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Fishing is a livelihood for over 200 million people around the world. It is not only a source of income for them but also a socio-economic factor which shapes their entire lifestyle. It is believed that fishing, an ancient practice of securing food, played a major part in the development of civilization. 2.5 billion people consume fish for food as it is a major source of protein. Other nutritional benefits of fish include omega-3 fatty acids and low levels of saturated fat. It is no surprise then, that the United Nation states, that declining fish stocks will affect ‘food security and economic development’ as well as social welfare and underwater ecosystems.
Catching fish affects the sustainability of life below water when the rate of fishing exceeds the rate of replenishment of the fish stocks – this is known as overfishing. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 70 percent of fish species are extracted at a faster rate than they are reproduced.
The effects of overfishing go beyond the conspicuous damage on marine species and the environment. Billions of people, including those in developing countries and coastal communities, depend on fish as a major source of their sustenance and would be heavily impacted by overfishing that constrains their nutrition requirements.
Sri Lankan Story
Sri Lanka is an island surrounded by a 1,340 km long coastal belt and 2905 km2 of water area – very conducive for fisheries. 188,685 marine fishing households and 49,450 inland fishing households were reported in 2016 and the industry has provided 273,250 direct employment opportunities in the same year. Sri Lanka is the second largest fish exporter to the European Union (EU). Sri Lanka also exports fish and fishery products to the USA and Asia. In 2016, 17,593 Mt of fish and fishery products were exported and earned 26,801 LKR Mn. (See Graph 01)
The EU banned Sri Lankan fishery products in 2015 as Sri Lankan fishermen were accused of engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices. The ban was removed when the Sri Lankan legal framework was amended and laws to regulate fishing operations in high seas by the act No. 35 of 2013, was introduced.
IUU Fishing Practices
Fishing methods of blast fishing (dynamite fishing), push nets, moxy nets, monofilament net, gill net and trammel net on coral reefs were pronounced as illegal methods of fishing in Sri Lanka.
Dynamite fishing is one of the most disastrous methods of illegal fishing which destroys the ecosystem. In this method, dynamite sticks are exploded to target a school of fish. The result is that along with killing the targeted fish, other sea life such as small fish, ornamental fish and coral reef are also killed. Apart from the impact on sustainability underwater, the fish caught in this manner are not good for consumption as they contain explosives and other chemicals.
Pair trawling or bottom trawling also destroys the entire ecosystem by sweeping out the entire ocean bed. This method catches not only the expected fish but also corals and marine life inhabiting the corals.
The net eyes of most of the illegal fishing nets are smaller than the standard nets. Fishermen use them to catch the entire school of fish. According to the concept of sustainability, fishermen should allow tiny (younger) fish to swim through the net eyes in order to maintain fish stocks for the future.
Involvement of Indian Poachers
The Indian government has introduced a new regulation called ‘Three-Four Day Rule’ in order to protect small scale fishermen, where large trawlers are required to stay in-harbor for three days a week. The Indian large trawlers have need to maximize their catch in the remaining four days. They enter the Sri Lankan territorial waters routinely and harvest the maximum. This invasion of Sri Lankan fisheries has endangered the livelihoods of Sri Lankan small scale fishermen. In addition, the use of IUU fishing methods such as dynamite-fishing, bottom-trawling and other illegal methods of fishing by Indian fishermen have caused considerable damage to the rich and diverse underwater ecosystem found in Sri Lankan waters.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Fishing
SDG number 14 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seeks to ensure the sustainability of the life below water. Biologically sustainable levels of global fish stock have declined from 90% in 1974 to 67% in 2015 according to the UNO. It is thus essential to avoid IUU fishing and implement science-based management plans in order to restore the sustainable level of fish stock as quickly as possible. The fish stock Sri Lanka reduced from 250,000 – 350,000 tons in 1978-80 to 53,000 tons in 2019 due to IUU fishing and its consequences.
Overfishing creates an unnecessary surplus of fish for consumption. Use of IUU fishing methods destroys life below water resulting in imbalances in the ecosystem. Furthermore, bycatch (a product of IUU fishing) is often not suitable for consumption leading to further wastage. The ultimate consequence of overfishing is rendering the entire industry unsustainable by their own hand.
The Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR) of The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, and National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) are the main authorities that hold the responsibilities of maintaining the sustainable ecosystem below water. Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Act Number 2 of 1996 provides the initial legal framework on practices in fishing in Sri Lankan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Number 35 of 2013 amendment for the Act and the gazettes of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (extraordinary) dated 2014.9.01, 2015.03.03, 2015.03.26, 2015.10.26 and 2015.12.14 are the set of regulations that ensure the conservation and management measures as ratified by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982). It can be said then that Sri Lanka has enacted sufficient rules and regulations to prevent IUU fishing. Furthermore, fishing operations in the EEZ and high seas and maintenance of catch records (using log books) are regulated and monitored by Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS). These are operated by satellite-based communications.
The existing regulatory framework should be implemented effectively and should provide the necessary infrastructure, scientific knowledge and technology to fishermen in order to convince them to engage with legal, reported and regulated fisheries. In addition to the DFAR and NARA, all the other authorities such as Central Environmental Authority, Marine Environment Protection Authority should monitor the IUU fishing practices in order to protect the marine ecosystem of the island by ensuring that we achieve SDG 14
(Life below water).