Swimming with the Fish and Fishing with the fisher

Interactive Platform to resolve the Bottom Trawling impasse in Sri Lanka

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

Sri Lanka became one of the handful of countries to ban mechanized bottom trawling by Act No. 11 of July 2017. Yet, this ban is hardly enforced within the country and the use of this technique is quite pervasive in the North and North-Western parts of the country, besides protests being made by thousands of small scale fishers. This cannot continue to happen. The very authorities which banned bottom trawling which is detrimental to resource sustainability, appears to have turned a blind eye to the practice even after the ban has been effected. One either swims with the fish or fish with the fisher. One cannot do both.

Establishment of Interactive Platform on Trawling

In seeking a solution to this dilemma, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) has embarked on a study in the north of the country where bottom trawling is carried out extensively by about 300 trawlers from Velvettithurai, Guru Nagar, Delft, Mandathivu in Jaffna district and, Pesalai and Pallimunai in Mannar district amidst protests by thousands of small scale fishers, who have even gone to the Minister of Fisheries, requesting to enforce the trawl ban. Threat on livelihoods and the ecosystem health were the major issues cited. The other side of the coin is that, trawling is considered as a very efficient technique in harvesting shrimp resources that contributes significantly to country’s shrimp catches and exports, finally adding to Sri Lanka’s export income. The question is, whether we could sustain earning resource rents from the shrimp fishery by completely banning bottom trawling. The Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF), whose membership consists of academics, researchers, state actors, civil society and community organisations, organized an Interactive Platform aimed at resolving these issues. Representatives of the above member groups having knowledge and experience on the subject met at the Social Science Research Center of the University of Kelaniya on the 5th of May 2018 and deliberated intensively to understand the different facets of the issue to come to an agreement acceptable to all parties. The deliberators included, Prof. Sunil Jayakody (chair), Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe, Prof. Upali Amarasinghe, Dr. Sisira Haputhanthri, Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, Dr. Dileea De Croos, Dr. M. G. Kularatne, Dr. Steve Creech, Dr. Champa Amarasiri, Dr. A. Sosai, Mr. Herman Kumara, Mr. A. Jesudasan and fisher representatives from Jaffna and Kalpitiya. The results of this exercise shall provide important policy inputs to the government in resolving the current state of affairs regarding mechanized bottom trawling in the country. In short, the message was ‘Stop Mechanised Bottom Trawling’.

What is Bottom Trawling?

In bottom trawling, enormous bag-shaped nets are pulled along the ocean floor, catching every rock, piece of coral, and fish in their paths. Large plates at each end of the net drag along the ground, keeping the net close to the ocean floor while stirring up sediment and forcing all the animals in the net’s path into the closed end. Bottom trawling literally scrapes the ocean floor clean of life and is considered to be the underwater equivalent to clear-cutting forests. Therefore, the technique is considered as a ‘non-selective’ techniques which cannot only catch target fish. This is used to catch shrimp in muddy ocean floor and is the main technique used for shrimp harvesting, although other techniques such as bottom set gill nets, trammel nets, fykes, etc. are also used. Today, there is a high degree of concern on the practice of trawling because of the heavy environmental damage it has caused and its impact on the livelihoods of thousands of small scale fishers where they only have access to a small share of the ‘cake’ apart from increasing their vulnerability through long term adverse impacts on the ecosystem

The Current Issue

Bottom trawling is carried out in Sri Lanka is of two types; wind propelled bottom trawling by traditional crafts in Negombo and, mechanized bottom trawling in Wattala, Handala and Kalpitiya in the western coast, Pesalai, Pallimunai in Mannar District and Gurunagar, Velvettithurai, mathagal, mandathivu and delft in the Jaffna District. Trawling is not carried out in other parts of the country. These trawlers are modified versions of the 3.5 ton day boats with inboard engine. They have been operating illegally because no licenses have so far been issued for mechanised bottom trawling by the Department of Fisheries. It was revealed that many of the trawlers are owned by non-sea going investors who often own more than one boat. Small scale fishers using FRP boats with outboard engine and those using traditional crafts, such as outrigger canoes (oruwa), theppams, vallams, kattamarams have been vehemently protesting against trawling on the grounds that they cause severe environmental damage and threaten the livelihoods of thousands of small scale fishers, pushing them into the dumps of poverty. This takes place in a context of increased fishing pressure on resources, declining resources and income. Now that the trawl ban law (Act no. 11 of 2017) has been enacted, it was surprising why the use of mechanized bottom trawling go un-noticed and un-attended.

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