The Sunday Leader

Indian Fishermen Destroying Our Marine Resources Permanently

by Camelia Nathaniel

Marine experts in Sri Lanka have stated that poaching and bottom trawling by Indian  fishermen and illegal fishing methods used by the local fishermen have been permanently destroying the marine resources around the country and  they  predict  that  the region  may  soon  be barren if these activities continue.

Sri Lanka is known for its breath-taking golden beaches, bays, and many lagoons and estuaries, which are usually saline and shallow water bodies. Underneath the water, in lagoons, estuaries and in shallow coastal waters, many types of marine vegetation such as sea grasses, and the shallow coastal waters support coral reefs, areas of such rich diversity and productivity that they are dubbed ‘the rainforests of the sea’.

These coastal ecosystems have been home to an abundance of marine species. Some 29 marine mammals are found in our seas including the Blue whale, Sperm whale, Spinner dolphin, and the Dugong. Apart from that, Sri Lanka’s sea area is also home to five of the seven species of marine turtles found worldwide: Green turtles, Leatherbacks, Hawksbills, Olive Ridleys and Loggerheads. Sri Lanka’s coral reefs also supports some 900 species of reef fish, about 200 species of hard corals and a multitude of weirdly wonderful invertebrates. There are 15 species of sea grasses recorded in Sri Lanka, while thousands of other species – micro-organisms, algae, invertebrates and vertebrates, have also been found.

However, today Sri Lanka’s sea areas are under threat from global warming, oceanic changes, poaching and use of illegal fishing methods. Around 5000 Indian trawlers enter Sri Lankan territorial waters and their use of bottom trawling gear destroys all the marine life and the entire marine eco system. To make matters worse the local fishermen too engage in the use of illegal fishing methods further destroying the marine resources of the country.

Bottomtrawls   are designed to plough in to the top layer of the sea-bed and dredge up everything therein.  In this method two heavy metal  panels  are  fixed  at  both  sides  of  the  mouth  of  the Bottom  Trawling  net  to  make  sure  that  it  remains  at  the bottom  of  the  sea  floor.  In addition to altering  seafloor habitats, bottom trawling also results in huge amounts of  smaller fish and other sea plant life which is not required by the fishermen which are then just discarded. This is a terrible shame as the nets also dredge up the corals and other rocks at the sea bed disturbing the reproductive cycle of the marine life. The fish lay their eggs among the rocks and corals and this is one of the main reasons that the shoals of fish gather in these spots. When the bottom trawls rake the sea bed everything in its path gets dragged into the nets. This too has had a devastating effect on the marine eco system, as when the breeding sites are destroyed the along with the eggs, there is no way the fish stocks can breed and multiply. Reef fish are also exploited for the marine aquarium trade. Other species – such as Sacred Chanks for use as religious talismans, sea cucumbers for traditional medicine and food, corals and seashells as ornaments – are also at risk from over-exploitation

Sea   Cucumbers   and   Pearl Oysters are also the targets of bottom trawling. The  Palk Bay  and  the  Gulf  of  Mannar  record  one  of  the  richest Biological  Diversities  in  the  Indian  Ocean  which  includes 20%  of  Indian  Ocean  creatures.  The  Palk  Bay,  located between  the  Bay  of  Bengal  and  the  Gulf  of  Mannar  is home  to  580  fish  species,  733  molluscs,  651  crustaceans and    128    species    of    stony    corals. Further the seas around Mannar and Palk Bay were once famous for Pearl Oysters, but these destructive fishing methods have destroyed the habitat of these pearl oysters and today these pearl oysters can hardly be found around Mannar and the Palk Bay.  Zoologists claim that the Gulf of Mannar is home to over 3,600 marine species.  The five endangered marine turtles also inhabit this area.

The local fishermen engage in a method called purse seine where a large wall of netting is deployed around an entire area or school of fish.The seine has floats along the top line with a lead line threaded through rings along the bottom. Once a school of fish is located, a skiff encircles the school with the net. The lead line is then pulled in, “pursing” the net closed on the bottom, preventing fish from escaping by swimming downward. This method too catches not just the targeted fish but also unwanted catch which is then discarded, adding to the marine destruction. Sea turtles can be captured by a purse seine as it is set and then become entangled in the net mesh as it is hauled in. Entangled turtles may sustain injuries to their flippers and shells due to the force of the net as it is hauled.In a large catch, turtles risk being crushed under the sheer weight of the tow. Once the netting has been set, encircled marine mammals cannot escape and can become entangled, injured, or stressed. Even with quick retrieval, marine mammals’ sensitive bodies and internal organs cannot usually withstand the weight of the catch or the impact of being placed on the vessel.

Local fishermen also use explosives in order to stun the fish, but this method too destroys even the fish eggs and the fish lings. Last year the Sri Lanka Navy had confiscated 165 kg of high explosives gel and 152 Kg of TNT from fishermen who were engaged in this destructive fishing method. In addition 34 safety fuses, 364 detonators, 5kg C4 high explosives were also confiscated by the Navy last year. According to fisheries sources, none of these are available in the open market and are believed to have been obtained illegally.

According to a report by NARA on the destruction caused to marine life due to illegal fishing methods, there are around 7 illegal methods that are still being used by the local fishermen. The report suggests that with the use of explosives, the fishermen are able to gather a large haul of fish within a short period, and this maybe the reason that this method is being used.

The harvesting of coral conch shells and sea cucumbers too has become a huge problem that has led to the destruction of the marine eco system. India has banned the harvesting of sea cucumber or conch shells and the Indian fishermen mainly target Sri Lanka’s waters, as it is a highly lucrative trade. A valuable conch shell can sell for millions of rupees while even the sea cucumber is sold at around Rs. 20,000 per kilo. However while the Indian are protecting their waters by strictly imposing laws, they are exploiting Sri Lankan waters and destroying the local seas.

Further according to an official of the fisheries ministry, due to the sand mining for the 269 hectare port city project, 65 million cubic metres of sand is being taken from the sea. The danger here is that when such a huge volume of sand is dug, the waves and currents then wash the sand from other areas toward the area where it has been dug. The shifting sand also covers the corals and marine eco system that leaves no place for the fish to lay eggs. Environmentalists warn that this could spell further disaster for Sri Lanka.

However in a bid to assist in the preservation of the marine resources, the fisheries ministry has decided to cut the annual licences of divers in a bid to encourage them to seek alternative employment. According to the NARA study currently there are over 500 young fisher folk engaged as divers without proper training. The ministry has also allocated Rs. 2500 million this year for the development of 10 identified lagoons in the country in a bid to stop the destruction that is happening.

In 2014 Sri Lanka imported around 77,000 metric tons of fish to the country despite the fishing done locally, and in 2015 we have imported 112,000 metric tons. This figure is expected to increase to around 120,000 metric tons this year. Sri Lanka also imported 6200 metric tons of canned fish in 2014, in 2015 it exceeded 11,000 metric tons and this year the fisheries ministry anticipates that it might exceed this figure.

Last year the local fish production was around 533,000 metric tons, with the EU ban in place. Earlier SL only exported type 1 fish, but with the hope the EU ban will be lifted soon, there is a possibility that SL could also export type 2 fish. But the issue is do we have enough fish stocks in order to meet the demand. The only solution would be to fish in international waters, but SL has a quota of only 1645 large trawlers. Of this around 1400 trawlers already have licences, but there is provision for only another 245 licences to be obtained.

Under the current situation where Sri Lanka’s seas are facing the threat of destruction, the fisheries ministry needs to take all precautions to stop the Indian trawlers from entering local waters and destroying our marine resources. However currently there is nothing Sri Lanka can do, other than confiscate their boats and fishing nets. But will this stop the Indian trawlers from encroaching on our waters is one question, while the other is the destructive fishing practices of the local fishermen. Unless all these issues are resolved quickly, Sri Lanka’s marine resources and marine eco systems are facing certain doom.

 

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