During his latest visit to India in early May, President Maithripala Sirisena is reported to have discussed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the problem of frequent arrests of fishermen of both countries and seizures of their fishing vessels by the Sri Lankan and Indian authorities in the common sea area between the two countries. The issue is not new. The problem has been festering with political ramifications, particularly in Tamilnadu for a number of years. The situation with regard to fishing has gradually turned out to be adverse for Tamil fishermen from Sri Lanka’s northern province after the end of the Fourth Eelam War in 2009.
During the Eelam War, active patrolling by the Sri Lankan Navy and by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to interdict the movement of LTTE cadres also prevented Indian fishermen from Tamilnadu, and also to an extent from Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry, from undertaking fishing across the median line international boundary in the Palk Bay which had been firmed up by mutual agreement between India and Sri Lanka in 1974. But the fact of the matter is that post that conflict, Indian fishermen have extended their fishing activities to Sri Lankan territorial waters. This is owing to the gradual depletion of fishing resources in the Indian continental shelf, the relatively greater availability of fish on the Sri Lankan side, and the Sri Lankan fishermen from the northern province not being in a position to exploit the marine resources. Moreover, Sri Lankan fishermen did not have the means, for example, advanced fishing implements like gill nets, modern trawlers, etc. Indian fishermen have also been resorting to bottom trawling (banned as per international fishing regime), which is destructive of the layout of the sea-floor, and the natural habitat for fish breeding. In other words, opportunities induced Indian fishermen to venture into the sea domain of their Sri Lankan counterparts.