Turning around a fishing dispute in Palk Bay


Turning around a fishing dispute in Palk Bay

Three years after a WOTRO-funded research project in Sri Lanka and India had ended, a complex dispute over fisher rights in the Palk Bay changed in favour of the marginalised Tamil fishermen.

The action research project  ‘Re-incorporating the excluded: Providing space for small-scale fishers in the sustainable development of fisheries of South Africa and South Asia’ (also called Reincorpfish) started in 2010. It was conducted by a team of Dutch, Sri Lankan and Indian scientists and practitioners and aimed to contribute to the resolution of this conflict, taking a bottom-up approach.

The Palk Bay is the narrow channel that separates Sri Lanka from the state of Tamil Nadu in the south-eastern tip of India. In 2010, Tamil fishermen who had previously been displaced by the Sri Lankan civil war were returning to their villages in northern Sri Lanka. They were hoping to revive their small-scale fishing enterprises. However, the Indian trawl fleet across the channel in Tamil Nadu had meanwhile multiplied and was frequenting the waters of the Palk Bay. These trawl fishers operated at night, crossing the international maritime boundary into Sri Lankan waters. They were not only fast depleting once rich shrimp resources, but their boats also repeatedly damaged the small-scale fishermen’s nets. This soon caused an open conflict between fishers on both sides of the channel.

The shortest straw?

At the start of the project, it was obvious that the Tamil fishers in northern Sri Lanka had drawn the shortest straw. A year earlier, in 2009, the Tamil guerrilla group LTTE had been defeated by Sri Lankan armed forces, ending a 30-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority in the country. The latter were not only impoverished, but also disillusioned. The victorious Sri Lankan government had no intention to risk a dispute with the giant neighbour India on behalf of a group of poor Tamil fishermen who belonged to the former enemy. But neither did the Tamil elite within Sri Lanka choose to speak out for them. They did not want to alienate their ‘brothers’ in India: the politicians in the state of Tamil Nadu who had supported them during the war and with whom they shared both language and ethnic identity.

The politicians in Tamil Nadu, however, actively supported their trawl fishers, who considered themselves anything but offenders in this transnational conflict. Instead, they argued they were the victims in what was portrayed as a conflict over sovereignty. The Indian trawl fishers claimed they had traditional rights to the Palk Bay fishing waters, rejecting the validity of the international maritime boundary established in 1974. Whenever the Sri Lankan coast guard confiscated a transgressing Indian trawl boat and arrested its crew, Indian newspapers would add fuel to the flames with headlines such as ‘Sri Lankan navy harassing innocent fishers’ and ‘Indian fishers languishing in Sri Lanka jails’.


The researchers realised that, for any solution to be viable, the conflict needed to be reframed from a transnational dispute between Indian fishers and the Sri Lankan Navy to what it essentially was: a conflict between large-scale and small-scale fishers, with severe repercussions for the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families. They reasoned that with scientific evidence at their disposal, it would be easier to influence the debate and raise the profile of the northern Sri Lankan fishers, not only among politicians and civil servants, but also among the public. The team therefore began with social-science research to understand the composition and fishing practices of each of the two fisher populations and the power dynamics between them. This approach turned out to be effective.

Helped by Indian correspondents in Sri Lanka, who collaborated with the research team and started writing about the dispute from the Sri Lankan perspective, both the Indian and the Sri Lankan press began publishing opinion pieces that were based on well-substantiated research findings. Even policymakers began citing these articles and the public discourse started to shift. Most importantly, in Tamil Nadu a counter-narrative emerged, which implicitly acknowledged that the Indian trawlers were not just victims in this conflict, but perpetrators at the same time.


The project team meanwhile undertook efforts to create a unified fisher organisation for marginalised Tamil fishers in northern Sri Lanka. The purpose was to enable them to speak with one voice. Simultaneously the project was also initiating face-to-face dialogues between fishermen from both sides of the Palk Bay. Researcher Joeri Scholtens of the Reincorpfish project remembers that many people at the time considered this ‘a hopelessly naïve approach’: how could a conversation between two groups of fishers contribute to the resolution of a complex political controversy when state sovereignty was at stake? A reconstruction of the chain of events, however, shows that the dialogues certainly served as a trigger for change.

At one of the meetings in Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers openly broke with the narrative of the Tamil brotherhood, which had prevailed until that time. ‘If you really call yourselves our brothers’, they asked the Indian trawl fishers, ‘how come you are killing us by destroying our livelihoods with your fleet?’ These discussions were useful in the sense that they publicly exposed the hypocrisy of the Tamil Nadu position and opened up political space for a different reading of the events. While for many years it had been tantamount to political suicide for politicians to say anything negative about the trawl fishing industry, that position became increasingly untenable. At a conference in Chennai in August 2015, where Indian policymakers, scientists and fisheries people came together, the Indian trawl fishers pledged to phase out their fleet in the Sri Lankan waters.

This promise coincided with the end of the WOTRO-funded project. By early 2016, however, there were still many trawl boats operating in Sri Lankan waters. Whenever a north Sri Lankan fisherman’s nets were damaged by a trawler, a family lost nearly a year’s income. Despite the promises and changes in discourse, for the small-scale fishermen the future remained uncertain.


The impact of research often becomes visible only years after a project has ended. That is also true in this case. When Scholtens visited Sri Lanka in late 2018, he could see with his own eyes what colleagues in Sri Lanka and local media had been already been pointing out: there were far fewer Indian trawl boats in the Sri Lankan waters of the Palk Bay. What caused this unexpected turnaround?

The impact of research often becomes visible only years after a project has ended

First, an unforeseen geopolitical factor. The US and Europe started to come down on ‘illegal, unreported and unregulated’ (IUU) fishing, boycotting seafood imports from countries that practice illegal fishing. Given that Indian trawlers were fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters, this was clearly a case of IUU fishing. Framing it as such was a smart move that made the Indian state and business actors nervous about the potential repercussions for international trade. At the same time, domestic politics played a part. When the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014, the Tamil Nadu politicians, who had been championing the case of the trawl fishers, started losing leverage in Delhi. The Indian central government, in brief, became less and less willing to defend the Tamil Nadu trawl fishers in their cross-border conflict with Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan NGO partner in the WOTRO-funded project, NAFSO, had kept training and mobilising the small-scale fishers, also after the project’s closure. In collaboration with another group of domestic activists, they lobbied for new government legislation banning the use of trawl gear in Sri Lankan waters. In 2017, Sri Lanka became one of very few Asian countries that issued a total ban on trawlers. The government also introduced stricter regulations against foreign boats. While the implementation of these laws poses challenges of its own, the new legislations in principle allow the Sri Lankan government to play the ecological card in curbing trawlers, thus also changing the conflict from a political to a legal issue.

Against the odds

Within eight years from the project’s start, it was clear that the most marginalised party in a persistent transnational fishing dispute had provisionally drawn the longer straw. Even the highly-committed project team could not have predicted this outcome. ‘It was quite heart-warming’, Scholtens says, ‘to hear the same people who had completely internalised their victim status, now speak with some confidence about ‘our struggle’ having contributed to changing the situation in our favour.’ As befits a scientist, he remains modest about the role that the research played in causing the small fishermen’s success against. Yet the project indisputably lay the groundwork by contributing knowledge and evidence to public and political debates and by mobilising and assisting the fishers to speak out on their own behalf.

Text: Ellen Lammers
Photo credit: Joeri Scholtens