Battle for fish in Palk Strait

Tamil Nadu fishermen venture into Sri Lankan waters, risking arrest,
boat seizure and exacerbation of conflict with Sri Lankan fishers due to limited areas of operation and depleting
fish population


For Rameswaram fishermen like Muniswaran (47) and Srikanth (48), fishing is no longer profitable. “There is no choice. We have to go beyond prescribed areas, come what may. It is a matter of livelihood and death,” Srikanth said. He adds that thousands of fisherfolk set out to Palk Bay, a stretch between India and Sri Lanka, hoping for a “good fish catch” that can help them feed their families.

Their fishing fields in the Palk Straits, Bay of Bengal, have become a battleground. Fishing expeditions are marked with uncertainty due to the fear of arrest and boat seizure by the Sri Lankan Navy for crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

Muniswaran and Srikanth spent 15 days each in Sri Lankan jails in 2021 and 2022 respectively after their boats entered into the neighbouring country’s waters.

Fisherfolk from Ramanathapuram, Nagapattinam, Pudukkottai, and Thanjavur districts of Tamil Nadu, who fish in the Palk Bay area, are challenged by their kin — ethnic Tamils from across the border in Sri Lanka’s war-torn-northern province. Sri Lankan Tamils resumed fishing in 2009, after the end of the civil war.

“These days, fishing is like going to war. We do not know whether we will return to our shores or end up in Sri Lankan jails,” said Muniswaran. “We do not navigate just the choppy waters of the sea but also have to stay vigilant against the hawk-eyed Sri Lankan Navy personnel in the international waters,” he told DH.

Adding to the woes of fisherfolk is the trend of locals from Sri Lanka who allegedly nab fuel, valuables, and fish catch.

The past & the present

Arrests of Indian fisherfolk have been a recurring issue in Palk Bay since the 1980s. Hundreds have fallen prey to the bullets of the Sri Lankan Navy for allegedly “transgressing” into its waters. Until 2009, Sri Lanka claimed that it could not differentiate between Indian fisherfolk and people from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who used the sea route to smuggle arms.

DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan

Despite these challenges, Indian fisherfolk had a field day, fishing in Sri Lankan waters. However, the island’s return to peace has brought competition — Tamil fishers from Sri Lanka’s northern province have ventured into the sea after a gap of 30 years, following the lift of the ban on fishing.

They found that their Tamil Nadu counterparts had begun to use bottom trawlers and fishing nets — equipment banned in the island nation. Thus began the battle for fish between Indian and Sri Lankan fisherfolk —both had in the past found fraternity due to linguistic and cultural links.

Their friendship was so strong that Sri Lankan Tamil fisherfolk would set out to Rameswaram to watch late-night movie shows of M G Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, to return home the next day after a good fish catch. For Indian fisherfolk, the tiny islands in Sri Lanka served as a safe haven to rest after long hours, dry their nets and have their boat repaired.

DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan
DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan

A troubled zone

There are several reasons why Palk Bay has become a troubled zone: India ceding Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974, the Sri Lankan Civil War, overfishing on the Indian side and bottom trawlers from Tamil N adu venturing deep into Sri Lankan waters. Katchatheevu is an uninhabited island of 285 acres, sandwiched between the two countries.

DH Photo by ETB Sivapriyan

As fishermen from both sides continue to clash, the complex issue has become increasingly politicised in Tamil Nadu. The ceding of Katchatheevu has attained centre stage.

DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan
DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan

The latest politician to hop onto the bandwagon is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On March 31, he accused the Congress of “callously giving away Katchatheevu.” In fact, every political party in the state posits the retrieval of the island as a silver bullet solution to eliminate the problems faced by Tamil fisherfolk.

Chances of the retrieval of the Katchatheevu stretch appear very remote as the 1974 agreement between India and the nation recognises it as the latter’s territory. Even on the off chance that the territory is retrieved, the crisis would continue.

At the core of the issue is that Indian fishermen continue to cross the IMBL, beyond Katchatheevu, venturing deep into Sri Lankan waters to fish.

Sri Lankan Tamils also continue to oppose Tamil Nadu fishers due to the widespread use of bottom trawling, irattai madi (double fold) nets, and purse seine net fishing. All these methods are banned in many countries, including Sri Lanka.

Trawl fishing, among the most important fishing methods in India, was introduced in the 1970s and helped the country emerge as a top seafood exporter.

About 200 Indian boats have been seized and 1,303 fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy since 2018 for entering its waters. A total of 11 fisherfolk are yet to return home, reports say a good number of boats have either been auctioned or scrapped by now.

Indian fishermen also face a peculiar problem as bottom trawlers and boats that are seized are repurposed or “nationalised” in Sri Lanka through a 2018 Amendment to the Fisheries Act.

No boundary

DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan

The reason for the crisis, according to R M P Rajendira Nattar, president of the Indian National Fishermen Union, is restricted areas of operation. The fishing fields for Tamil fishermen shrank to a mere 12 nautical miles from 52 nautical miles, which was the case before the IMBL was demarcated and the Katchatheevu agreement was signed in 1974.

“Traditionally, our forefathers enjoyed rights to fish in Katchatheevu, along the Palk Bay and in the Gulf of Mannar. That right should be restored, not Katchatheevu alone,” Nattar said.

Putting things into perspective, S Emarick, a boat owner in Rameswaram, says that fishing is prohibited in the first three nautical miles from the shore and only rocks are found in the next four nautical miles.

“Some of the nets that we throw stretch to several nautical miles. If I throw a net close to the IMBL, it will end up in Sri Lankan waters. How can we be blamed for this? We get permission to stay in the sea for 24 hours and how many fish can we catch in the small field of five nautical miles?” he asked.

M Asan Mohideen, president of the Mechanised Boat Owners, and Fishermen Welfare Association, Kottaipattinam, echoed Emarick, saying the Lankan waters were just 18 nautical miles from his coastal village and finding a good fish catch within the prescribed area was close to impossible.

“Why will a fisherman waste time in an area where he knows he will not get anything? There is no demarcated area in the sea and the need of the hour is more coral reefs to help fish reproduce,” Mohideen said.

Knitting a large fishing net in a shed in Akkaraipettai in Nagapattinam district, 50-year-old M Manonmani is explicit. “I will be less than honest if I say we do not enter Sri Lankan waters. Yes, we fish there. Because it is a matter of our livelihood,” said Manonmani, who was arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy in 2013 and 2016.

“Moreover, it is the conditions in the sea like (water) cycles and (water) currents that lead us to (Sri Lanka). The distance between Indian shores and the IMBL (Sri Lanka border) is not too long,” Nattar added.

Fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu also question the BJP’s silence for 10 years on the issue and wonder whether it is even possible to “reclaim or retrieve” the Katchatheevu territory, which was ceded to Sri Lanka under an agreement signed between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

While Clauses five and six of the 1974 pact say vessels of India and Sri Lanka will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed, the problem began after these clauses were superseded by “Executive Instructions” issued in 1976.

“These clauses have to be re-operationalised to begin with. Only when we are allowed access to our traditional waters can we hope for a long-lasting solution,” N J Bose, secretary, Tamil Nadu Boat Fishermen's Welfare Association said.

Fisherfolk are so upset with the arrests that they boycotted the annual festival held at St. Antony’s Church in Katchatheevu this March.

While blaming the Congress government for “gifting away” Katchatheevu, Nattar also sought to know the efforts it took to bring back hundreds of boats seized by the Sri Lankan Navy since 2018.

“During the UPA era, arrested fishermen would return home with their boats. Today, our boats are docked at the Kankesanthurai harbour off Jaffna coast which has been renovated using Indian taxpayers’ money. Why didn’t India use its influence with Sri Lanka to get our boats released?” Nattar asked.

The nearshore Indian waters are already overexploited due to overfishing, pollution, and environmental degradation.

“Sri Lanka still practices sustainable fishing, with most fishermen using gill nets and other traditional methods, while trawl nets are completely banned in its waters. As a result, its waters are more resourceful,” said Dr S Velvizhi, head of the Fish For All Centre of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

DH PHoto by ETB Sivapriyan
DH PHoto by ETB Sivapriyan
DH PHoto by ETB Sivapriyan

On the other side...

DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan

Across the border, Tamil fishermen are limping back to economic normalcy after the civil war. They are limited by the use of catamarans and fibre-glass boats that can cruise at slower speeds.

N M Alam, secretary, Mannar District Fishing Cooperatives Union, told DH that there was no problem between the Tamil fisherfolk of the two countries. The issue only pertains to the method of fishing, mainly bottom trawlers, adopted by their Tamil Nadu brethren.

“We are grateful to the people of Tamil Nadu for the support they extended to us in the past three decades. But we cannot accept trawlers scraping through our sea bed and damaging the marine ecology. The problem is trawlers, not fisherfolk,” Alam said.

He also alleged that Indian trawlers come like a flotilla, especially in the dark of the night, deep into the Sri Lankan waters to places like Mannar, Jaffna and Mullaitivu.

“Their trawlers also damage expensive nets spread out in the sea by our fishermen. We cannot see our livelihood being taken away in front of our eyes,” he said.

Terming bottom trawling as an “indiscriminate fishing method”, Velvizhi said a wide range of sea creatures, including non-target species such as turtles, and invertebrates, are inadvertently caught as trawling nets are pulled across the seafloor.

“This indiscriminate fishing profoundly affects the ocean and biodiversity, resulting in many species being unintentionally captured and often discarded as bycatch. Deep-sea corals are adversely affected by bottom trawling. Trawling in the nearshore water also affects the seagrass ecosystem,” she told DH.

The repeated dragging of heavy nets over these delicate corals and seagrasses ecosystems leads to their destruction, along with the faunal and floral community that is associated with them. This not only results in the loss of habitat but also disrupts the ecological balance of these fragile deep-sea environments, the scientist added.

Sri Lankan Minister Jeevan Thondaman, who completed his schooling in Chennai, told DH that all stakeholders must understand that equitable justice should be delivered for the fishermen from northern Sri Lanka, who have been affected by the civil war and still reel under abject poverty.

“How can our fisherfolk, who just have catamarans, compete with a machine (bottom trawlers) that catch tonnes of fish? A majority of Tamil fishermen from Sri Lanka have one disability or the other due to the war. Their concerns should be addressed along with those of marine ecology, Thondaman, the minister for water supply, said.

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DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan
DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan
DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan
DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan
DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan

What are the alternatives?

International Maritime Boundary Line

India-Sri Lanka maritime boundaries through agreements that happened in 1974 and 1976. Image courtesy Wikipedia

India-Sri Lanka maritime boundaries through agreements that happened in 1974 and 1976. Image courtesy Wikipedia

N Devadoss, president, Rameswaram Fishermen Association, said fisherfolk began using bottom trawlers only after the Indian government encouraged its use in the 1970s to export seafood to the world.

“We agree it is a bad practice ecologically. But what is the alternative? Is it not the job of the central and state governments to talk to us and help us embrace ecologically friendly practices, instead of pinning the blame on us?” Devadoss asked.

Devadoss also advocated that the Tamil Nadu government regulate the number of trawlers and boats that are allowed into the ocean as several vessels operate illegally.

“Several new players have come into the business as seafood export is profitable. About 4,000 boats from Nagapattinam, Pudukkottai, Thanjavur, and Ramanathapuram districts fish in a small area. Should there not be a cap on the number of boats that go into the Palk Bay?” Vijayakumar, a boat owner from Nagapattinam, asked.

The state and central governments should first acknowledge that Indian fisherfolk venture into Sri Lankan waters to fish before attempting a solution to solve the issue said V Suryanarayan, former professor (retired), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies (CSSEAS), University of Madras. “First and foremost, governments here should immediately impose a ban on fishing equipment that is banned in Sri Lanka. That alone will bring confidence among Tamil fishermen there to engage in talks,” Suryanarayan said.

“Another idea is to encourage fisherfolk from both sides to form cooperatives and buy deep-sea fishing boats. The obstacles should be converted into opportunities,” added Suryanarayan.

Velvizhi said surface gillnetting, which targets fish near the surface area, could be explored as an alternative. Gillnets come in various sizes and shapes but they all serve the common purpose of trapping fish by their gills as the fish pass through the net.

“The mesh size of the net is crucial in determining the type of fish that can be caught. Common types of gillnets include drift nets, trammel nets, and entangling nets. Initially, a significant investment is required,” she added.

Since converting all the trawlers into gill netting is difficult and requires time-consuming measures and effective management strategies, Velvizhi said the best way would be to encourage trawl boat operators to transform their cod end from a diamond shape to a square mesh.

“On the west coast of India, Square mesh cod end is mandatory and included in the Marine Fisheries Regulation Act. After carefully reviewing the mesh sizes for fish and shrimp trawling, the same legal protection has to be provided for the East Coast,” she added.

Sources in the Tamil Nadu government told DH that boat registrations are issued for fishery purposes in territorial waters. The source added that the administration could not restrict them from venturing into the sea. However, the registration of new trawlers in Palk Bay has ended.

The Ministry of External Affairs maintains that the government attaches the highest priority to the safety, security and welfare of Indian fishermen and that the issue of fishermen has been taken up at the highest level. “Sri Lankan Government has been requested to treat the fishermen issue as a purely humanitarian and livelihood concern, and it has been stressed that both sides should ensure that there is no use of force under any circumstances,” the ministry had said last year.

The rising cost of diesel also has a role to play in the crisis. Boat owners say the current Rs 14 subsidy for a litre of diesel given to fishermen isn’t enough, and want diesel at half the price it is sold in the market.


The nationalisation of trawlers by Sri Lanka is also wreaking havoc in the lives of fishermen and boat owners who are not able to retrieve them anymore. Devadoss, whose boat was the first to be nationalised by Sri Lanka, after it enforced a law in this regard in 2018, said the new rule has forced many people to quit fishing and seek refuge in other professions.

“My boat was worth Rs 40 lakh and I spent another Rs 10 lakh in Sri Lanka to get it released, all in vain. How many people can afford to lose a boat worth tens of lakhs of rupees?” he asked.

In the fishing village of Jegathapattinam in Pudukkottai on the East Coast, the number of bottom trawlers has reduced to about 110 from over 600 just a few years ago as many boat owners have left the village to their native places. Take the case of Saravanan, who is currently in a Sri Lankan jail after the Navy impounded the boat owned by his father Selvaraj.

Inadequate measures

The state and central governments have been trying to solve the issue by constituting a Joint Working Group of Fishermen from both sides. A scheme was also introduced in 2017 to convert 2,000 trawlers into deep-sea fishing boats. Fishermen say these measures are inadequate and demand “greater transparency” in the discussions between the two countries.

The deep-sea fishing scheme ended in failure with only 55 trawlers being converted into boats between 2017 and 2023 against the target of 2,000 by 2020. Fisherfolk said the scheme was not financially viable for them as the actual cost of the fishing boat, including fishing nets, turned out to be Rs 1.30 crore, as against the estimated cost of Rs 80 lakh.

Senior journalist R Bhagwan Singh, who had been part of several confidence-building measures between fishermen of both countries, said a solution can be arrived at only when both governments sit and talk with an open mind.

“Deep-sea trawlers from Taiwan and Vietnam come to the Indian Ocean to fish. Fishermen from both countries can earn huge if they form Indo-Lanka federations of fishermen cooperatives to source deep-sea fishing trawlers that are partly financed by banks and both governments to harvest the blue wealth that is available in the ocean,” Singh told DH.

Fishers from Tamil Nadu do not seem very keen on fishing in the deep sea but stress that it is for the Indian government to come up with a solution. Nattar suggested leasing a large fishing field in the Indian Ocean after paying a royalty to Sri Lanka.

“The Union Government earns millions of dollars in foreign exchange from the seafood that Tamil Nadu fishers export to the global market. Why do not you spend a portion of that to solve the long impending crisis?” Nattar asked.

He also said the Modi government should stop using China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka as an excuse to not talk tough with Sri Lanka. “It is India that helped Sri Lanka in every possible manner to get the country back on its feet after the economic crisis. Why can we not ask Sri Lanka to solve this issue that has been burning for 40 years?” Nattar asked.

Devadoss added that fisherfolk from Rameswaram will be happy if they get permission to fish in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar for 100 days annually after paying royalty to Sri Lanka.

Governments’ burden

“There should be a formula where Sri Lankan fishermen are allowed to fish for three days in a week and Indian fishermen the next three days. The trawlers can be modified into vessels that can assist the mother ship,” said Suryanarayan.

Alam, the fishermen association leader from Sri Lanka, said Tamil fishermen are ready to sit across the table with Indian counterparts to discuss the ways and means to co-exist but the prerequisite is that the Indian side should not use equipment banned in Sri Lanka.

“We are ready for talks. We have never been rigid. We do not want to fight with our brethren,” Alam added.

Sri Lankan Minister Thondaman said it was for the governments of both countries to work out a solution for the decades-old problem. Thondaman added that he has extended an invitation to a team of bureaucrats from Tamil Nadu, with due permission from the Indian government, to Sri Lanka for a “frank discussion” on the issue.

“India and Sri Lanka today share a good relationship and that should be taken advantage of. There needs to be empathy on both sides, and we should not let the situation go out of control,” Thondaman added.

DH Photo by E T B Sivapriyan

Production by: Shobhana Sachidanand
Images & Videos: E T B Sivapriyan; Wikipedia
Data source: Tamil Nadu Govt; fishermen associations