Early this month three fishermen from Jaffna were selling their catch along the main road when a couple of Navy officers stopped to buy some. One of the fishermen thought he would be honest with the officers and had apparently told them that the fish was not good for cooking as they were caught by [...]


Nets within nets: Untangling the problem of illegal fishing in the north


Early this month three fishermen from Jaffna were selling their catch along the main road when a couple of Navy officers stopped to buy some.
One of the fishermen thought he would be honest with the officers and had apparently told them that the fish was not good for cooking as they were caught by means of an ‘explosion’, in other words, dynamite fishing. The fishermen were arrested immediately by the two officers and handed over to fisheries officials.

Mullaitivu fishermen hold a protest on Tuesday

A senior fisheries official said they were awaiting a report from the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development (NARA) to determine whether the men had engaged in dynamite fishing. The three fishermen would face legal action if they had done so.

In a separate incident the Navy had arrested two fishermen in the Northern sea while one fisherman from Mannar was teaching how to use the ‘gill net’ – (a net smaller than the usual size) to another fisherman from Jaffna. These incidents are quite common in the North after 2009, when the war came to an end and fishermen started going out to sea without any restrictions imposed by the Navy.

However, there was a downside to this new-found freedom as many fishermen started engaging in methods of fishing that were harmful to the eco-system. The illegal fishing methods include using push nets, mono filament nylon nets, moxi nets, bottom trawling, dynamite fishing and using gill net or trammel net on coral reefs or rocks.

According to an official attached to the Jaffna Fisheries Department around 158 trawlers from Gurunagar and 25 from Valvettithurai are actively engaged in bottom trawling in the northern sea. They continue to fish without licences from the Department.

Jaffna Fishermen Association chief Naganathy Ponnambalam, who is a vociferous opponent of bottom trawling, said, the only reason that justifies it is if Indian fishermen can trawl without any trouble in Lankan waters, why can’t local fisherrmen who engage in bottom trawling on a much smaller scale than their Indian counterparts do so.

Meanwhile Kilinochchi’s Fisheries Department Additonal Director R. Raveenthiran complained that trawlers from Jaffna and Mannar that come into the sea around Kilinochchi have disrupted the fishing activities of local fishermen.
“Our fishermen do not go out fishing the whole day or go out to sea in high powered multi-day fishing boats. They have small-sized boats and they go to sea during the day, put the nets out and come back to shore. The next day when they go back to get their catch the nets have either been dragged away or damaged by bottom trawling,” he said.
Putting up a fence using galvanized pipes in mid sea, is another harmful fishing method employed by fishermen. The galvanised pipes are embedded in the sea bed with 35-foot long nets targeting the fish in a particular area. Many fishing boats are damaged by striking against these pipes.
T.Shankar, a fisherman from Mannar said more and more fishermen especially from the village of Pesalai were turning to nylon nets and dynamite fishing as their primary modes of fishing.

“The nylon nets can be used for daytime fishing too as they are almost invisible. However this method results in a loud sound in the sea that can upset the ecological equilibrium of sea animals. Since the holes in the net are small the catch consists of juvenile as well as adult fish,” he said.
Dynamite fishing is also very common among fishermen. In this method of fishing, the fishermen collect into their nets the dead fish that float to the surface, following an explosion. The explosion that creates vibrations result in fish migrating.

Some fisherfolk in Vallimunai, in Mannar also use the method of flashing a high powered light to attract fish to the surface and then net them.
Mullaitivu Fishermen’s Federation head Anthonypullai Mariyarasa said more than 100 boats come into the waters of Mullaitivu daily to catch sea cucumbers. On Tuesday, Mullaitivu fishermen protested against the issuance of licences to fishermen from other districts that allowed them to catch sea cucumber.

Mr. Mariyarasa said according to the licence the fishermen could go only 20 kilometres away from the shore to avoid hampering the fishing activities of local fishermen.
However, the fishermen were going further into the sea, he said.
Fisheries Department Director General M.C. L. Fernando said it was not an easy task to eliminate bottom trawling in a short period of time. He said the Department has started taking remedial action by providing facilities to fishermen to switch to alternative fishing methods.

“Look at Thailand and the coastal area of Tamil Nadu along the Indian ocean, they have completely wiped out all the resources in the sea by using trawling as their primary mode of fishing. This method is like ploughing the sea bed. It is true that this method brings quick profits but it is also destroying the resources for future generations. We can’t let this happen to our marine resources,” he said.

B.Deniswaran, Minister of Fisheries,Transport and Rural Development of the Northen Provincial Council told the Sunday Times that the ministry was yet to formulate a strategy to combat illegal fishing methods followed in the province. He said the ministry has called on all fisheries federations to co-operate in this matter.

“Unfortunately it is not possible to halt these practices overnight, some of these practices are their main livelihoods. I have asked the central government to take initiatives to introduce new livelihood initiatives to eradicate prohibited fishing practices,” he said.
He said a questionnaire on illegal fishing by local and Indian fishermen in Lankan waters has been circulated among fisheries unions while there are moves to hold an annual conference consisting of all fisheries unions and federations in the Northern Province too.
” If we don’t act now future generations will be in trouble. Deploying a coastal guard could help curb the situation,” he said.
Meanwhile Navy spokesperson Commander Indika de Silva said the Navy has deployed patrols along the coastal sea area to monitor such activities and conduct raids.

Around 232 fishermen have been arrested by the Navy so far this year and handed over to the respective fisheries officials in the districts.
“Sometimes on spotting the Navy, fishermen who are engaged in illegal fishing methods throw in their prohibited equipment into the sea and pretend to be innocent. It’s a tricky situation,” he said.

Commander de Silva said although the Navy uses effective methods including patrolling round the clock to deter illegal fishing activities in the sea, people too should come forward and support them by giving information on such activities.

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