Tackling over-harvesting

Print edition : September 11, 1999

SRI LANKA faces the problem of over-harvesting of its coastal waters. In order to address this problem, the Government encourages deep-sea fishing by offering a number of subsidies. The country's marine fisheries sector currently produces around 220,000 tonnes a year from two-thirds of the area of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

A report compiled by Steve Creech with inputs from organisations such as the Forum for Human Dignity, the Social and Economic Development Centre, the National Fisheries Solidarity and the National Union of Fisheries says that there has been a rapid incre ase in the number of mechanised coastal fishing craft, while the number of traditional craft has remained unchanged. One-day deep-sea vessels, according to it, have become near-extinct, whereas there has been a near-explosion in the number of multi-day f ishing boats.

According to government figures, in 1995 the country had a fleet of 1,543 multi-day fishing vessels. Now their number is close to 1,800. Deep-sea fishing within the EEZ is at the point of or nearing over-exploitation: 19 per cent of the small boats and 3 9 per cent of the larger boats reportedly fish outside the country's territorial waters. Nearly 74 per cent and 64 per cent of the boats operating from Negombo and Chilaw respectively fish beyond the EEZ. The deep-sea fishing boats are also getting bigge r, another indication of the desire of the fisherfolk to fish off the Sri Lankan coast and for longer durations. Five years ago, boats measuring even 50 feet were not common; now the demand is for boats as long as 60 or 70 ft.

The report says: "When they begin to search for fish outside Sri Lanka's EEZ, deep-sea boats face a number of problems. To the north-east and north-west, they are confronted by India's EEZ. To the west, they encounter first the Maldivian territorial wate rs, then those of the Seychelles. To the south-west lies the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) of Diego Garcia. To the east lie the territorial waters of Indonesia. Fines for illegal fishing in Seychellian waters are approximately Seychellian $50,000 a day. The boat, gear and catch are automatically confiscated. Likewise in the Maldives, boats, gear and catch are confiscated following arrest. Licences to fish in BIOT are granted at the cost of SLRs 360,000 to SLRs 450,000 a month for long lining. Fo r purse-seine fishing the fee is SLRs 2 million for four months and a daily payment of SLRs 120,000 for each day the boats are engaged in fishing." The quantum of the fines and the licence fees reflect the lucrative nature of commercial deep-sea fishing and the strong desire of states to control fishing within their EEZs, it remarks.

The report concludes: "It is difficult to be optimistic about the future. All the while Sri Lankan Government policy persists in seeking an answer to over-fishing in coastal waters, by promoting deep-sea fishing as an alternative, the problem is likely t o continue... The most viable option for many boats is to poach fish from Indian or Maldivian waters - regardless of the risks involved."

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