India and Sri Lanka agreed to release fishermen in each others' custody, a joint statement said on Monday, a move that is likely to ease tensions between the countries which have held fishermen captive for crossing territorial waters.
The announcement comes after ministerial level talks between India and Sri Lanka held in Colombo on Monday. India's minister of agriculture and farmers welfare Radha Mohan Singh held talks with Sri Lanka's minister for fisheries and aquatic resources development Mahinda Amaraweera.
Earlier, a joint working group (JWG) on fisheries had held its first meeting in New Delhi on 31 December 2016. The JWG was co-chaired by secretary in the department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries, government of India and secretary, fisheries and aquatic resources development, Sri Lanka.
During talks, Sri Lanka reiterated its demand to end the practice of bottom trawling, a technique that involves sweeping the sea bed for fish, and India gave assurances that it would gradually phase it out.
Critics oppose the method because the catch is indiscriminate and could wipe out entire fishing species, making areas unsustainable for fishing.
The ministers exchanged views on possible mechanisms to help find a permanent solution to the fishermen issues. The co-chairs of the JWG briefed the ministers on the outcome of the first JWG meeting for consideration of the ministers and further directions to take the process forward.
Both sides agreed to a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to expedite the release and handing over of fishermen in each other's custody on completion of respective legal and procedural formalities. The immediate release of the fishermen presently in custody was announced following the ministerial level talks.
As part of the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreed to by both sides, it was decided to intensify cooperation on patrolling and to institute periodic interaction between the Coast Guard of the two countries. An understanding was reached to ensure that there was no physical harm or loss of life while apprehending fishermen by Navy and Coast Guard of the two countries. It was agreed to explore the possibility of introducing effective tracking systems for the fishing vessels and making the use of onboard communication equipment mandatory.
The ministers appreciated the efforts taken by the JWG in operationalising the ''Hotline'' between Indian and Sri Lankan Coast Guard, which would ensure quick decision making and response.
Both sides discussed the issue of releasing fishing vessels in each other's custody. The Indian side requested for the immediate release of Indian fishing vessels. The Sri Lankan side agreed to consider the request in view of the progress being made by the JWG.
The Sri Lankan side was briefed about the measures already instituted including the decision to construct a new fishing harbour at Mookaiyur in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, and the capacity building programme for Indian fishermen on deep sea fishing that commences tomorrow at Chennai and Kochi.
The next JWG meeting will be held in Colombo in April 2017 to review the progress made in addressing the fishermen issues in a comprehensive manner.