It has become common to hear news of fisherman of one country entering into territorial water of other, and in consequence getting arrested, there boat getting confiscated. Some time even incidents of shooting on fisherman have been reported from both sides.
If we go into root of this fishermen issue between India and Sri Lanka we can see that problem was born because agreement of 1974 and 1976 between India and Sri Lanka which demarcated maritime borders had not created any corporation mechanism between these two states on fisherman issue. Perusing similar agreement between other countries, it could be noted that there always exist joint mechanism for corporation; for instance in 2013 agreement signed between Japan and Taiwan has created joint fisheries committee. This committee is an institutionalized joint management mechanism created under the principle of equality that aims to maintain order in fishing operations and preserve the bio-resources in the agreement-designated zone as well as areas of mutual concern outside of the designated zone.
Through this article attempt is been made to explore solution for this long lasting problem, having a multi dimensional impact on sovereignty, territorial integrity, security, livelihood, and environment of the region.
Issue pertaining to fisherman is a regional in nature and warrant solution at regional level; there are four key reasons for holding this view. Firstly this issue concerns many countries of South Asia. Fishermen entering into other countries territorial water is not only witnessed between India-Sri Lanka, but it can also be seen between Sri Lanka Maldives, India-Pakistan, India-Bangladesh. Thus this issue is common concerns for many countries of the region, hence available regional mechanism could be triggered to effectively deal with it.
Secondly, this issue is posing challenge to the ecology of this region at large. Fishermen are using trawlers which had severe impact on marine ecosystem . It is because of use of this instrument by fishermen, fish density in Indian side of border with Sri Lanka has severely lowered. Thus unless effective mechanism is not found to address the issue, it will not take much time when all marine resources of the region would get exhausted. In 2006, the UNSG reported that 95% of damage to seamount ecosystems worldwide was due to bottom trawling, Use of this mechanized devices have been banned and regulated in various places.
Thirdly, this issue directly has trade implication across the world. This region owing to richness of its marine resources is one of the leading exporters of marine food across the globe. Thus if effective mechanism for settling this fishermen issue is not designed and regulated and mechanism for ensuring sustainable fishery is not adhered at earliest then not only economy of these countries effected but also trade at large at global level will be adversely impacted.
Fourthly, such issues has been successfully been dealt in past with the corporation of regional organization, for instance, European Union has entered into many fisheries agreement with countries of the region, they have come up with predetermined license fishing arrangement whereby fishermen of any country of the region can fish in the water of other country after adhering to the term of this license permit agreement. Thus similar corporation can be envisaged through regional organization existing in the region.
South Asian Association for Regional Agreement (SAARC) could be used as a forum to address this problem. Even though the SAARC regional arrangement is criticized to be failure due to mutual distrust, geo political factors, and ethnic atrocities the SAARC Charter has potential enough to address the persistent regional issues like illegal fishing across borders. Objective of SAARC Charter of promoting the welfare and quality of life , accelerating economic growth and opportunities for individuals to realize their potential , contributing towards mutual trust and to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social and technical fields , are directly linked to address issue related to poor fishermen community of the region.
The Council of Ministers is main decision taking body in this organization. As per Article IV (c) of SAARC Charter, council of Ministers can take decision on new areas of cooperation. Accordingly, regulating fishery industry can be identified and decided as new area of the cooperation in the region. Since main reason for engaging in illegal fishing are economic vulnerability, unawareness of fishermen about the maritime boundary, ignorance of the consequences of illegal fishing and harmful ecological effects of using trawlers, hence awareness building programmes could be organized through the Action Committee under SAARC .
Moreover joint patrolling is another mechanism that could be adopted to deal with the issue. Australia and Indonesia currently follows this method to combat against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Thus Action Committee of SAARC could facilitate joint patrolling within the Indian Ocean water while defending the territorial integrity of the respective country.
Beside this, Foreign Fishing License Scheme could also be promoted through SAARC for providing legal permit for the fishermen to enter into another state’s territorial water. Introducing vessel tracking devices in fishing boats to determine the location could be another suggestion that can be promoted through this organization. SAARC can also propose Regional Guidelines on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices (IUU), in 2008, the EU had came up with such Regulations to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU .
Beside SAARC, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is another important sector driven cooperative organization through which issue could be addressed. As per Article 6, fishery is one of the areas of economic cooperation listed. Fisheries Expert Group Meeting which was held in Thailand in 2001, the members agreed to adopt “Ecosystem-based Fishery Management in the Bay of Bengal” . Further, BIMSTEC Leaders Retreat Outcome Document of Goa in 2016 also identifies, “cooperation in sustainable development of fisheries in this region” as an important dimension. Thus, BIMSTEC is another potential regional arrangement through which issue could be handled.
Finally it could be said that this fisherman issue has given great opportunity to regional forums like SAARC and BIMSTEC to show that they are potent enough to peacefully resolve issue having adverse impact on unity and mutual trust among the members. These regional organizations therefore must harness this opportunity and should thereby come forward to contribute in developing a long-lasting atmosphere of corporation and association among countries of the region.
(*) Niroshika Sajeevani, practicing Advocate at Supreme Court of Sri-Lanka and Mohit Gupta, practicing Advocate at Allahabad High Court