing rights across the IMBL and engaging in fishing on the Sri Lankan side. Meanwhile, abiding by the two agreements, Sri Lankan fishermen refrained from venturing out to the Wadge Bank’ and the northern part of Pedro Bank. Compounding the dispute, Indian fishermen and Tamil Nadu politicians demanded the return of Kachchativu Island when Tamil Nadu trawlers were apprehended over a wide arc from Chilaw in the northwest to Mullaitivu in the east. The livelihoods of local fishermen in these waters are constantly being threatened by continuous incursions by Tamil Nadu fishermen and restrictions imposed by Sri Lankan authorities, who are fighting a losing battle against a steady flotilla of foreign trawlers.

Conversely, Sri Lanka’s marine conservation efforts, targeting preserving the marine environment and protecting fish stocks from destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling, have led to increased patrolling and detentions, albeit in small numbers of Indian fishermen venturing into Sri Lankan waters. This clash between the demand for “traditional” fishing rights by Indian fishermen and attempts at environmental conservation adds complexity to the dispute.

A call for collaboration

The resolution of the Indo-Lanka fishing dispute extends beyond bilateral negotiations, demanding a commitment to sustainable fishing, marine conservation, and adherence to international maritime boundaries. It calls for a multifaceted approach that includes dialogue, cooperation, and punitive action against owners of trawlers and their skippers.

The focus should be on embracing sustainable fishing practices to combat destructive methods like bottom trawling, which harm marine ecosystems, and prioritising conservation efforts to protect the biodiversity of Palk Bay and the surrounding areas. Additionally, respecting established maritime boundaries is crucial for managing and regulating fishing activities within each nation’s territorial waters, ensuring environmental protection and livelihood sustainability.

Moving forward, continuous dialogue and cooperation between India and Sri Lanka are essential to find an urgent solution to the decades-long practice of illegal crossings of IMBL, fishing without licenses, and engaging in bottom trawling prohibited by laws in Sri Lanka. Since the Joint Working Group on Fisheries (JWG) has not succeeded in solving the issue, Sri Lanka should take up the matter at a high political level before it becomes an acute political problem for the administration.

Meanwhile, India should address the failure of the project launched in 2017 to remove 2,000 trawlers within three years to ease the pressure on the limited resources available in the Bay.

A comprehensive and collaborative approach promises to address the immediate dispute ensure the long-term preservation of the marine environment and sustain the communities reliant on it. Humane treatment of Indian fishermen, most of whom are daily wage earners, and existential issues confronting the Sri Lankan fishermen should not be overlooked in finding a lasting solution to the fisheries issue.

Indo-Lanka fishing dispute and quest for sustainable solution – ICSF (2024)


What is the fisherman issue between India and Sri Lanka? ›

The prolonged dispute over fishing rights around Kachchatheevu Island in Palk Bay has been a source of tension between India and Sri Lanka for many years. The recent protests by Sri Lankan fishermen from Jaffna, Mullaitivu, and Mannar districts against Indian fishermen are indicative of the severity of the issue.

What are the illegal fishing methods in Sri Lanka? ›

Push net, moxy net, monofilament net, gill net and trammel net on coral reefs have been pronounced as illegal fishing methods in Sri Lanka.

What are the traditional fishing crafts in Sri Lanka? ›

The Sri Lankan fishing fleet includes both indigenous and introduced crafts. For instance, outrigger canoes, log-rafts, beach-seine crafts and planked crafts are some of the most commonly used indigenous crafts in Sri Lanka.

What is the traditional fishing in Sri Lanka? ›

Stilt fishing – a traditional and ancient fishing practice in fervent use along the south coast of Sri Lanka, a technique that is popular in areas of Koggala, Weligama, Dikwella, Galle and Tangalle to name a few. In local language of Sinhala, stilt fishing is known as 'Ritipanna.

What is the cause of conflict between India and Sri Lanka? ›

The unrestrained use of trawling began to deplete the fish supply and in the 1970s, Indian fishermen crossed an unguarded maritime border into Sri Lankan waters to meet the international demand. Now the Sri Lankan Navy is retaliating with force, making the relationship between the two communities tense.

What are the main issues facing fisheries management in Sri Lanka? ›

Challenges facing Sri Lanka's fisheries sector

Traditional reliance on the ocean for sustenance is under threat due to increased competition and destructive practices, such as dynamite fishing. The struggle is not only economic but also environmental, as local ecosystems face risks from external pressures.

Why is illegal fishing bad for the environment? ›

It also impacts the whole ocean ecosystem by removing key species and by using destructive, forbidden practices. It often targets, or takes as bycatch, threatened species such as sharks, seabirds, or sea turtles. Illegal fishing likely impacts you in some way with its wide-ranging economic and social costs.

Why do they fish on stilts in Sri Lanka? ›

Like most traditions, stilt fishing in Sri Lanka was born out of necessity. With the influx of British troops during World War II, the demand for food and subsequent overfishing forced many Sri Lankan fishermen out of their conventional, long-established fishing spots and demanded them to rethink their strategy.

What fish are caught in Sri Lanka? ›

With shores of large fish species including Giant Trevally GT, Dogtooth Tuna, Marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, Spanish mackerel and Wahoo living in multitudes in the Sri Lankan continental shelf and beyond, the country is a natural hunting ground for sea anglers around the world.

What is the most popular fish in Sri Lanka? ›

Locally known as Kelavalla, yellowfin tuna is one of the most popular fish in Sri Lanka, and it's among the larger tuna species found in the Indian Ocean.

What is the name of fish therapy fish in Sri Lanka? ›

The fish is called the Garra rufa. It can eat dead human flesh, and nibble live human skin, yet without the person being bitten. And so now we have it in Sri Lanka too.

Can I fish in Sri Lanka? ›

Take an unforgettable fishing trip to Sri Lanka and enjoy fishing in the beautiful waters of the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is known for its rich fishing locations that offer unique opportunities for sport fishing and recreational fishing.

Do Sri Lankans eat a lot of fish? ›

As you'd expect from an island in the Indian Ocean, seafood plays an important role in Sri Lankan cuisine. Fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry) is one of the most beloved varieties of the many different fish curries available.

Which fish is national fish of Sri Lanka? ›

Ilish, Hilsha Fish.
Species:T. ilisha
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What is milk fish in Sri Lanka? ›

Milkfish (Chanos chanos ) fry and fingerlings are abundant in coastal and brackishwater areas in Sri Lanka, yet the industry remains in a stage of underdevelopment. The main seed collection centers are Mannar and Kalpitiya in the northwest and the season is from March to June.

What is the reason for Sri Lanka separated from India? ›

Wikipedia says Sri Lanka was geographically separated from India in 1480 after a cyclone destroyed Adam's Bridge. Many online resources (including esa and Wikipedia) point to “Rameshwaram Temple Records” that says Adams Bridge was submerged in the said fashion.

What are the problems with fishing in India? ›

Overfishing is a global problem and India has been struggling under its impact. Overfishing and IUU fishing by large-scale foreign vessels in and around India's EEZ has had particularly adverse impacts on India's fishers and coastal communities.

What lies between India and Sri Lanka? ›

The Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar separate India from Sri Lanka and thus both of them lie between India and Sri Lanka. The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay.

What is the point between India and Sri Lanka? ›

Palk Strait
Coordinates10°00′N 79°45′E
EtymologyRobert Palk
Part ofIndian Ocean
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