By Malaka Rodrigo
The multi-day fishing vessel Sampath 7 departed Beruwala fisheries harbor in Western Sri Lanka in May last year, and its skipper Mahalingam Kanapathi steered the boat all the way to the waters of Seychelles. But the vessel did not have valid licenses to fish in these foreign waters and was caught red-handedly by the Seychelles coast guards on the 1st of June.
When such an incident occurs usually the vessel and fishing gear are confiscated and the fishermen are repatriated after the payment of a fine by the vessel owner. In 2020 two vessels “Sampath 5″ and “Dhammi” from the same fishing community were seized by Seychelles authorities and after court proceedings and fines of 44,600 USD (Rs.9 million) and 34,850 USD (Rs.7 million) respectively, the fishermen and the vessels were released.
In this instance Kanapathi had pleaded guilty for charges of illegal fishing, but the judge pointing out to the previous incident and noting that the fines hadn’t deterred the fisherman had imposed a mammoth fine of 1.7 million USD (almost 352 million rupees). Unable to settle this fine, the 32-year-old Kanapathi , the sole breadwinner of a family with 2 children is currently serving a jail term of two years in the Seychelles.
In the latest case of fishing in foreign waters, a boat was caught in Myanmar in November last year with 7 fishermen. One of them is 60 years old fisherman who had other ailments and another fisherman was having a five-month-old baby. Most of them are the sole breadwinners for their families, so it becomes a social issue when they are being jailed thousands of miles away from their homes.
“We know that it is not legal to fish in these foreign waters without a permit, but we can catch more fish easily than fishing in our waters, so we often do this as the yield is worth the risk,” said Anthony Thomas, a fisherman of the same community Kanapathi belongs to. Thomas made several visits to the Seychelles waters and already got caught once who spent several weeks in custody. “Our boat and the gear were confiscated, but the owner of the boat paid the fine and then Seychelles repatriated us,” Thomas said. He said some of his colleagues make several visits annually to foreign waters.
When we go in fishing, we often have closer contact with other boats, so if we found any approaching patrol boat, we get alerts. There are times we abandon our gear and make a move out to evade the coast guards, Thomas said. But still, the fishing effort worth the risk according to the fishermen engaged in IUU, so the tradition continues even though it is not legal.
From historical times Sri Lankan fishermen engage in what is known as ‘island job’ or ‘dupath rassawa’ in Sinhala–entering islands with shallow waters for fishing purposes. However, after countries adopted The Law of the Sea Convention in 1982, it is deemed illegal to enter foreign waters without a permit. Waters around Diego Garcia (British Indian Ocean territory), Seychelles, Mauritius, the Maldives, and Bangladesh are territories that Sri Lankan fishermen
dare to sail into for fishing purposes.
Meanwhile, the continuing practice of what is termed Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in foreign waters, undermines global effort to conserve fish populations through managing fish stocks sustainably. This illegal method accounts for as much as 20% of the global fisheries catch. The European Union in 2014 cited IUU fishing practices as the key reason for imposing a fishing import ban on Sri Lanka that crippled its seafood industry and many livelihoods. The ban was lifted in 2016 after the government-initiated steps to curbing IUU fishing.
The introduction of a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) on multi-day boats that go into high seas beyond Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone was the main manner in which IUU fisheries was curbed.
Sri Lanka has about 4,200 multi-day fishing boats. The high seas fishing fleet is around 1,500 and all of these are fitted with VMS equipment, so that the vessels can be tracked. These high sea vessels have licences to fish in international waters.
It is believed that some Sri Lankan vessels, to circumvent the ban on IUU in Sri Lankan waters, go beyond Sri Lanka’s EEZ and engage in IUU fishing in international waters, said Kalyani Hewapathirana, Director of fishing operations of the Fisheries Department (DFAR).
According to Fisheries Department data, 121 Sri Lankan fishing vessels were arrested in foreign waters in the past three years. Of these, 31 were in the Maldives, 19 in Diego Garcia, 10 in Seychelles, four in Bangladesh, and three in Myanmar during last 3 years 2019 to 2021. Fifty four vessels were apprehended by Indian authorities but the incidents of illegal poaching by Indian fishermen in Sr Lankan waters and subsequent arrests far outnumber these.
To address the IUU issue, the Government with the aid of the Australian government is taking steps to introduce the VMS to all the other multi-day boats as well, she said. Their licences will be suspended if they are found breaching the law. Obtaining and reporting updated information once every 4 hours daily. The VMS team is also monitoring cases where the boats that depart harbor stop transmitting signals in order to prevent them goes to foreign waters after switching off the VMS unit to avert detection, according to Ms.Hewapathirana.
The protected marine area in Diego Garcia is a rich fisheries habitat that Sri Lankan vessels often breach. Official data from Diego Garcia from 2010 to 2020 reveal an interesting fact that of the 120 vessels arrested 76% were from Sri Lanka. Most of these vessels were from the fishing harbour in Beruwala. The targeted fish were mainly sharks. The study also revealed that almost all the non-compliant vessels targeted sharks near Diago Garcia catching an estimated 14,340 individuals during the period of 2010 to 2020. “The results of this study also reveal a grim reality that we have overfished the sharks in our waters, so the fishermen have to keep on going out to foreign waters,” said Dr.Asha de Vos, who is an author of the study.
Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Fishermen say they can catch bigger sharks in foreign waters and the yield is worth the risk as fish populations reduced in local