Illegal shell fishing on the rise?

By Malaka Rodrigo

Three detections of illegally collected under-sized chank or sea shells were made in July alone, raising concern whether smuggling of these shells is on the rise.

The latest chank stock containing more than 20,000 shells was recovered by Mundel Police on Thursday. They were hidden in a house in Kattagaduwa and the suspects were produced before the Negombo Courts.

Some of the shells seized at Mundel. Pic by Hiran Priyankara

Chank is the shell of a marine mollusc called Indian Conch and chank fishing can be done only under a permit issued by the Fisheries Department. However, it is prohibited to collect live Indian Conch that are smaller than seven centimetres in length as the intention is to allow this slow breeder to mature until able to lay eggs.

Last week, Kalpitiya Police too seized a stock of under-sized chank and arrested two suspects. On July 11, Navy personnel had also captured a boat smuggling chank shells to India. Bangles made from chank are in demand in India and Bangladesh thus spurring the racket to smuggle out Sri Lankan chank.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardena who raised the need to enforce the law for conserving this marine mollusc says the regulations to protect it came late and are also inadequate. Regulations governing chank fishing were made as early as 1890 through a special Chank Ordinance.

However the protection granted under this Ordinance has been removed by the 1996 Fisheries Act and environmentalists had to fight to get the regulations reinstated. The latest regulations in 2001 again enforced the size limitation up to seven centimetres, but Mr. Gunawardena says this limit has to be further increased to provide more chance for mature chank or conch to breed.

However, these regulations are poorly enforced. Last year alone, the Customs Biodiversity Unit detained several container loads consisting of under-sized chank. In one such instance, more than 75% of the chank were undersized raising doubts as to whether field Fisheries Officers who should grant approval properly monitored the catch.

A standard seven centimetre gauge is used to measure the size where the shells which pass through the gauge are graded as undersized.

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