Jellyfish exports need checking

Environmentalists warn of consequences of over-exploitation of a natural resource

By Lakwi Perera

The jellyfish export business has caused a stir, with the government and environmentalists arguing for and against the harvesting and export of the marine creature. At a news conference last week, environmentalists said the bulk export of jellyfish was detrimental to Sri Lanka’s eco-system, while the Minister of Fisheries, Felix Perera, insisted that the processed jellyfish export trade was necessary for the country’s economy.

Jellyfish processed in Sri Lanka are exported to China. Some 20,000 fishermen make a living from the harvesting of jellyfish.

The processed jellyfish is exported to China, where it is considered a delicacy, as well as an aphrodisiac. According to environmentalists, the mass harvesting of jellyfish is harmful to the marine environment.

Environmentalist and lawyer Jagath Gunawardena told The Sunday Times that jellyfish harvesting is seasonal. Harvesting is now under way in seas off Panama and Komariya, in the Ampara district, and in the Kirinda area in Hambantota district. Under present procedures, processed jellyfish is exported on “no-objection” letters issued by the government, while a license is required to catch, process, and export jellyfish.

The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act, No. 2, of 1996 does not cover jellyfish. Regulations covering jellyfish exports have yet to be gazetted, and this is the Fisheries Minister’s responsibility. Till then, matters relating to jellyfish come under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The jellyfish species exported is commonly referred to as “mushroom jelly”. It is caught in bulk by fishermen and sent for processing. The jellyfish are immersed in a mixture of alum and salt to extract their water content; in the process the creature shrinks to five percent of its original size.

More than 100 to 150 tons of jellyfish are processed daily. According to Minister Felix Perera, some 20,000 fishermen make a living from the harvesting of jellyfish. According to informed sources, Sri Lanka’s jellyfish trade is largely a monopoly controlled by three firms; two are registered as exporters of ornamental fish and plywood, and the other is a British firm.

Minister Perera maintains that marine ecosystems are not being threatened by the jellyfish trade, and denies that the ocean’s jellyfish resources were being “over-exploited”.

Speaking to The Sunday Times, Minister Perera explained that there were different species of jellyfish, and that only two species were suitable for export purposes.

The jellyfish is processed by immersing catches in a mixture of alum and salt.

“These two species are available in our seas only a few weeks of the year. We have to harvest these jellyfish at this particular time, before the jellyfish shoals drift away, either towards India or the Maldives. If we don’t act in a timely way, we will lose out,” the Minister said. “The country needs foreign exchange, and this is a good source.”

A source at the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources said the no-objection letters required for the export of processed jellyfish are issued at the request of the exporters, following a brief assessment conducted by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency.

According to the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources source, the jellyfish population density is high, and there is no urgency for imposing controls on the harvesting of jellyfish.

The official also told The Sunday Times that the department had not received any jellyfish export data from the exporters. A Sri Lanka Customs official said exporters of processed jellyfish should have a permit, and that a “no-objection” letter alone was insufficient for documentation purposes.

According to the official, the first consignment of processed jellyfish for export arrived in two 40-foot containers at Colombo port in October 2007. The consignment was detained by Customs, but later released on the intervention of the then Treasury Secretary, Dr. P. B. Jayasundara, the Fisheries Minister and the Director General of Customs, Sarath Jayatilaka.

“Over-exploitation of a resource will only result in the demise of that resource,” said environmentalist Mr. Gunawardena, citing the pearl oyster, spiny lobster and sea cucumber, which have either died out or whose numbers have been much diminished by over-exploitation.

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