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The Palk Bay Fisheries Conflict


The Sri Lankan Navy arrested 12 Indian fishermen from Rameswaram district, Tamil Nadu, and seized two of their fishing boats on charges of engaging in illegal fishing activity. This is the third such arrest in a fortnight, prompting Tamil Nadu Chief Minister to, yet again, write to Prime Minister, seeking the Centre’s immediate intervention to secure their release.


GS II- International Relations

Dimensions of the Article:
  1. Background
  2. What is the conflict, and between whom?
  3. Why is it yet to be resolved?


  • For well over a decade now, fishermen of India and Sri Lanka have been unable to agree on how to share the fishes in the narrow Palk Strait separating the two countries.
  • The Strait begins just north of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula and spans about 100 km at its widest point. It is known to be a breeding ground for rich marine resources, especially shrimp.
  • Although India and Sri Lanka agreed to divide the Strait with an imaginary boundary line in the 1970s —the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) – Indian fishermen, from the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, and from Puducherry, are frequently arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy for “poaching” or engaging in “illegal” fishing activity in Sri Lankan waters.
  • Several rounds of bilateral negotiations between the two governments and talks between fishing community leaders from both sides have been held over the years, but a solution remains elusive.

What is the conflict, and between whom?

  • The main contention between the fishermen on either side is not so much about territorial rights, as historically both sides have amicably shared marine resources in the stretch.
  • It is more to do with the use of “bottom trawling”, the fishing method used by fishermen from Tamil Nadu.
    • A group of daily-wage fishermen set out on mechanised boats, owned by other affluent fishermen, and drag large fishing nets through the seabed. While they primarily target fish species and shrimps, the practice of bottom trawling scoops out eggs, young fishes, and other marine organisms that eventually die and are thrown back into the sea.
  • The primary conflict here is between the Tamil Nadu trawler owners and the northern Sri Lankan fishermen, who are trying to rebuild their livelihoods after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009.
  • Until then, they were denied access to the sea at different points and displaced from their homes.
  • It is in the post-war decade that the Sri Lankan fishermen started voicing concern about depleting catches, owing to incessant trawling by the Indian fishermen.
  • With the Indian side of the IMBL already ravaged by decades of high profit-yielding bottom trawling, they flock to the Sri Lankan side, with relatively less damage and therefore, more marine resources.

Why is it yet to be resolved?

  • One reason is the growing human cost of the conflict —five Indian fishermen returned home dead last year after the Sri Lankan Navy allegedly attacked them mid-sea.
  • More recently, the death of the two Jaffna fishermen has aggravated the anger on the Sri Lankan side as well.
  • For years now, India has urged Sri Lanka to adopt a humanitarian approach when it deters Indian fishermen. However, when fishermen deaths occur, apart from customary condemnations and denials, there is little effort from authorities on either side to ensure investigations are completed and perpetrators brought to book.
  • Secondly, New Delhi tried diverting Tamil Nadu fishermen to deep sea fishing methods to wean them away from bottom trawling in the Palk Strait. But the initiative did not take off as planned , and the fishermen still resort to trawling, and often get caught by Sri Lankan authorities.
  • Thirdly, Tamil Nadu is yet to agree to the chief demand of northern Tamil fishermen — to stop bottom trawling to restore trust between the fishermen on both sides, and provide a real opportunity to re-commence talks, which they prefer over confrontation.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023