Sri Lanka fighting IUU violations by Indian trawlers

Recently cleared of its own allegations of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, Sri Lanka now finds itself fighting a battle against thousands of Indian trawlers from the Tamil Nadu state of India, which allegedly commit IUU fishing violations in Sri Lankan waters with regularity and impunity.

A 2015 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nation’s Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission lists the Sri Lankan territorial waters in and around the Palk Strait (which separates northern Sri Lanka from southern India) as the fifth-largest IUU hotspot in Asia, ranked by both total catch and value. According to the FAO, the Sri Lankan Navy, satellite images and extensive reporting on the issue, thousands of trawlers from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu cross the straight regularly, using damaging methods such as bottom trawling to fish for shrimp and crab, without any established rights to the fishery or permission from the Sri Lankan government.

In response, Sri Lankan government officials, seafood business owners and local fishers have initiated a concerted campaign to raise awareness of the issue, with the hope of eventually curbing IUU fishing that is estimated to cost Sri Lanka as much as USD 42 million (EUR 38 million) annually.

“It’s extremely damaging, with an outsized impact on the poor fishing communities of northern Sri Lanka,” said Timothy O’Reilly, managing director and owner of Taprobane Seafood Group, a crab processing company with substantial operations in the area. “It’s costing local fishermen hundreds of millions of dollars in potential earnings. Besides having fewer crab and fish to catch, many locals can’t even go fishing anymore because they don’t want to risk all their gear to a trawler that will rip it apart.”

The issue began soon after Sri Lanka’s long civil war ended in 2009, O’Reilly said. With the end of hostilities, a fishery that had been off-limits for decades was suddenly declared open by the national government. The fertile fishery was a tempting target for the large, state-subsidized fleet of Tamil Nadu, located in the southeast of India directly across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka. For years, as many as 1,000 to 1,500 Tamil Nadu trawlers have made the 18- to 60-kilometer voyage across the strait to fish in Sri Lankan waters, doing so en masse three times per week, according to satellite imagery captured by the Sri Lankan Navy. The navy reports more than 282,000 trespasses of Indian trawlers since 2009 – approximately 40,400 every year.

Making the situation worse, O’Reilly said, is that those Indian trawlers then bring the fish and shellfish they catch in Sri Lankan waters back to India, where they are processed and labeled as products of India.

“If you’re buying seafood products from India, it’s possible they are actually sourced in Sri Lanka, caught not using traditional fishing techniques, but rather with mechanized, high-tech trawlers on a massive scale,” O’Reilly said. “That’s fraud.”

In recent years, as the problem has worsened, the Sri Lankan government has taken more aggressive measures to halt the IUU fishing, making arrests and confiscating boats. It recently changed its policy from allowing owners to pay a fine to repatriate vessels involved in IUU fishing to confiscating them, and it currently has more than 119 such boats in its custody, according to a recent article in Sri Lanka’s The Times newspaper. The country’s navy has also arrested thousands of Tamil Nadu fishermen caught fishing illegally, but no Indian fishermen have ever been prosecuted, as the country instead sends them back to India after a short detention, sometimes trading them for Sri Lankan fishermen who themselves have been caught fishing illegally in Indian waters.

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