Swimming with the fish and fishing with the fisher | Sunday Observer

Swimming with the fish and fishing with the fisher

Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe

Mechanised bottom trawling - a technique used to catch shrimp dwelling in muddy bottoms of the oceans is quite detrimental to resource sustainability. Sri Lanka became one of the handful of countries to ban mechanised bottom trawling by the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act No. 11 of July 2017. Yet, this ban is hardly enforced within the country and trawling is practiced in the Northern, Western and North-Western parts of the country, despite protests being made by small scale fishers. The very authorities who banned bottom trawling have turned a blind eye to the use of this technique.

One cannot let the fish swim, while at the same time go with the fisher and catch that fish. You cannot do both.

Findings of the Interactive Platform on Bottom Trawling organised by the Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF):

The Issue

In bottom trawling, enormous bag-shaped nets are pulled along the ocean floor, catching every rock, piece of coral, and fish in their paths. It literally scrapes the ocean floor clean of life and is considered to be the underwater equivalent to clear-cutting forests. The major argument against bottom trawling is that, it is quite detrimental to the ecosystem and produces large quantities of by-catch, thus threatening the long-term resource sustainability and livelihoods of small scale fishers who fish in the same area.Trawling for shrimp carried out in Sri Lanka is of two types; wind propelled trawling by traditional crafts in Negombo and, mechanised bottom trawling in Wattala, Hendala and Kalpitiya in the western coast, Pesalai and Pallimunai in the Mannar District and,Gurunagar, Velvettithurai, Mathagal,Mandathivu and Delft in the Jaffna District. Except in the case of age old wind-propelled trawling in Negombo, which is hardly considered as ‘destructive’, trawling in other areas is done with mechanised bottom trawling which is considered as quite ‘damaging’. There are about 300 such bottom trawlers operating in the North and 23 in Kalpitiya. These trawlers are modified versions of the 3.5 ton day boats with inboard engines. In theory, they have been operating ‘illegally’ because trawling is banned by the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act no. 11 of 2017. Many of the trawlers are owned by non-sea going investors who often own more than one boat. Small scale fishers, especially those using FRP (fibre reinforced plastic) boats with outboard engines and those using traditional crafts, such as outrigger canoe (oru), theppam, vallam, kattamaram (catarmaran) 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 depths of poverty.

This takes place in a context of increased fishing pressure on resources, declining resources and income which holds true for the whole country.However, the other side of the coin is that, trawling is considered as a very efficient technique in harvesting shrimp resources that contribute significantly to the country’s shrimp catches and exports, finally strengthening Sri Lanka’s economy. The question is, whether we could sustain earning resource rents from the shrimp fishery by completely banning bottom trawling.

Interactive Platform on Trawling

In addressing the above issue, the SLFSSF, whose membership consists of academics, researchers, state actors, community organisations and civil society organised an Interactive Platform (IP) aimed at resolving these issues. (The IP is a platform where all relevant stakeholders get together to deliberate upon their knowledge and experience about a certain issue and finally arrive at decisions acceptable to all). This platform was organised at the Social Science Research Center of the University of Kelaniya on May 5th 2018, with the participation of a number of present and past academics of the Universities of Ruhuna, Sri Jayewardenepura, Kelaniya, Wayamba and Jaffna, scientists from NARA (National Aquatic Research Agency)and other private organisations, fisher leaders from the North and the North West and civil society organisations like NAFSO (National Fisheries Solidarity Organisation). The participants deliberated intensively to understand the different facets of the issue to arrive at agreements acceptable to all parties. As a second step, deliberations were also carried out in the field (at Kalpitiya), with office bearers of fisheries cooperatives, rural fisheries organisations and fisheries officials, to clarify certain additional issues. This article is based on the results of these deliberations, which have several implications for decisions concerning the issue of trawling in Sri Lanka’s marine waters.

The Deliberations

In its deliberations, the IP took two positions which were in direct opposition to each other; (i) strictly enforce the ban trawling and, (ii) allow trawling in areas where trawling can be done without adverse impacts on the ecosystem and the human system. Since it was brought to notice, that trawling by Indian fishermen in Palk Bay has been substantially reduced, the focus of the discussions was on trawling in the Northern and North-Western parts of Sri Lanka and not Palk Bay.

The scientists pointed out that mechanised bottom trawling technique is quite efficient in harvesting shrimp that would contribute significantly to Sri Lanka’s income from sea food exports. While recognising the adverse impacts of bottom trawling on the ecosystem, it was revealed that with proper demarcation (zoning) of fishing grounds, trawling can be done with minimum impacts to the environment and to the livelihoods of small scale fishermen utilising ocean resources. It was also recognised that scientific knowledge on the exact impact of trawling on the ecosystem and the human system is imperfect and that more research studies are required to be undertaken to understand these impacts. The participants pointed out that a good technical alternative to trawling to catch shrimp has not yet come into being, and this complicates any decision to ban bottom trawling. In respect of the by-catch issue, the scientists argued that the by-catch produced by trawling varied significantly over the year, depending on the shrimp season and thus huge by-catches reported over the electronic and print media are not realistic in the long run.

The fisher stakeholders and the CSOs strongly emphasised that trawling has to be completely banned. Fisher representatives from both Jaffna and Kalpitiya said that there have been serious threats to the livelihoods of thousands of small scale fishers due to bottom trawling of their fishing grounds.The Jaffna fishers have already met the fisheries authorities in Colombo requesting for an immediate ban of this technique.However, they were of the opinion that bottom trawling could be permitted in other areas where there would be no serious impacts on the ecosystem and to the livelihoods of small scale fishers. The Kalpitiya fishers spoke of the very high by-catch produced by trawlers removing large quantities of non-shrimp resources causing resource degradation and livelihood threats to small scale fishermen.They suggested replacing the trawl gear with gear used by small scale fishers, such as trammel nets, traps and bottom set gill nets, although some of them are banned now. However, a clear link between ecosystem damage by trawling and threats on the livelihoods of small scale fishers was not clearly established, although they believed that there is a link. They argued against continuing research on zoning to demarcate areas for trawling and against scientific research because they considered trawling as a technique that is bad for the ecosystem and thus needs to be completely banned.

Deliberations revealed that trawling has threatened the livelihoods of thousands of small scale fishers in the Mannar and Jaffna districts while the same was not clearly evident in the Puttalam district. The importance of scientific research and innovations for sustainable use of fisheries resources and sustainable livelihoods was acknowledged, although available scientific knowledge in the area of trawling was recognised as ‘weak’.

The Implications

What came out of the deliberations have several implications for all parties, particularly for the relevant Government authorities who are finally supposed to make decisions on the issue. It is to be recognised that mechanised bottom trawling is an efficient technique for harvesting shrimp resources in muddy bottoms of oceans, in a context where a comparable alternative technique to harvest such resources has not been developed so far. Although technically sound, this technique damages the bottom causing adverse impacts on the ecosystem, which could be quite grave in certain resource areas, where the ocean floor is very rich in bio-diversity and when such trawling areas are also used by small scale fishers. The technique might yield sizeable quantities of by-catch during certain times of the year, consisting of juvenile fish and other fish which could provide nutrition and food security to small scale fishers, some of whom are the poor and the marginalised. In a situation, where a lack of alternative employment, poor access to livelihood capitals (credit, insurance, better fishing assets, training and capacity building) and weak community organisations, fishers might turn to more intensive use of fisheries resources, which is often done by resorting to destructive fishing practices, degrading the ecosystem and the human system further in the long run. It is also to be noted that, trawling requires a craft and trawl gear, which cost around Rs. 3.5 million. Therefore, most of the trawlers are owned by the rich in fishing communities, some of them own more than 1 craft. As a consequence, income from shrimp is concentrated in the hands of these rural investor class.While this will add to the country’s growth, such growth benefits are unlikely to trickle down to the poor at the bottom of the social ladder.

The implication of the above for the issue at hand, points not only to the need to base decisions on the best scientific evidence available, but also to adopt a precautionary approach when the available scientific evidence is inadequate. This points to two important facts. First, further research is needed in Sri Lanka to understand the impact of trawling on the ecosystem and the human system. Second, decisions concerning bottom trawling cannot be postponed until the results of such research are made available. In this respect too, the best course of action to be adopted at present is to impose at least a temporary ban on trawling in environmentally sensitive and conflicting areas, such as the trawl centers in the north. In other areas with shrimp resources, trawling may be permitted on the grounds that it is an efficient technique to harvest shrimp, if scientific evidence reveal that this technique can be carried out with minimum damage to the ecosystem and the human system.

Following the deliberations of IP on trawling, the SLFSSF recommends that, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act No. 11 of 2017 banning mechanised bottom trawling be enforced in Mannar and Jaffna districts with immediate effect, where bottom trawling is carried out at present, apart from Palk Bay area where the ban is strictly enforced. The same cannot be recommended for the Puttlam area due to the absence of any serious conflicts,clear evidence of bottom trawling causing livelihood threats to lagoon fishers and complaints made to authorities by either fisheries cooperatives or by rural fisheries organisations. Yet, following the recommendations of the 1992 Rio Declaration (Earth Summit) and the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (1995), one should follow a precautionary approach in decisions concerning trawling, because of the flaws in available scientific evidence. Thus,the SLFSSF recommends that the trawl ban act be enforced in the Puttlam-Kalpitiya area at least for a period of one year, to establish the link between trawling and its impact on the resources and the people. This has to be done by rigorous data collection during this study period, on fishing technology, fish catches, fishing incomes, and other scientific studies of marine life. NARA and the universities could take up this initiative and the SLFSSF pledges its fullest support to successfully carry out this assignment. This will allow an assessment of the situation after one year, with clear implications for the future of bottom trawling in the area. However, there would be issues concerning the families who are dependent on trawling such as the crew labourers and service providers, who are likely to be displaced. These families should be supported by the fisheries authorities, by providing them with a compensation payment during the one year study period.

Given the high catch ability and the economic benefits trawling generates, enforcement of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2017 for the whole country may not be the optimal course of action. What is important is to identify areas where this technique can be used with minimum damage to the ecosystem, areas where the recovery of the resources are fast and where the threats to the livelihoods of small scale fishers exploiting such areas are minimal. Thus scientific research in the field of trawling should continue, with special focus on zoning of trawl areas, designing less damaging trawl gear, best practices to follow and other relevant areas.

The writer is President,
Sri Lanka Forum for Small
Scale Fisheries