Our Kelawalla and Balaya are in deep trouble

Sri Lanka joins coastal countries in lobbying against unsustainable fishery practices by industrial nations at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) sessions in Colombo this week
By Malaka Rodrigo

“The sea was a battle field. Balaya were even banging against the sides of the boat. They fought for the bait like a pack of dogs for bones or like bats around a fruit tree… The noise was that of huge bellows at work together with a violent slapping sound as if people were thrashing about wildly in the water. The fishermen held their rods against their hips with one hand and threw their lines into the water with the other. They had hardly thrown in their lines when they were pulling away the rods, for the balaya were leaping for the bait. And so they went on throwing and jerking back their lines, a balaya falling into the boat with each pull”

…this is the experience of the little boy Upali Giniwelle of Madol Duwa as written by the famous author Martin Wickremasinghe in 1947. Upali was with fishermen who were obviously fishing in coastal waters at the time they meet this rich Tuna shoal. But if his grandchildren want to experience the same today, they would now have to go deeper into the sea as the tuna in coastal waters is depleted. Fish experts warn that the Indian Ocean Tuna will soon become scarce even in deep waters due to unsustainable industrial fishing practices.

This dilemma started in the 1980s as industrial fishing fleets started moving to the Indian Ocean. Upto then the fishing was done only by the coastal fishing nations using traditional methods such as ‘pole-and-line’ to catch tuna as accurately described in Madol Duwa. This is a large ‘bili pitta’ made of a rigid pole of 2 to 3 m traditionally made out of a bamboo (and now sometimes in fibreglass) and a strong short line at the end of which hangs a feathered jig mounted on a barbless hook. The pole is held by a fisherman standing up. The baits are spread on sea around the boat. As soon a fish takes the bait, the fisherman lifts the pole to bring the fish up. The hook is not barbed, so as soon as the fish hits the deck, and opens its mouth releasing the hook, the fisherman can put it back into the water. This is still the practice in many coastal countries and the large boats facilitates about 10 – 20 fishermen with poles fishing simultaneously.

Colombo sized Purse-seines

Plenty of fish in a shoal get a chance to escape in this traditional method to carry on their breeding, but industrial fishing fleets use a different technique that catch the whole shoal containing tons of fish in one go. They use purse-seine nets made of a long wall of netting framed with floatline and leadline and having purse rings hanging from the lower edge of the gear, through which runs a purse line made from steel wire or rope which allow the pursing of the net. The most efficient gear for catching large and small pelagic shoals, this is also the most unsustainable.

Purse-seines capture all big and small fish in a particular fish school, not sparing enough fish to spawn in future. Purse-seine nets also have unwanted by-catch, becoming death traps for other marine life such as dolphins, turtles etc.

A Purse-seine net with tons of fish

“This is like while we are catching fish in a pond by hand, someone comes by force with a net and catches all the fish in the same pond. The bare-handed fishermen will soon left nothing to catch,” complained the Maldivian Fisheries Minister who was in Sri Lanka attending the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Corporation (IOMAC) conference last month.

Industrialized nations have recently started employing another deadly method to locate the most rich tuna grounds. Traditionally, the fishermen used visual spotting looking for aggregations of sea birds or the behaviour of fish species coming to the sea surface to locate the tuna shoals. With technological developments, the vessels began using acoustic instruments such as echo-sounders and now artificial fish aggregating devices(FAD) in the sea.

Fish in the open ocean usually gather around floating objects like logs, and these industrialized fishing fleets set up several FAD in the target area, fixed with electronic devices that can accurately measure the size of the fish school. These transmit these details to the mother vessel through satellites. A purse-seiner usually employs 75-100 such FADs in the target area, to monitor which FAD has the best aggregation of fish and move toward it removing the largest tuna shoal in the area.

The Blue-fin Tuna in the Atlantic Ocean is now doomed to extinction due to these unsustainable fishing practices. The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, (IOTC) is an intergovernmental body set up mainly to evaluate the tuna population in the Indian Ocean and decide on the annual maximum allowable catch.

Each country is then allocated a quota. IOTC consists of both Indian Ocean coastal countries and Industrialized Fishing Nations. But though the priority should be given to the Indian Ocean coastal countries, there are claims that IOTC allocates quotas in a way to benefit the industrialized nations.
“But this is also due to the unorganized manner of Coastal Nations in the IOTC which results in them not gaining the maximum benefits. It is time we should join to make a common voice in the IOTC,” said Dr. Rajitha Senaratne addressing a meeting of Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Corporation (IOMAC) in Colombo in February to agree on a common stance for Indian Ocean Coastal countries at IOTC debates.

IOMAC was set up in the early 1980s in Sri Lanka to raise the need to regulate fishing practices. The IOMAC meeting held in February with participation of Fisheries Ministers and high-level delegates of Thailand, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Kenya, Iran, Indonesia and Bangladesh agreed on seven common issues, which was an important milestone according to IOMAC Secretary General Dr. Hiran Jayawardene.

IOTC’s Tuna Quota Sessions prior to its main meeting in March in Sri Lanka was held in Nairobi, Kenya in February. Taking up the initiative set up during the IOMAC meeting, 16 Indian Ocean coastal countries moved against the proposals submitted by Seychelles that were in favour of the industrialised nations. According to this, Sri Lanka would get only 300 metric tons of tuna though our annual catch at present is much more. “If this gets adopted, the Kelawalla and Balaya will also disappear from the ‘malu lella’ around the country, said Dr. Jayawardene who instrumented lobbying against the move successfully.

“We managed to win the support of 17 like-minded coastal nations to lobby to counter the European threat to Indian Ocean Tuna. EU countries catch about 50% of Indian Ocean tuna now for more than 30 years and this will leave very little for the coastal countries who are already struggling with a nutritional deficit,” said Dr. Jayawardene who headed the team in Kenya.

It is reported that the IOTC decided to postpone the allocation of tuna quotas among member countries by another three years upon the protests of the coastal countries led by Sri Lanka.

The 15th IOTC Meeting in Colombo

Sri Lanka is currently hosting the 15th Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission from March 14 to 22. Representatives of coastal countries as well as distant fishing nations such as EU, Japan, Korea, France, Taiwan, and China are also attending the meeting.

The head of Sri Lankan delegation Dr. Hiran Jayawardene said that there is a clear polarization between the distant fishing nations and the recently formed Coastal Countries alliance established as part of IOMAC led by Sri Lanka. "However it is a very healthy atmosphere and the willingness of both groups to work together for sustainability of Tuna fishery is encouraging," said Dr. Jayawardene.

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