Thursday 9 July 2020
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Understanding Obstacles and Opportunities in Post War Recovery for Fishing Households in the Palk Bay

Understanding Obstacles and Opportunities in Post War Recovery for Fishing Households in the Palk Bay

M.Bavink, J.Schlte and A.S.Soosai


Over the past few years controversies related to Indian trawlers crossing over to Sri Lankan waters have repeatedly formed newspaper headlines, in India and Sri Lanka alike. Whereas Indian media focus consistently on the sufferings faced by transgressing Indian trawlers, Sri Lanka newspapers rather highlight the trawlers’ adverse impact on the recovery of Northern Sri Lankan fishermen and the paternalistic stance taken by Indian authorities. The aim of this paper is twofold. The first is to provide a grassroots insight into the Palk Bay conflict from the perspective of the post war situation of the fishing population in Northern Sri Lanka. The second purpose is to create a better understanding of the nature of this conflict and to analyse the appropriateness of the currently employed governance responses. The paper concludes that in order to settle the ongoing controversies, the governmental and community based governance efforts need more integration should they achieve any positive effect.


On February 16th 2011 fishermen of Point Pedro, a fishing town in Northern Sri Lanka, came together to take action against those who they refer to as ‘intruders of our waters’. With relatively small boats, equipped with one or two outboard engines, they captured 18 Indian trawlers from Nagapattinam, including 112 crewmen on their decks.  One day later, the village of Mathagal took a similar action, apprehending another 7 boats and 24 crewmembers originating from the village of Kottaipattinam, a trawler landing site in Pudukkottai district. Although two days later the Indian fishermen, including their boats, were kindly sent home after diplomatic intervention at the highest of political levels, the Sri Lankan fishermen had made their point. This spectacular event of  Tambi (younger brother) rising up against Anna (elder brother) was not only a fruitful ingredient for weeks of energized fishermen talk, political advances and newspaper headlines, it also epitomizes multiple dimensions of the conflict.

This is not the first time in South Asia that small scale fishermen have risen up against technologically more advanced trawlers (Bavinck 1998, 2001, 2011, Platteau 1989, Bailey 1987). Such uprisings are typically instigated by a strong sense of injustice felt by the former,  who’s nets are easily destroyed by the trawlers if fishing in the same waters, and who are frustrated about the trawlers’ much larger catches generated by destructive gears. Given the recent resumption of small scale fishing boats in Northern Sri Lanka, following the lifting of the war-related fishing restrictions, the emergence of the present conflict is of little surprise. What makes this conflict distinct, and more complex to grasp, however, is its setting in trans-boundary waters of the Palk Bay and Palk Strait..

The Palk Bay is a relatively shallow basin with an average depth of nine meters and is known for a lack of turbulence resulting from its protection from the open seas. It is connected in the north through the Palk Strait to  the Bay of Bengal, while in the south it borders on the Gulf of Mannar, from which it is separated by a chain of small islands and reef shoals popularly known as the Adam’s Bridge (Scholtens et al. forthcoming).  The Palk Bay is known to be rich in terms of biodiversity resulting from the inflow of nutrients during the monsoon current (Soosai 2011), and constitutes for exceptionally rich fishing grounds, including the Point Pedro Banks, the Prawn Bank and the Pearl Bank (Sivasubramaniam 1995 in Soosai and Stokke 2006).

This paper aims to provide a detailed understanding of how the fisheries conflict in the Palk Bay is connected to the post war recovery of the fisheries sector in three districts of Northern Sri Lanka, i.e. Mannar, Killinochchi and Jaffna. The next section commences with providing a typology of the conflict we are dealing with building on conflict literature, with the subsequent section providing an insight into the historical development of the Indo-Sri Lankan fisheries conflict. Section four describes the research methodology, after which section five provides a detailed account of the post-war status of North Sri Lankan fisheries sector. Section six subsequently assesses the nature and scope of Indian trawlers’ impact on the recovery of North Sri Lankan fishermen. Section seven finally analyses how fishermen, governments and NGO’s have reacted to the prevailing crisis in the Palk Bay fisheries.  This analysis reveals the need for a more integrated governance effort to come to any viable solution that addresses fisher- and governmental concerns from both sides.

 1) Understanding fisheries conflicts

Conflicts in fisheries are a world-wide phenomena and come in a diversity of types (Charles 1992, Bennett et al. 2011).  According to FAO (1998: 199, in Bennett et al.  2001), conflicts typically emerge when “the interests of two or more parties clash and at least one of the parties seeks to assert its interests at the expense of another party’s interests”. Although this is a useful starting point for analysing conflicts, Bavinck (2005) asserts that in order to get to full grips with conflict, the nature of these interests in connection to the social actors involved needs to be put central stage. In fisheries, these ´interests´ are typically revolving around the allocation of fishing rights: who is – and who is not-  allowed to fish when, where, what and how (Bavinck 2011). In other words, fisheries conflicts typically revolve around the allocation of available resources, and tend to have both a spatial and technological dimension. From this perspective, the popular neo-Malthusian conviction that diminishing stocks of resources constitute a primary determinant for the rise of conflict is thus only one part of the equation. Eventually, the crucial intermediary factor is the way in which the resources are being allocated, the success of which is determined by available institutions and governance structures.

As mentioned above, the emergence of trawler fleets in many countries has given rise to one particular type of fisheries conflicts, that is between a traditional fishing fleet and a more capital intensive mechanized fleet. These conflicts indeed revolve around the perceived injustice around the allocation of fishing rights and have a strong technological and spatial dimension. (Johnson and Bavinck 2010).

Just as there are no blueprints to manage fisheries in an perfect manner given the wide diversity of their characteristics (Ostrom 2007, Degnbol 2006), neither are there blueprints for the type of institutions that can successfully settle fisheries conflicts. Numerous scholars, however, have pointed to the importance of several characteristics of institutions for understanding whether fisheries conflicts emerge, and whether they can be adequately dealt with (e.g. Pomeroy 2007, Bavinck 2005). A particularly valuable contribution in this regard is Rapoport’s  (1974) taxonomy, which distinguishes endogenous from exogenous conflicts. Endogenous conflicts are those wherein the conflicting units “are part of a larger system that has its own mechanisms for maintaining a steady state, which may include mechanisms for controlling or resolving conflict” between the units (ibid:175). Exogenous conflicts, on the other hand, are between parties that do not belong to a larger institutional system, and where there are no joint mechanisms for control or resolution.  Following this line of thought, Bavinck (2011), writing about the fishing wars that occur between fishers from Chennai and Andhra Pradesh,  concludes that the latter type of conflict is potentially more explosive and possibly of longer duration. It is reasonable to assume that  exogenous conflicts posit an institutional challenge, that is to bring the conflicting parties under one functioning governance mechanism, that is, to make it more endogenous.

Potential to resolve fisheries conflicts depends on the extent of which governance arrangements are integrated (e.g. Pomeroy et al. 2007; Bavinck 2005; Rapoport 1974).

Rapoport’s second distinction is that between symmetrical an asymmetrical conflicts. Symmetrical conflicts include opponents of comparable weight, while asymmetrical conflicts juxtapose parties that “may be widely disparate or may perceive each other in different ways” (1975:176).

 2) The Palk Bay fishing conflict: drawing the contours 

Over the past years, apart from thousands of newspaper items, numerous proper studies have investigated the Palk Bay fishing conflicts from different angles. These include specialized accounts on the unrecognized transnational identity of the Palk Bay fishermen (Gupta 2009), the feasibility of a possible buy-back program for Indian trawlers (Sathyapalan et al. 2007), the harsh effects of the civil war on Sri Lankan fishermen (Soosai et al. 2006 and Stokke et al. 2007) as well as an investigation of governance problems of the Palk Bay trawler fleet (Scholtens and Bavinck forthcoming). Also more macro scale analyses have been provided by scholars from both sides. From Sri Lanka these include detailed analysis of and policy perspectives on trawler incursions (Hettiarachchi 2007, Amarasinghe 2011, Subramanyam Raju et al. 2006), whereas on the Indian side detailed legal-political accounts have been provided on the contested nature of the International Maritime Boundary Line (Suryanarayan 2004 and 2009). Finally, Vivekanandan (2004, 2010a, 2010b, 2011) wrote several comprehensive papers highlighting the multi-dimensionality of the conflict, including detailed accounts of the remarkable fishermen to fishermen dialogues which took place in 2004 and 2010 (see section 7). These publications have provided a deep understanding of the multiplicity of underlying causes, the complexity of the conflict, and the high stakes of the parties involved.

3.1 The emergence of Indian trawlers

Since the introduction of Indian trawlers in the 1960s, the fisheries sector in India has witnessed a so-called blue revolution, comparable to the green revolution in agriculture (Johnson and Bavinck 2010). In the Palk Bay, the introduction of trawlers has been particularly enthusiastic,  considering that between 1980 and 1996 alone, marine fish production from this area doubled (see figure 2), compared to a 38% increase for Tamil Nadu as a whole (S. Durairaj et al. 1997 in: Vivekanandan 2010). Given the deployment of over 2000 trawlers, concealed within the relatively small Palk Bay area, Sathyapalan et al. (2007) conclude that the Palk Bay trawler fleet is overcapitalized, implying that the trawlers catching capacity exceeds the carrying capacity of the region’s ecosystem. Tamil Nadu fishermen, small scale and large scale alike, also consistently report declining trends in available fish stocks (Johnson and Bavinck 2010, Scholtens et al. forthcoming). In this context it is possible to understand Indian fishermen’s compulsions to venture into Sri Lankan waters, which were vacated by the Sri Lankans during the war time.  While Hettiarachchi (2009) points out that in 1976 150 trawler per day were encroaching into Sri Lankan waters, current estimates are that 500 to 2000 boats cross the IMBL, depending on the season (Vivekanandan 2010)(1).

Tamil Nadu hosts a trawler fleet of 5300 boats (CMFRI 2005), of which approximately 2500 are at least seasonally dependent on the Sri Lankan waters to secure a profitable catch (Sathyapalan et al. 2007, Vivekanandan 2010). For these fishermen, the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) – which was drawn in 1974 in a bilateral agreement (see Suryanarayan 2004) and formally separates the Palk Bay into two sovereign area’s – is an illegitimate line which cuts right through their traditional fishing grounds. Their desperation is evident from the fact that even the painful collisions with the Sri Lankan navy and more recently with the Sri Lankan fishermen, have not distracted them from targeting Sri Lankan fishing grounds.

These cross border adventures have come at an high human costs. Especially during the civil war time, with a tense and suspicious Sri Lankan navy, the number of firings, injuries and deaths have been numerous. Although people disagree about the precise numbers (2), the number of deaths is at least 100, while at least 350 Indian fishermen have been seriously injured (Suryanarayan 2009).  Nevertheless, as observed by Vivekanandan (2011: 11) “It was an irony that the Indian fishermen had a free run of Sri Lankan waters right throughout the war period while their Sri Lankan brothers were severely curbed from pursuing their livelihood”.

Figure 2. Comparison of marine fish production from the Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka( 3) (in metric tonnes).


3.2 North Sri Lankan fisheries and the civil war

At the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay, fishermen from the Northern Province are just recovering from a protracted civil war. During thirty years of armed conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces, if fishermen were not displaced from their village at all, fishing activity was heavily restricted for security reasons. Since 2009, when the war ended, fishermen have been gradually resettled, restrictions have been lifted, and the sector has witnessed a slow recovery. It is exactly in the context of this recovery, that fishing communities are furious about incursions of the relatively big Indian boats into their waters, which causes continuous losses of nets and constitutes a major hindrance to their livelihood.

As can be derived from from figure 2, before the start of the civil war, fisheries was a flourishing sector in the Northern Province, with the production of Jaffna district alone (48.000 tonne) contributing to 25% of all Sri Lankan catches and with high rates of annual increase. From the start of the war, production plummets to almost zero, with two short periods of recovery during the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force and during the 2002-2006 cease fire period. Reasons for the collapse of fish production during the war included massive displacement of coastal communities, fishing restrictions and destruction of gear (Soosai and Stokke 2006). One and a half year after the war, with most equipment being gradually replaced, production levels recovered to only 42% of pre-war levels, contributing to a mere 6% of all contemporary Sri Lankan catches (MFAR 2011). At the Indian side, on the contrary, the fisheries sector was almost tripling during the 30 years civil war.

The war time caused a severe disruption to the lives of the fishing community, with 10% of the surveyed fishermen indicated to have lost one or more household members, and 89% of them to have been displaced at least once. Many fishing households, however, have been continuously on the move for prolonged periods of time (Stokke and Soosai 2007). In addition, most coastal areas were designated as High Security Zones, implicating restrictions which allowed fishermen to fish only for a few hours per day with a special fishing pass, without outboard engine, only with wooden boats and maximum one kilometre seawards. The human face behind the collapse of the fishing sector is devastating: if a fisherman was not displaced, his fishing activity would be mostly banned or restricted, and at times that fishing was not fully restricted, he had often lost his boat and gear.

It cannot be denied that the resumption of Sri Lankan fisheries after the war has added a significant new dimension to the issue of trans-boundary fishing. Whereas until 2009 the conflict was primarily an issue between the Indian trawlers and the Sri Lankan navy, at present, the present-day conflict has become a classical small-scale versus large scale fishermen affair. And although even after the war still two Indian fishermen have died in the Palk Bay under unresolved circumstances, Indian pressure on Sri Lanka has resulted in stringent instructions from Colombo to the Navy to leave the ‘bona-fide fishermen’ untouched, and employ light beaming as the only permitable measure to chase Indian trawlers. Sri Lankan fishermen when begging their navy to curb trawlers’ encroachment, consistently receive the message: “we’re sorry, but our hands are tied [by our Ministry]”. Sri Lankan fishermen are desperate about this state of affairs and feel that while in Tamil Nadu politicians shed crocodile tears over their trawler fishermen, the Sri Lankan government turns a blind eye to their cause to prevent any deterioration of relationships with a powerful neighbour.

For this purpose, figure 2 – picturing marine fish production in the Palk Bay taken as one ecological unit – provides a insightful starting point, by showing the asymmetrical developments that have taken place on both sides.

3)  Methodology 

This study is part of a larger research programme named REINCORPFISH, aiming at a understanding of and dealing with the challenges to incorporate small scale fishermen in policy processes. This study builds on a complementary combination of quantitative and qualitative research, conducted during six months of fieldwork in North Sri Lanka in the period between January and November 2011. The quantitative part constitutes a sizable household survey (N=1120) among sea going fishermen (4) in the districts of Jaffna, Killinochchi and Mannar. A representative sample of fishing households was taken in a two stage procedure, also referred to as multi-stage cluster sampling (Bryman 2004) . First 36 out of 120 fishing villages were randomly sampled, giving a proportional chance to bigger villages to be selected. In the second stage, within the selected villages, a random sample of 28 fishing households was taken from the household book of the local administrative officer (GN). This considerable survey was carried out in the field by 25 students from the University of Jaffna for a four week period, who ensured a response rate of 84%.

In addition, the first author conducted extensive qualitative research through semi-structured and open interviews with fisheries leaders from different villages in the three districts.  The landing centres of Karainagar and Mathagal, both in Jaffna District, were selected as case study villages, in which the first author spent two months of regular participant observation. During 2006 and 2007, the first author also conducted six months of fieldwork among the trawler communities at the Indian side of the Palk Bay. The second author has been an intensive observer of and writer on Tamil Nadu fisheries since 1990, while the third author has been studying, both as participant and academic, the fisheries in Northern Sri Lanka for the past decades.

Table 1. Household survey overview


4) North Sri Lankan fishermen: the status quo

At the Sri Lankan side, the Palk Bay (and Palk Strait) fishing communities are dispersed over a coastline of 553km (FAO 2003), stretching westwards from Point Pedro, via the conglomeration of Jaffna Islands at the western side of the Jaffna peninsula, down to Jaffna town. After crossing the Jaffna lagoon, it continues into the scarcely populated coastal Killinochchi continuing further southwards, through Northern Mannar,  before reaching Talaimannar, the western tip of Mannar Island.

Figure 1. Location of Palk Bay and Palk Straight in trans-boundary waters

Source: adapted from Soosai and Stokke 2006


Fully surrounded by seas and lagoons, and with marginal industrial or service sectors, it is no surprise that fisheries quickly regained a prominent status in the Northern Province after the war.  In 2011 the total number of households involved in fishing in the three districts totalled 28.639 (DFAR 2011) (5), providing a total fishing population of approximately 119.000 people (see table 4.1). Considering the districts’ total population of 871,000, this points toward a substantial regional dependency on the fisheries sector. In Mannar district this is most significant, with 29% of the population being directly dependent on fishing activities, which not even includes post-harvest employment like processors and traders (table xx).

Table x: Fishing population by district during and after the war. 


In Jaffna, most fishermen belong to the Karaiyar caste, with the exception of a small Mukkiyar and Timilar community in the western parts of the district. In Mannar, Paratavar is the dominant caste (just like the predominant fishing caste of their Indian colleagues thirty kilometer across the Palk Bay), while also Karaiyar, Thimilar, Palliviriar and Mukkuvar fishermen can be found.  The large majority of fisher folk is Tamil, either Christian (52%) or Hindu (40%), with only on Mannar Island a number of Muslim settlements (8%) can be found (6). The fact that the Jaffna population as a whole is 87% Hindu (District Secretariat Jaffna 2011) reveals the relative prominence of Christianity among fishermen. Education levels of fishermen are surprisingly high, with 79% of the fishermen having finished their primary education, although only 12% of the fishermen subsequently also finished their O-levels. Such figures evidently hide marked regional differentiation: while in Jaffna town 89% made it into high school, of the fishermen in the Vanni only 23% continued schooling after their primary education.

Fisheries in the Northern Province are highly diverse, with a wide range of boat-gear combinations being employed. The second category constitute one-day boats, also called 3,5 ton boats, which are 28-32 feet vessels equipped with an inboard engine of up to 50 hp, and include a fleet of about 200 trawlers, which are exclusively berthed in Jaffna Town, Peesalai and Valvittiturai. FRP (fibre glass reinforced plastic) boats have a 18 to 23 feet length and are equipped with outboard engines of 8 to 25hp. This is the most commonly used boat type for sea going operations, and allows fishermen for trips up to about 30 kilometres. The traditional boats, which include wooden vallams and kattumarans, are popular for operations closer to the coast and in the lagoon. The big absentee in this list are the so-called multi-day boats (length, hp), which were developed in the course of the war in the Southern parts of Sri Lanka for making journeys into the international waters of up to four weeks. Finally, it is worth noting that out of the 444 boat-owning respondents, 83% owns one boat, 15% two craft, while only 2% reported to own three or more craft, indicating a low level of ownership clustering and capitalization.

Table 3. Overview boat types present in the Northern Province (2010) 


Fishermen use a wide variety of nets, each of which is suitable for targeting particular types of fish, during particular seasons, at particular locations. The predominant method for sea going fishermen is gill-netting (Soosai 2011). This method could be sub-categorized as small mesh size gill nets (1-5 inch) which are drifting along with the current targeting sardine, rock fish, silver bellies and mural, and large size gill nets (6-18inch) which are typically set on the sea bottom targeting, among others, shark, skate, barracuda, trevally, seer and ray fish. Another important feature of  gill net fishing is that it occurs predominantly during night time, for the simple reason that fish too easily avoid the net when there is too much light. The trammel net (locally called disco valai) is another popular net type, and is usually operated in coastal operations close to rocks and corals. For deep sea operations, fishermen also equip themselves seasonally with long lines and purse seines. In Mannar and Killinochchi crab nets are another popular gear, including the recently banned monofilament net. Finally, fishermen use a range of traditional gears, like stake nets, prawn nets and traps, beach seines and cast nets. Given the seasonality of the occupation, it is crucial for fishermen to possess or have access to a diversity of fishing nets, which has resulted in complex sharing systems. A successful fishermen in Mathagal or Karainagar, for example, would make sure that in cooperation with another fishermen, he possesses at least a trammel, a sardine (1”), an arrakottian (2-3inch) and a seven-inch net.

It was mentioned earlier that most fishing restrictions have now been removed and many High Security Zones have been progressively lifted in the period from 2009 to 2011. This is not to say that the situation has completely normalized, with several coastal areas still not being released for civil occupation, the resettlement process still going on, important fishing harbours being used by the navy, and more in general the dominant presence of not much appreciated armed forces. In an effort to understand the relative important of different post-war obstacles faced by fishermen, respondents were asked in an open question to reveal the single most important problem facing their current life as a fisherman. The advantage of such an open question, is that it reveals what is ‘on top of their heads’.  The answers, which were re-coded in ten categories, show that while poverty and lack of fishing equipment are dominating concerns, 26% (item 2 plus 5) of the fishermen consider Indian trawler intrusion and related poor fish resources as the primary obstacle in their livelihood (7). The next section will show that the first item, i.e. poverty, is also strongly related to the incursions of Indian trawlers.

Table xx Self-reported most important problem currently faced by North Sri Lankan fishermen



5) Trans-boundary fishing: local impact

Although some estimates have been made by scholars to assess the damage inflicted by the Indian trawlers to the Sri Lankan economy at large (8), this section aims to detail the impact of the trawlers on fishermen’s livelihoods at the local level. Of the respondents in the household survey, 62% (N=569), typically FRP boat fishermen operating gill nets, indicate to be affected by the Indian trawlers (most of the others operating traditional crafts). In an open question, those respondents who indicated to be affected were asked to describe the nature of the impact, the results of which are shown in table 6.1.

Table 6.1 Response to question “how are you affected by Indian trawlers”? (N=569 – more answers possible)


Most tangible is the loss or damage of fishing nets, which tends to occur at night-time when (moving) trawl boats easily run through the long but invisible (standing) nets employed by the Sri Lankans. 314 respondents indicate to have lost or damaged a net after the war. The case studies conducted in two villages however provide a quantified account of the extent of these losses (table 6.2).

Table 6.2 Financial losses of two cooperative societies resulting from gear interactions


Given the considerable risk of losing a net at sea, fishermen are extremely wary of venturing to the seas during those nights that they expect visiting Indian colleagues. Trawler’s incursions are rather predictable, as those trawlers berthed in Indian Palk Bay villages are subjected to a rule which allows them to venture only on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays to the seas (9). During these days, Sri Lankan fishermen either take the considerable risk to venture to the sea, or opt for some marginal fishing close to the coast, or stay home all together (note that 71,5% of the fishermen report ‘loss of fishing days’, see table 5.1). These reservations have significant implications for the local economy. Crewmembers  find themselves unable to cover their living costs by fishing for only three days per week, and thus move to find coolie work in town, making them unavailable for those days when their labour is much needed. Hindu fishermen confess that they are increasingly fishing on trawl-free religious days. “If the catches are good, we have to go on the trawler-free nights, even if there is a festival” (Coop. Society leader Karainagar).


Table 5.3 reveals the considerable differences of catch values between a ‘trawler night’ and a ‘trawler free night’ in Karainagar. The catch data, which represent approximately 75% of all landings (auction plus 1 out of the 3 private traders), show an annual missed income of approximately 6 million LKR, or 40,000 LKR per fisherman, which constitutes about 20% of his annual revenue. The reasons for the significantly higher difference at the side of the private traders compared to the auction, is that the former buy the high value catches, which are typically caught in the inaccessible deep seas, whereas the auctioned fish for the local market is typically caught closer to the shore. These values are still an undervaluation of actual income loss, as it is reasonable to assume that Sri Lankan catches would also increase on ‘trawler free nights’ in case of a more durable absence of trawlers.

Table 5.3: Catch value difference between trawl-nights and trawler-free nights in Karainagar (values in LKR) (10).

These significant direct impacts notwithstanding, fishermen report most vigorously about a less visible aspect, that is the destructive nature of the trawl nets employed by the Indian fishermen. As one fishermen notes: “These trawlers scoop up any fish; it this continues, what will there be left to our children?”. The harmful nature of the bottom-trawl net, which typically sweeps the sea’s surface and is indiscriminate in its catches is widely recognized (e.g. Bhathal 2005, Pauly et al. 2002). As mentioned earlier, there are indications that the trawlers berthed in the Palk Bay overexploited the Indian waters to such an extent that they simply had to migrate to more distant waters to secure a profitable catch, a phenomena aptly described by Berkes et al. (2006) as roving bandits causing sequential overexploitation.

The situation is particularly harsh, as in Sri Lanka a full ban on trawling was ordered (11) on August 4th 2010 (Gazette No. 1665/16) responding to an ever increasing lobby from the small scale fishermen to stop the remaining 200 trawlers in Peesalai, Valvititturai and Jaffna. And although the trawler owners’ powerful lobby still enabled them to continue operations for some time, the days of Sri Lankan trawlers appear to be counted. The role played by Indian trawlers in the discussion surrounding this controversial ban is of great interest. While local trawler owners furiously claiming that the ban on trawling is absurd as long as Indian trawlers freely scoop Sri Lankan waters, (the much larger number of) small scale fishermen are convinced that making a fist against the Indian trawlers can only be credible if local trawling would be abandoned first.


6) Fisher responses to trawler intrusion

Given the significant negative effects of trawler incursions experienced by fishermen, it is of pertinent interest to investigate if and how fishermen give shape to their struggle. To do so, it is worthwhile to consider the activities of Fisheries Cooperative Societies (FCS), for these are the omnipresent fishermen’s primary representative bodies. The village level FCS are collectively organized in Unions, with in Jaffna the District Cooperative Federation forming a third hierarchical layer. Whereas in other parts of Sri Lanka the cooperative movement has lost its significance over the past decade (Amarasinghe and Bavinck 2011), the Northern FCS have kept relatively well intact.

Apart from the apprehension of trawlers in February 2011, which generated significant media attention to their plight, it is especially the marginality of the actions employed by the allegedly strong FCS structure that stand out. Fishermen from Mathagal held a symbolic demonstration in front of the Indian High Commission, showing broken nets and having their mouths tight with black cottons. In addition, the FCS Federation wrote an wide range of letters to Sri Lankan Ministers and Members of Parliament, as well as to CM Jayalalita and former President Abdul Kalam, begging them to take up their plight. In addition ample media attention was sought, and sometimes found. Perhaps the most promising of efforts, however, was the formation of the ‘Northern Fishermen People Alliance’ in March 2011, which was supposed to for a collective platform of all FCS of the Northern Province. The poor manner in which this body has been functioning during the past year, resulting from internal competition between fishing leaders and political interference, is illustrative for the situation. In fact, fisher leaders are rather lost about how to give shape to their struggle, which, we argue, is the result of three interlinked factors:

 – In the post-LTTE context, the political climate for Tamil fishermen to mobilize and take their struggles into their own hands is fairly restrictive. At least two initiatives to come together for a demonstration were cancelled before they could materialize, resulting from media leakages and fishermen leaders’ fear for possible repercussions.

–   Secondly, fishermen’s stance towards the trawlers and Tamil Nadu is ambivalent. Although their livelihood is being severely affected by the Tamil Nadu trawlers, “[t]he warmth and hospitality shown by the Indian fishermen to the refugees had also created a deep sense of obligation” (Vivekanandan 2011:12). Also in terms of identity and political support there is a strong bond between the Tamils from both sides. Table 7.1 and a quote from a letter written by the Jaffna Fisheries Federation to CM Jayalalitha, after her recent electoral victory, are illustrative for this ambivalence:

Table 7.1 Opinion of North Sri Lankan fishermen on  their relation with Indian trawler fishermen (Answers given by affected fishermen – N=569). Source: Household survey


“Honoured Chief Minister, … Our relatives of Tamil Nadu, who are related to us through our umbilical cords and blood, encroach our sea area with their trawlers and scoop up our marine resources destroying our equipment which we acquired in indebtedness …” (translated from Jaffna Fisheries Cooperative Federation, 2011)

– Thirdly, over the past year fishermen have become increasingly divided along regional and political lines. The recent inauguration of a completely new fisheries organization set up by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development called ‘Rural Fisheries Organization’, which appointed a new set of fishermen leaders in Jaffna district, created a further confusion, inhibiting effective fishermen leadership.

The net result of these factors is a fishing population eager to take collective action, but caught in strong sense of powerlessness and desperation. The ordinary fishermen are also starting to lose faith in the capacity of the FCS to take any measures to their benefit, resulting in a further erosion of the legitimacy and functioning of this important body of fishermen representation.


7) Civil society and government responses to trawler intrusion

The emerging and on-going conflict between both fisher groups has certainly not occurred in the absence of efforts to solve them. Two types of the most structured efforts are worth mentioning in this regard: 1) at the bilateral level, the two governments held a number of meetings between (representatives from) the relevant ministries to address the controversies, and 2) several NGO’s (12) have attempted to find a solution by initiating and facilitating dialogues between fishermen from both sides.

The first bilateral meeting regarding the fisheries problems between the two countries was held in New Delhi on 21 April 2005, in response to agitations of Tamil Nadu fishers and their political leaders (Amarasinghe 2011). Here, an MoU was drawn up between the respective ministries, which made provision for the establishment of a bilateral Joint Working Group of fisheries (JWG). This MoU, sought for “enhanced surveillance to minimize the problem of incursions of fishing vessels from both sides in each other’s waters”, and to provide modalities for dealing with fishermen “straying inadvertently into each other waters”.

Although the MoU has never been officially approved, three  JWG meetings were subsequently held, one in 2008, one in March 2011, and most recently in January 2012. In 2008, with the war still going on, the resultant joint statement included the notification that ‘Indian fishing vessels will not venture into these identified sensitive areas’ (Joint Statement in Suryanarayan 2009, pp16), indirectly implying that Indian fishermen were allowed to fish in the rest of Sri Lankan waters.  The 2011 and 2012 Joint Working Group meetings had predictable outcomes, echoing daily media statements. With the governments of both sides agreeing that any violence against bonafide fishermen is unjustifiable, and the Sri Lankan authorities stressing that the International Boundary Line has to be respected, the tough questions were avoided.

Termed by Suryanarayan (2009, pp12) as ‘a silver lining in an otherwise bleak horizon’ there have been two promising occasions where NGOs facilitated a dialogue between the contestants by bringing a group of fishermen from Tamil Nadu to North Sri Lanka (May 2004) and from North Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu (August 2010). The 2004 meeting, in which the two groups of fishermen for the first time freely discussed the issues, is perhaps best summarized by the title of the dialogues’ report by Vivekanandan (2004): Fishing for a Favour, Netting a Lesson. While Indian fishermen came to kindly seek permission from the SL fishermen to fish in SL waters under some conditions to be specified, Sri Lankan fishermen were so resolute in their refusal of the trawl technique, that eventually the Indian fishermen came to agree that trawling should eventually be stopped, although such a change would require time and government assistance. In the ‘return visit’ of 2010, a group of 23 Sri Lankan fishermen toured the Indian coast from Rameshwaram to Nagapattinam and were treated with a spirited welcome and direct views of the feared trawler fleets. The tour converged into two days of negotiations in Chennai, resulting in a detailed agreement that trawling in Sri Lankan waters was only permitted under strict temporal and spatial restrictions (e.g. 70 specified days per year) with a strict deadline of one year, after which trawling should be stopped all together (Vivekanandan 2010b). The agreement was submitted to both governments for approval, but dismissed with the following statement:  “ … I wish to inform you that the Government of Sri Lanka nor the Government of India have appraised of the proposals that have been agreed upon by two fishing communities from Jaffna and Tamil Nadu during the Chennai meeting (13)”.

Although these exchanges were indeed promising in terms of creating mutual understanding between the contestants, a clear weakness was the lack of full support from the governments, even though in formal statements authorities from both sides tend to support them. Just as the bilateral JWG meetings were devoid of considerations of the fishermen ‘ground reality’, the fishermen to fishermen agreements had come about in the absence of foreign affairs and defence considerations. Indeed, from a foreign affairs or defence perspective, it was probably too awkward to have fishermen deciding upon conditions of the IMBL, even if it would solve some of the problems. The most important lesson of these interactions, is that to reach any viable solution, fishermen and the governments need to work together rather than act in isolation from the other.

 8)  Conclusion: the way forward

We posited that fisheries conflicts are typically revolving around the allocation of fishing rights, i.e. who is allowed to fish when, where, and how. We also put forward that the presence of appropriate institutions is the core factor in settling such disputes, using endogeneous versus exogenous conflicts as an important distinction. The nature and intractability of the Palk Bay conflict is well explained by this framework.

It has become clear that the interests are considerable, with a large group of Sri Lankan fishermen resuming their occupation, finding that an equally large group on Indian fishermen are pursuing the same fish resources in an incompatible manner. These interests primarily revolve around the allocation of fishing rights, with the contestations having clear spatial and technological dimensions. The Palk Bay conflict also is an archetypal example of an exogeneous conflict, given the absence of a larger institutional system, that provides an umbrella mechanism for control or resolution.

We explained that as such there is nothing special about a conflict between trawlers and small scale fishermen (e.g. Bavinck 2005). If we would consider the hypothetical situation that Sri Lanka would be just another State of India, the Palk Bay conflict may be as infamous as the conflict between the Chennai trawlers and small scale fishermen from Andhra Pradesh (Bavinck 2010). What then makes the Palk Bay fisheries conflict so different? Firstly, it is the civil war causing a chain of effects, including the securitization of the Palk Bay, the unequal technological developments in the fishery sectors of both sides and the politicization of the Tamil versus Sinhala dichotomy that caused the escalation. Secondly, the international dimension and the asymmetrical nature of the conflict has generated a multiplicity of governance efforts,  carried out by the fishermen at the lowest level, and the state government at the highest, that due to their fragmentation miss their target. The net result is a poor wellbeing of both Indian and North Sri Lankan fisher communities as well as diplomats having continuous headaches about Indo-Sri Lankan ties being complicated by a relatively minor, be it complex, issue.

Although it is not our pretention to prescribe a solution for the conflict, we do provide a few necessary ingredients for building towards a settlement.

  • First we need to recognize that the major driver of the conflict is the overcapitalized trawler fleet in Tamil Nadu, which is primarily a fisheries management issue. As Indian authorities are increasingly admitting, this fleet needs fundamental restructuring, with parts may be decommissioned while other parts may be converted to deep sea vessels, guided by a proper understanding of the limitations of the easily overvalued deep sea resources.
  • Secondly, the governments need to come to the realization that whatever number of meetings the JWG and experts  may have, even if they would touch the tough questions, without the genuine involvement of fishermen, the conflict is doomed to muddle through.  Fishermen know the conflict from the ground, know what is practically feasible, and what would be acceptable to them. Enforcing an agreement that does not have the support from the fishermen is therefore not only undesirable, but also unfeasible, requiring  a navy or coastguard fleet as large as the fishing fleet itself.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, finding a long term solution is not only a matter of getting the modalities right, but also the process of coming to a solution. To come back to Rapoport’s terminology, the Palk Bay conflict is an archetypical example of an exogenous conflict for there is clearly no available umbrella institution that provides a platform of interaction for all relevant parties. The major challenge, therefore, is transforming the conflict into an endogenous one, which implies the creation of a platform and a vision that integrates all relevant stakeholders.

How to fit this in: From a legal perspective the issue may look utterly simple: Indian fishermen are illegally poaching in Sri Lankan waters. As this perspective ignores historical developments, geopolitical relations, and much more nuanced and complex perspectives of fishermen from both sides, however, such an analysis neither helps to understand nor to solve the problem.

This analysis also suggests that many of the currently circulating proposals are simply nonsensical. These include fishing on alternative days by Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen (de facto that is already the case), pursuing stock enhancements (misses the point of allocation), providing trawlers with GPS or advanced warning systems (fishermen know the location of the boundary perfectly well), or making the Palk Bay a common fishing ground for all (missing the point of unequal technological capacities).


We wish to express our sincere gratitude to the fishermen and cooperative society leaders who were prepared to patiently respond to the never ending stream of questions. In particular we should thank Mr. Rajachandran and Thavaratnam for wholeheartedly explaining the ins and outs of the fisheries cooperative system’s functioning. Also, we thank Nilam Hamead for this invaluable role as patient and compassionate translator, both during the monsoon rains and unbearable sun heat. Finally, we are thankful  to the Dutch COCOON programme (a cooperation between the Dutch Scientific Foundation and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) for providing funds for this research.

Foot Notes:

1. It may be noted that Sri Lankan fishermen also cross the boundary to the Indian EEZ. These are deep sea multi-day boats (MDB) from southern Sri Lanka which head primarily for tuna in the Arabian sea or the Bay of Bengal, and certainly not in the Palk Bay.

2. The activist website for example, claims that “over 500 Indian-Tamil fishermen have been killed at mid-seas by the Sri Lankan navy/coast guard”.

3. The relatively sudden dive (a) and subsequent increase (b) in Indian production is related to a) the change of data source in 2001 and b) the emergence of pair trawling generating significant landings of oil sardines since 2004. Indian Palk Bay production taken as the sum of Thanjavur, Puddukotai and 70% of Ramnad district landings (remaining 30% Gulf of Mannar). Sri Lankan production taken as Jaffna and Mannar production combined.

4. By focusing on sea going fishermen we explicitly excluded 28 villages in the lagoon areas. The reason for this exclusion is our primary interest in interaction of Sri Lankan and Indian fisheries, which occurs evidently not in the lagoon. An exception was made for Jaffna Islands, for in this area lagoon fishing and sea fishing is much intertwined.

5. Of these 28,639 households, 17.501 were included in the household survey This difference is attributed to the exclusion of Jaffna lagoon villages (5000 households), Jaffna East (1000 households), Mannar South (3500 households), and Killinochchi lagoon fishermen (1500 households). These were excluded because fishermen in these areas are not fishing in the Palk Bay or Palk Strait, but rather in the lagoon, the Gulf of Mannar, or the Bay of Bengal.

6. There are a few Muslim fishing settlements in Jaffna district as well, but these are exclusively focusing on lagoon fisheries.

7. It must be noted here that those fishermen who are not yet resettled, and those fishermen belonging to unreleased areas, are not included in the household survey. If they would, it is reasonable to assume that the ‘security factor’ would have scored higher.

8. Amarasinghe (2011) estimates, on the basis on the number of trawlers, trawler days and prawn and fish catch values, that Sri Lanka loses between 3 and 7 billion LKR per year (or 33 to 77 Million USD). This is likely a lower estimate as it excludes the high value sea cucumber catches. Also, it does not yet include the losses of nets.

9. This rule, known as the 3-4 day rule, or alternate night rule, was implemented in the late 70s to separate small scale and trawler fishing activity (Bavinck 2003). The rule does not apply to boats based in Nagapattinam, which activity is thus considerably less predictable, affecting primarily the fishing grounds north-east of Jaffna district.

10.  Fridays are excluded as fishermen often do not go to the seas on Thursday nights for religious reasons, the data of which would therefore distort comparability. As September constitutes an average fishing month according to the fishermen, the value for private traders is extrapolated from September 2011 to a one year period.

11. Article 4.  No person shall engage in any dredging at the sea bed or undertake trawling operations within Sri Lanka Waters in relation to any activities specified in this regulation for which a fishing operation license has been issued.

12. These include SIFFS (South Indian Federation of Fisheries Societies), ARIF (Alliance for the release of innocent fishermen) and FishMarc at the Indian side and CARITAS and NAFSO (National Alliance for Fisheries Solidarity Movement) at the Sri Lankan side.

13.  Quote from letter sent by Sri Lankan Ministry of Fisheries to NAFSO, one of the conveners of the dialogues. Dated 30 September 2010.


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3 thoughts on “Understanding Obstacles and Opportunities in Post War Recovery for Fishing Households in the Palk Bay

  1. Sooriyamoorthy

    I would like to see more of this kind of articles from Tamil Diplomat. This is the kind of research and information that should be wide spread.

  2. M.Rajaratnam

    This type of research articles, will help to understand the real situation. i would like to see more in near future.


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