The Navy recently arrested 31 local fishermen engaged in illegal fishing in the Baththalangunduwa and Kibulbokka seas. Over 20,000 fishermen in the Puttalam District refrained from engaging in fishing activities and held a demonstration demanding a total ban on use of proscribed nets by fishermen last week.

Small-scale fishermen are equally victimized by illegal fishing methods as the fish population and the ecosystem that is destroyed. Law abiding fishermen and their families dependent on fish for their livelihood, and, competition by illegal fishers over fishing grounds and fish resources have severe
socio-economic impacts.

Methods that are not provided licences are known as illegal methods of fishing. Illegal fishing methods are prescribed by Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act considering their destructive potential, said Environmental Lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena. “Possession, use and attempt to use such gear is punishable by law,” he noted.

According to the Act ‘No person shall use or attempt to use any poisonous explosives like dynamite or stupefying substance or other noxious or harmful material or substance in Sri Lankan waters for the purpose of poisoning, killing, stunning, disabling any fish or other aquatic resources.’

Gunawardena explained that
monofilament nets, moxy nets and trammel nets are few of the methods deemed illegal by Fisheries and Aqualtic Resources Act. The Fisheries and Aqualtic Resources Act of 1996, have prohibited five fishing methods: Use of push nets, harpooning for marine mammals such as whales, dugong and dolphins, use of moxi nets, gillnets or trammel nets on coral reefs or rocks and use of monofilament for fishing.

Fisheries Act
“However, under the Fisheries Act, these are not cognisable offences,” said Gunawardena. Which means that the authorities have the right to make an arrest without a warrant and commence investigations with or without the permission of a court. “Fines and punishments for such offences have to be defined and provisions to get the help of other authorities on enforcement have to be made,” he stressed.

Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Mahinda Amaraweera assured that amendments to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act will be made to mete out
punishments for such offences as well as provisions to coordinate with other authorities. When asked when the amendments would be made, Minister Amaraweera admitted that he cannot give a specific time frame.

Illegal methods
The destruction caused by fishing methods such as blast fishing, use of bottom-set nets and moxy-nets are two pronged: They deplete fish resources and also has wider ecological repercussions.

Bottom-set nets
These nets are anchored to sea bed and suspended vertically using floaters on the surface. This method traps fish and other creatures indiscriminately. The method is used mainly for lobster and crab fishing. These species are found in coral habitats and coral are invariably damaged when the nets are hauled in, ripping out whole chunks of coral. Large pieces of net are known to tear off on which sea creatures get entangled and suffocate.

Moxi nets are normally used for ornamental fishing in order to catch live fish. This method also damages reefs. They are cone-shaped nets, a metre or more wide at the base. Moxi nets are made out of floats at the water surface and weights around a base. Divers place the moxy net over shallow coral reef tops and chase the fish out by banging on the coral with a crowbar.

The use of moxi nets is prohibited because it nets juvenile fish. This causes a decline in the fish population as juveniles are killed before they are mature enough to breed. This was banned by the Fisheries Act to protect fish breeding grounds.

Any type of gillnets with a mesh-size less than three inches are prohibited in fresh water fishery since it is the average size limits for juveniles of fresh water fish.

Trammel nets
Although the use of gillnet and trammel net is approved for deep sea fishing, use of such methods in shallow water, coral reefs and rocks is banned as they destroy fish habitats.

Blast fishing
Blasting is mostly done over reefs in shallow water, with the use of dynamite or other home-made explosives. These are dropped into the water from fishing boats and the dead fish that surface are collected by fishermen. Each reef is often blasted twice. The first blast kills smaller fish and the second kills larger predators attracted by the dead fish. As a result, apart from killing all fish in the area indiscriminately, it also destroys the whole coral ecosystem in addition to being risky to fishermen who engage in such activities.