Colombo Telegraph

The Unheard Voices Of The Tuna Fishermen Of Sri Lanka

By Rahul Aryasinha

Rahul Aryasinha

Sri Lankan fishermen have been accused of being involved in illegal fishing activities in unauthorized territories including Marine Protected Areas. As a result we have just lost 74 million Euros worth of fish exports per year to Europe. Now the Sri Lankan authorities are working on amending the fisheries act and taking steps to comply with EU regulations to curb illegal fishing activities. Why were these fishermen involved in illegal fishing activities in the first place? Even prior to the European ban, the most important stakeholders of this industry – the fishermen and boat owners, were facing daunting challenges and in many cases were failing to operate profitably. The EU ban has only exacerbated an existing unfavorable condition.

Technology versus hearsay

For the fishermen and the boat owners every single trip out at sea has turned into a gamble. All though the sole income for both parties depends on a successful catch of tuna, minimal catches have resulted in low profits for boat owners as well as for the fisherman who work on a profit sharing basis. Many of these boat owners are liable to financial institutions on a monthly basis and endure the inconvenience of not being able to honor timely payments. Having no scientific knowledge on where to find fish the conventional fisherman mainly rely on word of mouth. Facing low income and at times even a loss they are forced to do whatever it takes to catch fish and save the day. At this point the fishermen start poaching in restricted territories and many times they target marine protected reserves. When these fishermen get caught poaching they face even worse economic burdens in the form of fines to get the detained vessels and the crew members released. With all these risks involved in illegal fishing, why do our fishermen still take the risk of fishing in restricted or protected areas? Secondly why do our fishermen practice unsustainable methods of fishing such as ring netting that kill thousands of juvenile pelagic fish, ultimately depleting fish stocks and risking the future of the fishing industry?

Sri Lanka continues to be one of the main sea food exporters in the world, yet the plight of our fishermen still remains unfortunate. Several months of hard work yields no harvest and they struggle to make enough income to make ends meet. Similarly boat owners are continually facing economic hardships to maintain their business as their incomes are highly volatile due to the unpredictability of successful fishing operations out at sea. Abiding by EU regulations and installing VMS(vessel monitoring system) devices in our vessels will be a good step towards curbing illegal fishing and increasing safety out at sea. However, this by itself will prove to be an insufficient measure unless related concerns are addressed. One important question remains, how do we empower the fishermen and the boat owners who are the back bone of the Sri Lankan fishing Industry?

To this end the government of Sri Lanka, NGO’s and private sector investor’s have invested much money in the fishing industry. These investments have been dispensed as subsidized loan schemes, donations of small boats and fishing gear, infrastructure for the industry such as (boat building yards, fisheries harbors, ice plants, etc) and finally on state of the art value addition projects that meet international standards such as fish processing and canning factories. Yet the Sri Lankan fishermen face a constant challenge in catching enough fish to operate profitably. It is this challenge that they face that leads our fishermen to be involved in illegal and unsustainable fishing practices. And as a result today our seafood has been banned by the European Union.

One may argue that these limitations can be overcome by authorizing foreign vessels to operate using the Sri Lankan flag and to unload their catch in Sri Lanka, or to import fish from the Maldives to be re-exported all of which may presumably increase fish exports and foreign currency revenue, but this does not improve the socio-economic status of the fishing communities of Sri Lanka.

Installing Vessel Monitoring Systems to track vessels without simultaneously educating the fishermen on how to use science and technology to catch more fish efficiently will be a counterproductive measure to the expected goals of the European Union. The lower prices offered for the fish as a result of low demand due to the EU ban and the cost that needs to be undertaken by fishermen to purchase VMS devices and the stricter regulations on where the boats can operate, will see more tuna long line fishermen switching to more unsustainable methods of fishing such as gill netting and ring netting. The only successful way to curb illegal and unsustainable fishing practices is by empowering the local fishermen, to this end a system needs to be developed using near real time remote sensing oceanographic data and technology that is accessible, dependable and sustainable for our fishermen that will ensure them a constant and reliable catch of fish.

*Rahul Aryasinha -Proprietor of the Ocean’s Harvest Fishing Company

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