Colombo, January 2 (The New Indian Express): India and Sri Lanka registered “significant” progress in resolving the vexed fishing issue at the Fisheries Ministers-level talks here on Monday, the Sri Lankan Minister for Fisheries, Mahinda Amaraweera, told newspersons after the talks.
Agreement was reached on a wide range of issues when the Indian Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Radha Mohan Singh met with Amaraweera for over two hours at the Taj Samudra Hotel.
The talks “carried forward” the decisions taken at the first meeting of the Joint Working Group on Fisheries (JWGF) held in New Delhi on December 31.
As part of the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreed to by both sides, it was decided to intensify cooperation on patrolling of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and to institute periodic interactions between the Coast Guards of the two countries.
It was agreed to explore the possibility of introducing an effective tracking systems for the fishing vessels and making the use of onboard communication equipment mandatory.
Hotline numbers between the two coast guards were operationalized to facilitate speedy communications between them.
Release of Impounded Vessels
Both sides discussed the issue of releasing fishing vessels in each other’s custody. The Indian side requested the immediate release of Indian fishing vessels and the Sri Lankan side agreed to “consider” the request in view of the progress being made by the JWGF.
Immediate Release of Fishermen
Immediate release of the fishermen presently in custody was announced following the ministerial meeting.
Both sides agreed to a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to expedite the release and handing over of fishermen in each other’s custody on completion of respective legal and procedural formalities. It was agreed that fishermen who are apprehended are not physically harmed.
Curbing Bottom Trawling
The Sri Lankan side reiterated that the practice of bottom trawling needs to end at the earliest. The Indian side assured that bottom trawling would be phased out in a graded time-bound manner within a practicable timeframe keeping in mind the capacity building of the fishermen who have to be diversified into deep sea fishing as well as other coastal fisheries activities including mariculture, pearl farming and seaweed culture. The Indian delegation said that, so far, 91 bottom trawlers had been replaced by tuna long line vessels.
The Sri Lankan side was briefed about the measures already instituted including the decision to construct a new fishing harbour at Mookaiyur in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, and the capacity building program for Indian fishermen as regards deep sea fishing that commences tomorrow at Chennai and Kochi.
The next JWG meeting will be held in Colombo in April 2017 to review the progress made in addressing the fishermen issues in a comprehensive manner.
New Delhi Keen and EU’s Role
A Sri Lankan official who took part in the talks told Express that the Indian Central Government is very keen on solving the problem and that the Colombo meeting was “very satisfactory”.
The most important contributory factor for the progress in the talks was the European Union’s tough stand on illegal fishing. The EU bans import of fish from countries which allow illegal fishing and Sri Lanka had had to promise to draft suitable laws to get the EU ban on it lifted.
The EU stipulates stiff fines to curb illegal fishing. This would apply to intruding Tamil Nadu boats and trawlers as well.
Asked about the quantum of fine to be imposed, Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Amaraweera said that no decision on that has been taken.
Sri Lanka Accommodative
Sri Lanka, which loses about LKR 9 billion a year because of poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen, was also accommodative. Minister Amaraweera acknowledged that the practice of poaching and using bottom trawlers for the last three decades cannot be stopped over night.
(The featured picture at the top shows impounded Tamil Nadu boats in Sri Lanka)