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 the Seychelles. But the vessel did not have valid licenses to fish in these foreign waters and was caught red-handed by the Seychelles coast guards on June 1, 2021.
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 pointed to the previous incident and noted that the fines hadn’t deterred the fishermen, and therefore imposed a mammoth fine of 1.7 million USD on Kanapathi (almost 352 million rupees). Unable to settle this fine, the 32-year-old Kanapathi, the sole breadwinner of a family with two 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 seven fishermen. One of them was a 60-year-old fisherman who had health problems and another fisherman, also jailed, was the father of a five-month-old baby. The issue of jailing fishermen becomes a social one, when most of them are the sole breadwinners for their families and 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 more 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 has already been caught once, having to spend 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 fishing, we often have closer contact with other boats, so if we encounter any approaching patrol boat, we get alerts. There are times we abandon our gear and try to evade the coast guards,” Thomas said. But still, the effort is worth the risk according to the fishermen, so the tradition continues even though it is not legal.
From historical times, Sri Lankan fishermen have engaged in what is known as ‘island job’ or ‘dupath rassawa’ in Sinhala—entering islands with shallow waters for fishing purposes. However, when countries adopted The Law of the Sea Convention in 1982, it became 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 still 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 the 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 curb IUU fishing.
The introduction of a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) on multi-day boats that go into the high seas beyond Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was the main approach to curbing IUU fishing
Sri Lanka has about 4,200 multi-day fishing boats. The high seas fishing fleet is around 1,500 vessels and all of these are fitted with VMS equipment, so that the vessels can be tracked. These high sea vessels have licenses to fish in international waters.
It is believed that some Sri Lankan vessels, to avoid the crackdown 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 from 2019-2021, 121 Sri Lankan fishing vessels were arrested in foreign waters. Of these, 31 were in the Maldives, 19 in Diego Garcia, 10 in Seychelles, four in Bangladesh, and three in Myanmar. 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 this figure.
To address the IUU issue, the Sri Lankan government, with the aid of the Australian government, is taking steps to introduce the VMS to all the other multi-day boats as well, said Ms. Hewapathirana. Their licenses will be suspended if they are found breaching the law. With this, the government would obtain updated information once every four hours, daily. The VMS team is also monitoring cases where the boats that depart from a harbor stop transmitting signals in order to prevent them from being tracked, and then go to foreign waters after switching off the VMS unit to avoid 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 reveals an interesting fact: of the 120 vessels arrested, 76% were from Sri Lanka. Most of these vessels were from the fishing harbor in Beruwala. The targeted fish were mainly sharks. The study also revealed that almost all the non-compliant vessels targeted sharks near Diego 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 one of the study’s authors.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in The Sunday Times on 27 February 2022 and republished by Ceylon News 24 on 28 February 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: One of the many vessels seized by officials. Seychelles People’s Defence Forces/The Sunday Times.