March 12, 2017

FAQ on the Fishermen's issue of TamilNadu

1) What is the issue?

The Tamilnadu fishermen, mostly from the Rameswaram town of Ramanathapuram district have been in continuous threat of being arrested or being shot at(though this has reduced significantly) by the Srilankan Navy. This has become a serious issue and heightens strains between not just two friendly neighbours but also threatens livelihoods of millions on either side of being arrested for pursuing, what is essentially their job. Let us break this down and explore why this problem happened and whats the impact, what are the solutions.

Firstly, The Srilankan Navy and the Srilankan Tamil Fisherman, have been opposing the Indian Fishermen entering their waters for two distinct reasons:

Reason 1: Pre 2009, Indian fishing boats were extensively used for smuggling essential supplies to the Srilankan Armed Tamil Rebel forces, the LTTE. Supplies for bomb making to medicine to fuels were often intercepted by both Indian and the Srilankan Navy during that period. An intelligence estimate suggested that as many as 100 Indian boats were used for this purpose during that time (out of the total 80000 odd fishing boats that are licensed in Rameswaram.


Post-war, Srilankan route for smuggling narcotics has become popular and that is also another factor in the heightened vigil in the Srilankan waters (


Reason 2: The most contentious issue is the practice of bottom trawling and usage of bottom and pair trawling techniques generally by the Indian fishermen and their invasion of the water. Rameshwaram alone has an estimated 1000 trawlers that plunder the fishes, quite literally.

2) What is Trawling and what are trawlers?

Trawlers are specific kinds of boats, fixed with a pulley jacks and through ropes they can be attached with nets. They are called as "izhuvai padagugal" in Tamil.

What is bottom trawling?
Bottom trawling done by boats called trawlers, have a mechanized hydraulic pulley with endless rope with nets attached. These nets scrape through the ocean floor and there by get a huge yield of fishes that otherwise don't venture to the ocean surface.

What is pair trawling?
Take bottom trawling and attach the two ends of the net in two different boats! Now when these two boats, operate at a distance of say 100m maintaining speed, direction and distance through walkie-talkies, bottom trawling can happen for over 100 meters. The nets used for this type of fishing is called "Irattai madi" or seine nets.

Ecological impact
Needless to say, dragging techniques have a long standing impact on the oceanic environment.
The ocean surface that has rich marine lives gets scrapped out often and the food availability for fishes reduce, this leads to migration of fishes in search of food.
Since the palk-strait also has a rich coral reef structure, dragging literally kills the reefs.
Dragging invariably catches fishes of all size and shape, a fish that has a potential to grow to a foot long, can be caught when its barely a few inches. Sometimes, even the egg hatchment pods can also be destroyed because of dragging.

3) What are the rules that govern trawling?

Neither Srilanka nor India have so far banned trawling techniques. India has recently agreed to phase out bottom trawling and in Kerala, it has imposed a 61-day per year restriction on the trawling boats from venturing the seas, which the Kerala govt reduced to 47! Tamilnadu also has a two-month cooling season during the hatching season.

4) What should Indian or Srilankan Navy do when they catch Fisherman?

Indian Navy are patrolling the Indian waters, typically 12 nautical miles from the land. There after it is International waters which they CANNOT prohibit the fisherman from going to. The problem arises only if the Indian fisherman go near the Srilankan coast. Typically, they are announced that they have cross-over into their sovereign waters and they have to be arrested and the boat is led to the nearest port, like Thalaimannar, Kangesanthurai and produced before a court. There is a penal and punitive damage (of upto SL Rupees 15 crores) for such cases. Till the cases end, the fishermen are kept in jail. However, most fishermen and boats are let go on diplomatic goodwill.

5) Does Indian fisherman cross Indian waters?

The distance between Dhanshkodi, the tip of the Indian land mass, and the International maritime border is 8 nautical miles. The total width of palk-strait is between 60-100 kilometers. With over 1000 trawling boats in Rameswaram itself, it would be only wise to assume that the Indian boats cross the international waters and venture into the SL waters to get their catchment. Otherwise, it would become impossible for so many trawlers to operate in that region, with any amount of success.

6) Do boats have GPS system ? What stops fisherman from having it?

Trawler boats are very expensive and it is not the cost of the gadget that is going to have a bearing on the decision to buy a GPS device. It is very much possible that the Fishermen have access to GPS and in all likelihood they can have one. Indian government also, in 2013, embarked upon an initiative to fit GPS in all the Indian boats.


7)  Which district/Villagers and how many boats fish in this controversial area?

The most affected areas that are often caught crossing borders are the Nagappatinam, Karaikkal and Ramanathapuram district fishermen. An approximate of 1000 trawlers are known to be fishing in these districts alone, according to Swaminathan foundation.

8) What is 1976 agreement?

1976 agreement is declaration by India agreeing that Srilanka will hold ownership to the Kutchatheevu island which is more closer to India than Srilanka, the Maritime border near Kutchatheevu along the Indian side reduces to 7-8 kilometers.

9) What's the stand of Srilankan Fishermen?
Fishing was banned in Srilanka during the war until 2009. Srilankan fishermen had in fact come to India as refugees and they are employed in India. Those that stayed back have started fishing as a career. But they use traditional boats and use traditional fishing practice (though some of them have started buying trawlers)

10) What's happening with Joint Committee Meeting?

The Srilankan stand is very simple in that they are advocating for small fishermen to fish in territorial waters on either side. Their only contention is that the Indian fishermen stop using bottom and pair trawling. The join committee has in-fact made the Indian government agree to the fact that India must ban pair and bottom trawling in a time bound manner. Srilanka wanted it to happen sooner than later and Indian fishermen wants to current setup to continue for a few more years. In-fact the bone of contention shifts to Kutchatheevu only because if it falls under India, the maritime boundary will shift in India's advantage.

11) What are all the solutions?

Even if Kutchatheevu is brought under the Indian government, trawling is sure to kill the scant coral reefs that are already in danger naturally due to El-nino ( and climate change. The answer lies only in sustainable fishing. Fishing be restricted to certain tonnage per centre which is less than or equal to the rate of reproduction of fishes.
Deep sea fishing is also an option- However, over-exploitation risks will always be a ticking time-bomb.
Measures to increase the coral reefs such as artificial reefs, banning shrimp fishing near coral reefs(shrimps eat algae and keeps water fresh for corals to get sunlight) etc are some measures that fishing communities can be educated in.
Sea water pond fishing is also been contemplated as a solution and governments must begin researches and trails  into moving away from hunting for fish to harvesting of fishes.

Also read the summary and recommendations of the Madurai Kamaraj University based on extensive studies done by them:

Also refer to this elaborate study on the way forward: