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9th August 1998

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SAARC: trouble in fishing waters

By Steve Creech

As you sit reading this article there are more than fifty Sri Lankan fishermen imprisoned in Indian jails. Another fifteen are being held in the Maldives. Two Indian fishermen have been sitting on remand in Mirihana Detention Camp for the last three months. In Pakistan, more than 150 Indian fishermen are being detained, whilst 100 or so Pakistani fishermen await to be released from Indian prisons. All these fishermen have two things in common. They have been jailed in connection with illegal fishing and they are in the custody of a neighbouring SAARC state.

It is a problem that is be- coming increasingly common in South Asia. It affects all SAARC member states except Nepal and Bhuthan and its solution could lie in 'regional co-operation'. Just the kind of thing that SAARC was originally set up for. The problem is illegal fishing.

Let's take 'illegal fishing' first. South Asian fishermen fished as they had done for generations-more or less where they liked - until the mid 1970s, when a spate of bilateral and international maritime agreements put an end to the notion of freedom of the seas. The territorial jurisdiction of the State now extends for up to 200 nautical miles, its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A neat trick that effectively privatised previously global oil, mineral and marine resources.

The cartographers ruled with their compasses and pencils, in areas where the 200 nautical mile (nm) limits overlapped. As effortlessly as Moses, they neatly bisected the disputed seas; the Gulf of Kutch, the Bay of Bengal, Palk Strait and the Southwestern Arabian Sea. On paper everyone was happy and Heads of State signed agreements such as that between Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi on the Palk Strait in 1974.

For fishermen though, the situation was less than ideal. Some found that their traditional grounds had become part of another country. A number of the newly demarcated boundaries were disputed, such as is the case for Kachchativu off the coast of Mannar. Another problem also swiftly arose. Away from the conference tables and map rooms, the new borders were unmarked, invisible. Twenty years ago the full implications of these agreements were not so clear.

Declining fish populations and improving technology combined with invisible, disputed and adjacent maritime borders have created a situation wherein the arrest of SAARC fishermen by other SAARC countries is likely only to increase. So what can SAARC countries do?

A coalition of Sri Lankan NGOs, who have successfuly released Sri Lankan fishermen from India and Indian fishermen from Sri Lanka, has come up with an eight point plan (see box), to overcome the problems created by SAARC fishermen fishing illegally.

The basis of this plan is dialogue, with the designation of a senior staff member from the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development as a National Coordinator for arrested fishermen. He or she will have immediate access to other Ministries and be able to liaise directly with foreign counterparts. One of the key reasons why foreign fishermen and especially Sri Lankan fishermen can spend up to a year or more in a jail is because of poor communication. At the moment it is Indian NGOs who currently provide up to date information on the cases and welfare of Sri Lankan fishermen being held in India!

Dialogue is one thing, action is another. The coalition is urging the Sri Lankan Government to make a commitment to repatriate arrested fishermen as quickly as possible.

The Coalition's argument is not to permit SAARC fishermen to fish where they please, but to ensure that when laws are broken the retribution taken is just, cases are expedited swiftly and that Governments keep fishermen's families informed. Tackling consequences without addressing causes is a recipe for more of the same. From a Sri Lankan perspective this means looking at the causes behind the arrest of Sri Lankan fishermen in the Seychelles, the Maldives and in India.

Likewise what the reasons why Tamil Nadu fishermen regularly spend time in Mirihana Detention Camp needs to be understood. Both are linked to marine resource management (or the lack of it) and to poor policies for the development of National or State fisheries. In the case of Sri Lanka's deep sea fishing fleet, which now numbers more than 1,800 boats, the push for more boats has come as a result of dwindling coastal fish stocks. This in itself is the result of too many boats using sophisticated fishing gear.

The Government, in its attempt to take the pressure off inshore fish resources, is still encouraging deep sea fishing, even though the fishing fleet has already outgrown the resource base and deep sea fish stocks, within Sri Lanka's EEZ, are now in danger of also being over fished.

Deep sea boats are left with little choice but to go beyond 200 nm, often into neighbouring Maldivian or Indian territorial waters, in search of fish. The Ministry needs to come up with a policy for both near-shore and deep-sea fisheries, where boats and technology are commensurate with fish resources. A first step would be limiting the size of Sri Lanka's deep sea fishing fleet, however politically unpalatable this may be.

Which is where SAARC should step in. Regional cooperation on the issue of fishing and arrested fishermen is the key to unlocking these predominantly bilateral issues. Not by taking them apart one by one, but by building a regional consensus on the common causes of the disputes.

Maritime SAARC countries should agree to promote national fisheries policies that would decrease the likelihood of their fishermen fishing in a neighbouring SAARC country's waters. In Sri Lanka, a commitment to decrease the deep sea fishing fleet would be an obvious first step. Concomitantly, a network of National Coordinators could monitor the progress of each SAARC member state and liaise with each other to resolve increasingly infrequent transgressions.

The Eight Point Plan

    1. The designation of National Co-ordinators for arrested fishermen.

    2. Mutually agreed channels of communication between maritime SAARC countries on the issue of arrested fishermen.

    3. Commitment from maritime SAARC member countries to handle the cases of arrested fishermen from neighbouring States in a humanitarian manner.

    4. Examination of ways to mitigate the magnitude of the problem in Palk Bay.

    5. Appropriate policy initiatives to ensure the capacity in Sri Lanka's deep-sea fisheries sector is congruent with the sustainable exploitation of Sri Lanka's marine resources.

    6. Amendments to the Government's Fisheries Act requiring all boats over 24ft to be fully insured.

    7. An interim fund to provide relief payments to the families of Sri Lankan fishermen arrested and imprisoned overseas.

    8. A request to the Sri Lankan Security Forces to discharge their duties in a humanitarian manner, using the minimum of force.

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