Fishing Crimes in Sri Lanka’s Waters Need or Greed?

Professor Oscar Amarasinghe
President / Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF)

Use of destructive fishing gear and practices in Sri Lanka’s waters is quite pervasive in almost all regions. While an array of laws ban the use of environmentally unfriendly and destructive gear and practices, people tend to break laws in a context of weak implementation of laws. Although taking stern action against these greedy rule breakers appears the best course of action, some argue that laws are often violated for reasons of ‘grievance’; insufficient incomes to feed the family due to poverty. Whatever the reason is, one cannot let fishers to commit this crime, who are digging their own grave knowingly or unknowingly. This issue needs to be addressed soon to ensure long term sustainability of resources and livelihoods of thousands of people depending on fisheries resources.

What are Destructive Gear and Practices?

The term refers to the use of fishing gears and practices in ways or in places such that one or more key components of an ecosystem are obliterated, devastated or ceases to be able to provide essential ecosystem functions. From an ecosystem approach, it simply means the use of gears and/or practices that present a high risk of damage to a population of certain fish species or their habitat, to the point of eliminating their capacity to continue producing the expected goods and services for present and future generations. This is particularly true if resource recovery is not possible within an acceptable time frame. Only a few number of fishing practices, such as poisons and explosives, are recognized as inherently “destructive”. For elders in fishing communities, fisher leaders, officers of community organisations and fisheries officials the term “destructive” is used to denote techniques that are environmentally unfriendly, which leads to ecosystem damage and resource degradation. In the absence of any formal agreement regarding the term, the classification of a gear or practice as destructive means that the use of such gear or techniques is inconsistent with national laws either permitting or prohibiting certain types of gear or practices.

The most common destructive fishing gear, fishing techniques and practices used in Sri Lanka’s waters include, dynamiting which indiscriminately kill large numbers of fish and other marine organisms in the vicinity, monofilament nets or gill nets with a single filament which are less visible in water and catch unprecedented quantities of fish, bottom set gill nets which are laid on rocks damaging life at the bottom, trammel nets (or triple nets) which damage the resources in the same way, moxy nets and other nets with tiny mesh sizes that catch small fish, stake nets (jakotu) mounted on galvanized pipes, the latter causing damage to boats and nets of small scale fishers and those that are used as traps (kuudu del) trapping all life – big and small, scuba diving where the users completely disturb the bottom to find bottom dwelling fish and cray fish, unregulated brushpile fisheries where cut mangrove branches are used as fish aggregating devices leading to unacceptable levels of mangrove destruction, bottom trawls that are dragged along the sea bottom destroying all marine life, purse seines with lights that attract and kills fishes of all sizes, etc. The use of these gear, techniques and practices do not show any uniformity across regions, but highest incidences are reported in the Northern districts of the country. The most extensively used in the country are the monofilament nets, dynamite, bottom trawls, stake nets, unregulated brushpiles and bottom set gill nets. Reports from the north indicate a significant rise in the use of destructive gear after the cessation of the civil war. It is quite evident that, one cannot let this continue. However, one may naturally wonder as to why such fishing crimes escape the attention of authorities.

Interactive Platform on Destructive Fishing

Aiming at finding a lasting solution to the issue of fishing crimes, the Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF) summoned a meeting of persons having expert knowledge of the issue at hand, who included, academics from an array of national universities, researchers from National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), officers from the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, civil society organisations, and fisher community organisations such a fisheries cooperatives and Rural Fisheries Organisations. This was held on the 14th of August 2018 at the Social Science Research Centre of the University of Kelaniya, in the form of an interactive platform, where the participants deliberated on their knowledge and experience to discuss the issue in detail and propose solutions acceptable to all.

These deliberations followed a similar event organised earlier by the SLFSSF on the issue of bottom trawling, another pervasive practice which has led to social unrest among small scale fishers in northern and north-western areas of the country.

Laws against fishing crimes

The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Law of 1996 and its amendments have banned the use of a number of fishing gear and techniques which are deemed harmful to fisheries resources and the ecosystem. Section 27, Part IV of the Act says no person shall “use or attempt to use any poisons, explosives or stupefying substance or other noxious or harmful material or substance in Sri Lanka waters for the purpose of poisoning, killing, stunning or disabling any fish or other aquatic resources”. Moreover, fishers are supposed to obtain licenses for all fishing operations and this condition imposes limits on techniques that they are permitted to employ for fishing. At present, the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development issues licences for only 17 fishing operations which are considered as ‘permitted or allowed’. All this point to the fact that Sri Lanka has taken the necessary steps to prevent any harm being done to its aquatic environment and fisheries resources. If these laws are respected, one cannot expect incidences of fishing crimes in this country. Yet, crimes are committed under the nose of the fisheries authorities, the community organisations and the police, and many escape punishment.

Rule Breaking: Need or Greed

Deliberations of the Interactive Platform revealed several facets of the issue of fishing crimes. It was recognised that what is ‘destructive’ differ from the points of view of different actors and where they are used. Trammel net or the triple net appears to be a very efficient technique in harvesting lobster and had been in use for decades, though it was banned by authorities because the nets get entangled in rocks and corals which damage and degrade the marine ecosystem. Mechanised Bottom trawling is an efficient techniques to harvest shrimp resources living in muddy ocean floor, yet it threatens the livelihoods of the small scale fishers when both groups operate in the same area and when resource recovery is low in trawled grounds. Bottom-set gill net is a banned gear, but is the most common technique used by southern fishers to catch lobster which is quite abundant in rocky ocean floors widespread in the southern region, while harvesting lobster in the north-western areas, characterised by ‘not-so-rocky bottoms, fishers use scuba diving, which is banned in the south. While all these are banned techniques to catch fish according to the laws of the country, they are permitted in areas where their use has been found to possess a comparative advantage over the other techniques and, when alternative techniques to catch the target species are non-existent. Inappropriateness of certain laws was also noted. This was quite evident in laws governing lagoon fisheries, where laws that have been formulated to govern fishing in inland waters have indiscriminately being made applicable to lagoons; different resources, different resources users and different laws guiding their behaviour.

On the question of ‘who are involved in breaking rules against the use of destructive gear’, the deliberations revealed that, the more damaging practices like dynamite (or explosives), bottom trawling, stake nets with galvenized pipes and those in the form of traps (kuudu del) are employed by the more affluent and the powerful in fishing villages, or in the jargon of fishers, the ‘mudalalis’. They often possess a few trawlers, several stake nets, or kuudu del; the rich inflicting the damage and the poor suffering from it. This could also be a reason as to why the use of destructive techniques continue to be employed and why the users escape punishment. However, this does not make the poorer fishers more environment-conscious, because the incidences of the use of the banned monofilament nets are often reported from such populations. But this could be the grievance argument, where for lack of their access to diverse livelihood capitals to cope with vulnerability, the poor are compelled to use fish resources more intensively using the so called destructive gear / practices, many of which tend to be bring in large catches, although the long term implications for resource health are alarmingly adverse; “If you don’t fish you starve. If you wish, you will degrade the resources and then you starve”. Migration of fishers from ‘outside’ is another reason for increased use of destructive fishing practices. These fishers are often IDPs from civil war or those who migrate in search of better resources. Being outsiders they are not obliged to respect village values, culture and laws and protect the village resources. It was suggested that such fishers should be registered and charged for harvesting resources. Non-compliance in the context of ‘god given’ common pool resources was also another point highlighted. Small scale fishers sometimes avoid obtaining fisher identity cards and operation licences on the grounds that the resources are ‘no body’s property’ and thus feel free to do what they want. The situation is made more critical with the fisheries department’s decision to issue fishing licenses free of charge. These fishers need a drastic change in attitude – the most appropriate way to put them on the correct track. Laws cannot do the job alone.

One cannot also forget the Malthusian influences, where fishing pressure (increase in the number of fishers) is on the rise pushing down the catch per fisher. When the share of the ‘common pool cake’ is too small to feed the family, the system would collapse or take a different turn, to meet the aspirations of the actors. However, there was less support for this argument because the participants thought that, apart from those extremely marginalized minority, even small scale fishers are hardly confronted with such serious livelihood crises to go to the extent of toppling the existing livelihood system, by breaking laws. Another important point highlighted was the lack of awareness among many fishers of the environmental impacts of certain gear types and fishing techniques, which has also caused the present situation of rising fishing crimes. Absence of communication tools that explain fishing laws, environmental impacts etc. in the language of the ordinary was identified as a serious deficiency in securing sustainable small scale fisheries in the country. The need to disseminate information on efficient and environmentally-friendly means of harvesting resources was also emphasized.

The weakness of the law enforcement mechanism was noticed as one of the serious flaws of the state legal system. Laws have no meaning unless they are enforced. However, the Fisheries Inspectors, who are the state officers on the beach or at the landing site to enforce the fisheries acts and ordinances, are burdened with an array of administration matters covering large areas of operation. Moreover, they are supposed to assist people in securing crafts, gear, credit, and public goods and, also to take action against law breakers, showing the contradictory nature of these different functions. The adviser, the extension officer and, the policeman cannot be the same!

It was agreed that, the best way to enforce laws at the landing site level is for the fisheries cooperatives to assume management functions, which they traditionally failed to perform. As community institutions respecting the principles of the peasantry such as, equality, reciprocity, social harmony, wellbeing, etc., cooperatives were not able to control entry into fisheries and sue members for illegal practices. Yet, in a context of increasing fishing pressure and escalating use of destructive gear, cooperatives should function as true fisheries management platforms. Rather than suing law breakers in court of law, the cooperatives can impose internal sanctions such as, not entertaining applications for credit and other assistance submitted by those who commit fishing crimes. Moreover, informational asymmetries among various actors within the cooperative membership remain minimal; everybody knows ‘who do what’! In this respect, interventions by fisheries cooperatives would mark a historical turning point; adoption of measures of prevention, rather than cure- the latter being quite costly and difficult.

Way forward

The deliberations of the Interactive Platform on Destructive Fishing brought into light several facts that provided important insights towards dealing with the issue of destructive fishing and practices.

  • There is a need to revise fishing laws, especially those banning the use of certain gear and techniques. It is most appropriate to formulate laws by region, province or district, which vary, among others, on type and abundance of resources, ecology, oceanography, society, etc.
  • The above decisions are to be taken with active participation of all stakeholders; the state actors, fisher communities, scientists, civil society organisations, etc. In doing so, the present initiative to establish fisheries co-management committees in identified fisheries management areas under the provisions made in the 1996 Act, is to be re-structured and revitalised to ensure that such platforms are truly participatory and inclusive.
  • Programmes of awareness building and sensitizing on environmental implications of diverse fishing gear, techniques and practices should be organised for fishing communities and, communication tools in simple language giving the key messages should be prepared for this purpose.
  • Laws banning the use of harmful substances / materials as described in section 27 of Part IV of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act of 1996, should be amended and modified and produced as a separate regulation made by the Minister of Fisheries under Section 61 (1), (j) of the Act, which shall prevent the use of any gear or technique that is deemed harmful to fish resources and the ecosystem.
  • Law enforcement has to be strengthened. This could be carried out with assistance from fisheries cooperatives, who can impose sanctions on members for committing fishing crimes.
  • Fisheries cooperatives should be recognized and empowered as true fisher community organisations, which should be assisted to perform management functions and to link up with similar organisations horizontally to form formidable fisheries cooperative federations that can influence policy.
  • While imposing penalties on rule breakers, their socio economic conditions should also be uplifted which include, among other things, provision of facilities for education, alternative employment, training and capacity building, social security protection, with emphasis on gender equality.

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