Increase Palk Bay patrol, Colombo tells New Delhi

Sri Lanka on Friday asked India to increase the patrol of the Palk Bay to prevent Tamil Nadu fishermen from trespassing into Sri Lankan waters, even as it expressed positive signs on the likely release of detained Indian trawlers, The Hindu newspaper reported.

“The meeting was very useful. We are happy that India is really committed to its assurance of phasing out bottom trawlers and has taken constructive steps. We are very hopeful of finding a permanent solution together,” a senior officer from the Sri Lankan delegation told The Hindu after official teams from the countries met here as part of an initiative to jointly address the Palk Bay fisheries conflict, involving fishermen of Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka.

After the island’s civil war ended in May 2009, fisher folk living in the Tamil majority Northern Province have been expressing serious concern over the loss of livelihoods due to relentless bottom trawling — a destructive fishing method — practised by Indian fishermen, reportedly, in the Sri Lankan waters.

The long-running conflict has resulted in the arrest of several hundred Indian fishermen since 2009, and at times, sparked violence at sea. The Sri Lankan Navy has also confiscated trawlers used by the fishermen.

At Friday’s meeting, the Indian side expressed deep concern over the fatal shooting of Rameswaram fisherman K. Britjo who set out fishing in the Palk Bay on March 6. Tamil Nadu fishermen have accused the Sri Lankan Navy of opening fire at him and the Navy has denied the charge.

The Indian officials sought a detailed report on the investigation carried out by Sri Lankan agencies and reiterated that no violence should be used against fishermen under any circumstance, sources at the meeting said.

Officials from New Delhi and Tamil Nadu also updated the Sri Lankan side on the initiatives taken, including the construction of two fishing harbours in Mookaiyur and Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu at a cost of over Rs. 250 crore, to phase out bottom trawling and encourage fishermen to consider alternative methods.

To the Indian side’s request for the release of the seized trawlers, numbering nearly 150, the Sri Lankan officials expressed the willingness to consider it soon. “Recently, our Ministry sought the opinion of northern fishermen on this matter, they seem agreeable. But since this is a political decision, it would have to be taken at the highest levels. We are considering the India’s request very seriously,” a top Sri Lankan official said.

The release of trawlers remains a contentious issue with owners of the vessels, based in Tamil Nadu, demanding they be returned and the Sri Lankan government retaining them, and instead releasing the arrested Indian fishermen swiftly. It appears that Colombo may release at least some of the trawlers, especially those seized in 2015, in the near future.

Friday’s meeting was the second of the ongoing discussions between senior officials from both sides, an initiative running parallel to the ministerial-level bilateral talks.

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