The annual fishing ban in Tamil Nadu’s coastal waters is approaching. Every year, the authorities prohibit fishing for a period of 45 days to give ocean resources an opportunity to replenish. A fishing method known as mechanised bottom trawling is among practices banned during this period. It is a practice that has earned itself notoriety and is at the centre of the current fisheries dispute between India and Sri Lanka. This article delves into the dispute and explains why policymakers in both countries must act fast to permanently prohibit bottom trawling in the region.

The bottom line of bottom trawling

Bottom trawling is designed to catch large quantities of marine life by dragging weighted nets along the ocean floor. It is a destructive and unsustainable practice. According to the World Wildlife Fund, bottom trawling “irreversibly destroys” marine habitats. Fragile ecosystems containing endangered marine species and rare coral reefs are destroyed in minutes. Moreover, according to the Marine Conservation Institute, bottom trawling is wasteful; trawlers usually throw overboard a staggering 90 per cent of catch. For these reasons, in 2013, Chile became the first nation to permanently protect its seamounts from bottom trawling. Countries including Indonesia, New Zealand, Belize and the United States have imposed limited trawling bans. Similarly, Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala impose annual fishing bans to mitigate the devastating effects of the practice.

Sri Lankan policymakers are considering a ban on bottom trawling. On April 21, 2015, Tamil National Alliance Member of Parliament M A Sumanthiran proposed a legislative amendment to totally ban the practice. Parliament was dissolved in August 2015, so the Bill was not considered. Yet the Bill is back on the agenda this year. If successful, this amendment will be a historic step in the right direction; it will be the first time a South Asian state takes a permanent stand against bottom trawling.

More than just fishing trespasses

The dispute over Indian fishing vessels entering Sri Lankan waters is often characterised as ‘trespassing’. Over a thousand Indian vessels are documented fishing just off the Sri Lankan coast each week. Sri Lankan fishermen complain that these vessels seriously disrupt their livelihoods. The crisis has led to the arrest of Indian fishermen and prompted diplomatic negotiations over their release.

In response to these complaints, Indian boat owners maintain they have traditional fishing rights in Sri Lankan waters. Tamil Nadu boat owners have met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on a number of occasions to demand ‘uninterrupted fishing rights in Sri Lankan waters’. Traditional Indian fishermen may have a moral claim to fish in Sri Lankan waters based on decades of practice and mutual cooperation between the two fishing communities. But traditional fishing has very little to do with the current dispute, as the Indian vessels are mechanised bottom trawlers. The Minister, in fact, pointed to this distinction when she once advised boat owners to take up deep-sea fishing instead of trawling in Lankan waters.

Meanwhile, the past five years have seen a curious increase in the number of Sri Lankan-owned bottom trawlers. Bottom trawling is still technically legal in Sri Lanka. Although fishing licences are rarely granted for the practice, it is clearly permitted under the Regulations issued in 1996 under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act. Therefore, repelling Indian trawlers is an opportunity Sri Lankan trawler owners have been waiting for. Hence, vested interests now promote the idea of merely regulating foreign vessels rather than prohibiting the practice.

Neither mine nor yours, but ours

When grappling with the issue of bottom trawling, the interests at stake are greater than a border dispute. The problem is not about ‘who’ is trawling but ‘what’ is trawling. Trawling irreversibly destroys our collective ocean resources. Like their human counterparts, fish do not confine themselves to international maritime boundaries. Depleting the population on one side of the boundary is likely to have a devastating impact on the entire region. Therefore, bottom trawling will eventually result in a critical shortage of ocean resources in the Palk Strait. Policymakers in Sri Lanka are beginning to understand the gravity of the problem; they have come to realise that merely preventing Indian vessels from entering Sri Lankan waters will not solve it. A total ban is the only solution. For this reason, Sri Lankan legislation that bans bottom trawling needs to apply to all vessels fishing in Sri Lankan waters.

Both India and Sri Lanka have rich histories of prioritising the environment when it matters. Indian courts have delivered pioneering judgments on environmental standards. Sri Lanka recently kept a multimillion-dollar Chinese-funded project to build a ‘Port City’ on hold until a proper environmental assessment was completed. The two countries must now heed their environmental consciences and deliver a permanent solution to the bottom trawling issue.

(Gehan Gunatilleke is an attorney-at-law and the Research Director at Verité Research, an independent think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The views expressed here are personal.)