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Business Last Updated: Jun 18, 2017 - 9:51:48 AM


Asia Is Trawling for a Deadly Fishing War
By Jenny Gustafsson, FP June 16, 2017
Jun 17, 2017 - 11:20:05 AM

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THALVUPADU, Sri Lanka — Stanley Cruz, a fisher in this beachside village on the island of Mannar off Sri Lanka’s northwestern coast, stands with his bare feet in the sand, holding up a green net between his hands.

“This is the kind of net, you see. Last week, we lost many hundreds of these. Twelve of us fishers, when we went out to get them in the morning they were gone,” he says.

He points toward the waters behind him: the Palk Strait, a narrow body of water separating Sri Lanka from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Cruz was out the night before, laying his nets in the sea, just like thousands of other fishers from both sides of the strait. But when he went to get them in the morning, they were gone.

“It keeps happening over and over,” says Mary Subramali, an elderly woman who cleans and sorts the incoming fish. “The trawlers come to take our fish and cut our nets, destroying them with their propellers. My son just lost his for the second time.”

She picks up a cold, slippery fish from a basket and severs its head and fins with ease. For her and others on the northern coast of Sri Lanka, losing nets has become a familiar story. Over 30,000 people from the minority Tamil community in Thalvupadu work as fishers, mainly on a small-scale, mostly earning less than $2,500 per year, about two-thirds of the islands’ average. Nets in these coastal societies are precious investments — even a small one costs $23, and the village has lost nearly 1,000 of them.

Their Indian counterparts on the other side are also ethnically Tamil, but a shared heritage has come to mean little on an increasingly cutthroat ocean. The severed nets are at the center of a fierce dispute over the intrusion of Tamil Nadu bottom trawlers, which regularly come to catch their fish in Sri Lankan waters. It’s one of many conflicts playing out across the Indian and Pacific oceans over increasingly thin fishing grounds — clashes that are destroying the livelihoods of the poor and threatening to escalate into an even wider and more destructive form.

In the past, the calm and shallow Palk Strait waters had more than enough fish to sustain communities on both sides. Its maritime landscape, with numerous lagoons and small islets, make for excellent breeding waters; over 600 marine species can be found near its coasts. But excessive trawling on the Indian side, starting in the 1960s, severely depleted its waters and pushed boats to navigate deeper into Sri Lankan waters.

Trawlers began crossing in the 1980s, at the same time that Sri Lanka descended into a destructive civil war between the government and the militant Tamil Tigers, who fought for independence in the country’s north. But the fisheries conflict only heated up in 2009, after the Sri Lankan civil war was brought to a painful end — with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, but also the killing of tens of thousands of civilians. Fishers, who during the war had faced army restrictions, long periods of displacement, losses of family members, and the destruction of their homes and boats, were finally able to return to the sea.

“But the waters were not like before,” says A.S. Soosai, professor of geography at the University of Jaffna. “Fishers were trying to recover, but catches and earnings were nowhere near what they used to be. The main reason for that is the trawlers.”

When scientists describe the destructiveness of bottom trawling, the practice is often likened to “bulldozing the sea.” The nets, so finely meshed that they bring in by-catches several times the fish they strive to haul in, severely damage marine life and cause irreparable to the bottom of the sea. Ironically, this technique was introduced in India as a way to improve life for coastal fishers, through a Norwegian government aid program in the 1960s.

“Fishermen were told that trawling was a new and modern technology and those resisting it were resisting change,” says Johny Stephen, a fisheries researcher with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Hyderabad.

But the “blue revolution” promised by trawling soon turned out to marginalize small-scale fishers, who use traditional methods like gillnetting, where fish are caught in nets laid out vertically in the water. Soon after trawling was brought to India, small-scale fishers decreased by 50 to 75 percent in areas where the method had been introduced.

The coming of trawlers, combined with other intensive fishing methods, has left stocks depleted worldwide. Far from the Palk Strait, similar scenarios are played out in many of the world’s other waters, with 85 percent of global fisheries in full or near depletion. Amid growing global demand for food, access to the remaining marine resources has become increasingly contested, with small-scale fishers increasingly unable to compete against foreign, often illegal, boats in their waters.

The South China Sea, one of the most important fishing zones in the world, accounting for 12 percent of global catch, has been a particularly volatile region. China’s fishing fleet — the largest in the world — is navigating far beyond its heavily overfished maritime territory. Desperate to make a living, fishers are pushing into the most dangerous waters, including North Korea, where Chinese fishers are regularly seized by the authorities and held for ransom.

In 2015, the country began constructing artificial islands, effectively extending its control in the surrounding waters. Indonesia, which has the largest archipelago in the region but until recently considered itself a nonparty to its maritime disputes, started a strategy of “shock therapy,” dynamiting foreign vessels in their waters. Vietnam and the Philippines have seized Chinese boats and arrested fishers. China, for its part, stopped a fishing boat crossing over from the Philippines last year. A 2013 clash between Taiwanese fishers and the Philippine coast guard left one man dead and diplomatic relations frozen. In 2014, Australia destroyed Vietnamese clam fishing boats after Palau did the same in 2013.

Conflicts over fisheries are a new global phenomenon, and the result of a radical reorganization of the world’s oceans. In the mid-20th century, a number of countries moved to extend their territories into the sea, effectively putting an end to mare liberum, the prevailing idea that seas are free and open to all. U.N. legislation established Exclusive Economic Zones in 1982, granting preferential rights to waters within 200 nautical miles from each country’s shores. Since then, access to fishing waters has become a matter of national interest and, increasingly, a potential source of conflict.

The Palk Strait neighbors share many common cultural ties, but also a recent history of strained relations. The small-scale disputes over nets and waters are threatening to build into a dispute that could wreck relations between India and the island.

A. Kamalini, a fisher in the town of Point Pedro on the northern coast, packs sun dried cuttlefish to be transported to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. Sri Lanka is one of few countries in the world getting more than 50% of its protein intake from fish.

The coming of trawlers, combined with other intensive fishing methods, has left stocks depleted worldwide. Far from the Palk Strait, similar scenarios are played out in many of the world’s other waters, with 85 percent of global fisheries in full or near depletion. Amid growing global demand for food, access to the remaining marine resources has become increasingly contested, with small-scale fishers increasingly unable to compete against foreign, often illegal, boats in their waters.

The South China Sea, one of the most important fishing zones in the world, accounting for 12 percent of global catch, has been a particularly volatile region. China’s fishing fleet – the largest in the world – is navigating far beyond its own, heavily overfished, maritime territory. Desperate to make a living, fishers are pushing into the most dangerous waters – like North Korea, where Chinese fishers are regularly seized and held for ransom by the authorities.

In 2015, the country began constructing artificial islands, effectively extending its control in the surrounding waters. Indonesia, which has the largest archipelago in the region but until recently considered itself a non-party to its maritime disputes, started a strategy of “shock therapy”, dynamiting foreign vessels in their waters. Vietnam and the Philippines have seized and arrested Chinese boats and fishers; China, for its part, stopped a fishing boat crossing over from the Philippines last year. A 2013 clash between Taiwanese fishers and the Philippine coastguard left one man dead and diplomatic relations frozen. In 2014, Australia destroyed Vietnamese clam fishing boats, after Palau did the same in 2013.

Conflicts over fisheries are a new global phenomenon, and the result of a radical reorganization of the world’s oceans. In the mid-20th century, a number of countries moved to extend their territories into the sea, effectively putting an end to  ‘mare liberum,’ the prevailing idea that seas were free and open to all. UN legislation formally established Exclusive Economic Zones in 1982, granting exclusive rights to waters within 200 nautical miles from each country’s shores. Since then, access to fishing waters has become a matter of national interests and, increasingly, a potential source of conflict.

The Palk Strait neighbors share many common cultural ties, but also a recent history of strained and uneasy relations. The small-scale disputes over nets and waters are threatening to build into a dispute that could wreck relations between India and the island.

For Sri Lankan Tamils, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has always been an important political ally. Over 100,000 refugees — many of them fishers — fled to Tamil Nadu during the civil war, and 65,000 still live in refugee camps across the state. Subramali’s family stayed in India for three years in the 1990s; Cruz celebrated his marriage and the birth of his first child in one of the camps.

“We fled with our fishing boats when fighting was bad,” Subramali says. “Crossing the sea was the only way to be safe.”

Niyanthini Kadirgamar, a researcher who has worked with northern fisher communities, says Sri Lankan Tamils have always looked upon Indian Tamils as their siblings. Shared linguistic and cultural bonds create a strong sense of belonging.

“When fishers speak about each other, they often use the Tamil expression ‘to be connected via an umbilical cord,’ meaning the closest you can be to someone,” she says.

Historically, the waters between them had been shared in relative harmony. There were occasional disputes, but fish were so plentiful that there was always another place where boats could navigate.

“At that time, people would cross over for the day to watch the latest movie or buy things you couldn’t find in Sri Lanka,” says Daya Somasundaram, a well-known Tamil psychiatrist in northern Sri Lanka. “They used to say that if you get on a boat and light a cigarette, you’re in India before it’s out.”

But the divide has widened. Starting in 2002, a series of civil society-initiated negotiations brought fishers together to discuss solutions to the dispute over access to the waters. However, they were interrupted — first by the 2004 tsunami that devastated the island nation, then by intensified Sri Lankan fighting — and offered little in terms of real change. Relations worsened, and in 2011, Sri Lankan fishers captured 25 Tamil Nadu trawlers and their crew, totaling over 100 people — eventually releasing them after a short period of captivity. Officially, Sri Lanka changed to a more interventionist policy. In 2014, the navy began seizing Tamil Nadu vessels caught in their waters, and— who are mostly hired labor, not the ones benefiting from trawling — are regularly arrested. Over 100 boats are in military-controlled harbors in the north.

In March, a 22-year-old man from Tamil Nadu was shot dead while fishing in Sri Lankan waters. This was the first casualty since 2011, the last time fishers were killed in the bay. On both occasions, the Sri Lankan navy denied opening fire. Still, the incidents serve as a reminder of the deadliness of the waters during the war when Sri Lanka’s navy had a green light to shoot at boats. More than 200 Tamil Nadu fishers were killed at sea.

N. V. Subramaniyam, a fisheries leader from Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Local leaders from the fishing communities on both sides of the strait are part of ongoing negotiations to solving to the dispute, but a resolution has yet to come.

“Even when we have lost our fathers, brothers, and relatives, we still continue to fish in that region,” X. Chinnathambi, chairman of the All India Traditional Fishermen’s Association, told Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror, adding that fishers cross over because they “can’t find enough fish on the Indian side.”

Tamil Nadu has 4,500 registered trawlers, about half of which depend on fishing in Sri Lankan waters. They are mostly after prawns, in particular the Indian white prawn, which is found in abundance in the strait, but also cuttlefish and the lucrative sea cucumber, which is listed as an endangered species on the Indian side. Most of Tamil Nadu’s catch is for export to markets in the European Union, the United States, and Japan.

Attempts to rein in the trawlers have had little effect. But in November 2016, for the first time during the dispute, talks were held involving foreign minsters from both countries.

“To find a solution to the situation in the Palk Strait, bottom trawling has to be brought under control,” says Maarten Bavinck, a professor of coastal resources management at the University of Amsterdam. “And whatever way that will be done, it will hurt Indian fishers.”

During the talks, India, while not committing to taking any concrete steps, acknowledged that trawling is a damaging practice and stated its willingness to phase it out “in a graded, time-bound manner.”

“That’s all good, but we have heard such commitments before,” says Mohamed Alam, a fisher representative from Mannar who took part in the talks. “Yet trawlers keep coming to our waters. We know they are in a difficult situation, having destroyed the resources on that side. But we can’t allow them to do the same with our waters.”

Tamil Nadu asked for a three-year grace period, when trawlers would be allowed to fish in Sri Lankan waters for 83 days a year.

“But we told them we will not allow even two minutes. Our livelihoods went when the trawlers came,” says N.V. Subramaniyam, a fisher representative from Jaffna, the largest city in northern Sri Lanka.

For Tamil Nadu, capturing boats and fishers indicates bad faith on the part of their neighbors, particularly because they also see these waters as their “historical fishing grounds.” In the recent talks, Sri Lanka promised to release fishers and boats in its custody, but that promise, like India’s assurance to stop trawling, is yet to be fulfilled.

 

A small factory in Jaffna, the main town in northern Sri Lanka, manufacturing nets for fishing. About 1/5 of people in Sri Lanka’s north rely in some way on fishing for their survival.

When discussing the fisheries dispute, fishers in the Palk Strait often make clear the distinction between trawlers and other fishers.

“We don’t mind Indian fishers if they fish like us and don’t destroy the sea. The sea is large enough for both of us,” says R. Kumar, a fisher from Point Pedro, a fishing town on the northernmost coast of Sri Lanka.

He sits in a shaded area near the beach, repairing his nets in the company of two other men — work, they say, that needs to be done every other week. Small, wooden boats with colorful decorations lay waiting in the sand next to huts put up to provide fishers with protection from the sun and a place to rest between going out to lay and retrieve their nets. The distance to India is much longer from Point Pedro than from Mannar, where the nearest crossing is less than 10 miles. But trawlers come to these waters, and much farther, too.

“We are struggling, but what can we do?” says A. Kumalinin, also at the beach, where she is laying cuttlefish, a Sri Lankan specialty, to dry in the sun. “We get the fish that we get. At least my husband and I get by because we are two. Many women here are alone after the war, and for them it’s very hard.”

Tamil fishers from both sides of the Palk Strait are in a precarious and unsustainable situation. Tamil Nadu trawlers have grown dependent on their destructive fishing practices, which in the long term won’t let any more fish breed. Northern Sri Lankan fishers, who were left scarred and marginalized after the war, came out of the years of destruction only to see their livelihoods taken away again.

A lone boat in the Palk Strait, separating Sri Lanka from southern India. The waters, which are extremely bountiful fish, are the site of a divisive fisheries conflict between the two.

In some harbors in northern Sri Lanka, fishers have started to invest in trawling nets. A few hundred boats have been equipped with such equipment — these “play a kind of B role,” Bavinck says. They are smaller and fewer than those in Tamil Nadu and cause much less damage. In principle, trawling is banned in Sri Lanka, but legislation to outlaw the practice is pending.

“That is a really important step in order to solve the larger dispute, because it would show Tamil Nadu that Sri Lanka is serious in its pressure,” Bavinck says. Any increase in trawling by Sri Lankan boats would only speed up the depletion of the fragile fishery — worsening the conflict, pushing small-scale fishing communities even further toward losing their livelihoods, and leaving both sides to find fish in more contentious waters. In the Bay of Bengal, for example, scientists have detected a large “dead zone” where few creatures can survive.

Many northern fishers say that fewer trawlers have crossed over in recent months as a result of the ongoing negotiations. Sri Lanka is preparing to amend legislation from 1979, making it possible to impose high fines on trespassing boats. Alam, the fishers’ representative from Mannar, says such moves are good for the future. But when thinking about his family’s future, fishing is not on his mind.

“I want my children to study and get educated,” he says. “But who knows — maybe they will grow up and invent new fishing methods which are not destructive to the seas.”


Source:Ocnus.net 2017

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