Last week, Kalpitiya was engulfed by a halo of gyrating smoke while armed commando personnel from the Special Task Force in their characteristic bush garb stalked the streets alongside police officers who were seen at their wits-end when dealing with angry fisher folk.

Protests by fishermen in Kalpitiya over the use of illegal fishing nets turned violent last Friday when they were met by ‘Laila’ and ‘Surukku’  fishermen, injuring six. Kalpitiya fishermen allege that some fishermen use illegal fishing methods such as ‘Laila’ and ‘Surukku’ destroying the whole eco-system. The Kalpitiya fishing community claims that this is exhausting the common fish resource.

Purse seine nets
All these nets are purse seine nets. According to Director General of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, MCL Fernando, such nets are legal. He however noted that there were certain restrictions in terms of the height, length, width and the type of mesh that could be used. A seine is described as being a fishing net that hangs vertically in a water body with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats and in the case of a purse seine, there are a number of rings that are found along the bottom, through which a line is passed and when the said purse line is pulled, the rings draw close.

Thus, purse seining involves setting up a large circular wall of netting frame around the fish, thereby surrounding them and subsequently pursing the bottom together to capture them. Head of the Fishing Technology Division of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), Senior Scientist NBP Punyadewa likened it to a ‘hambiliya’ (a handicraft pouch of sorts) made out of reeds and used by elderly women for the purpose of keeping money and other knick-knacks and bric-a-brac.

One banned fishing net is Laila (the length: 180 to 250 metres, the height: 25 to 30 metres, the mesh size: one and a half to two and a quarter inches and the thickness known as the ply being nine). According to Punyadewa, when the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources had recommended that fishermen use long lines and gill nets instead of Laila, the fishermen had informed that they did not know how to use such nets and had requested for an alternative. The Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources had then proposed the use of the Alagudu Course net (the length: 225 metres, the height: 25 metres, the mesh size: one and a half inches and the thickness known as the ply being six, nine or 12) as the alternative to Laila. Fifty-two fishing licences for its use had been issued to fishermen in the Kalpitiya area according to Punyadewa. The Alagudu Course net can catch tuna, alaguduwa (frigate tuna/moni bonito), raaguduwa, bullet tuna, atawalla (kawakawa), balaya (skipjack tuna), kelawalla (yellow fin tuna) and paraw (trevallie).

Another banned fishing net is Surukku (the length: 200 to 300 metres, the height: 18 to 22 metres, the mesh size: half an inch to one and a half inches and the thickness known as the ply being six). Currently, the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources is waiting to test the alterations made to the Surukku net in November once the season begins. The Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources seeks to discourage the use of such purse seine light course nets. The specifications regarding the alterations will be to the length, height, mesh size and ply. The changes made to the Surukku net are therefore still in the experimental phase.

“If the alterations to Surukku prove successful in the field by performing well in terms of the catch it nets, then we will recommend it”, Punyadewa said.

Surukku is not as harmful as Laila, he noted. Surukku is not tied down to the Ocean bed. It targets fish nearer the Ocean’s surface. Such fish include habarali (gar) a fish with a body like a rat snake and a snout like Pinocchio, alaguduwa (not found in the deep Ocean but near the surface moving fast) and ali/aali moralla (halfbeaks).

He pointed out that nets such as Laila and Surukku were not environmentally friendly. Laila catches species such as gal maalu (reef fish) also known as demersal fish. The Laila net is tied to the seabed. Divers go down and collect the rings. The net gets caught among the rocks.

In such instances, rocks have to be individually lifted to get the nets released. Air bags too are used in this exercise.

The issue however is that fish such as yellow-fin tuna are seasonal and when the Alagudu Course net is used in places like Baththalangunduwa and Kandakuliya, the fishermen manage to catch entire shoals in one go, leaving nothing for fishermen who use long lines and gill nets, Punyadewa pointed out while addressing the reason for the recent protests by fisher folk and conflicts among fishing communities.

“It is a case concerning the equitable distribution of resources and this is the biggest problem”, he explained, speaking about what the Government (in this case the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development) has described as ‘the prudent and economical use of the fish resource’.

Meanwhile, Senior Scientist at the Marine Biological Resources Division (MBRD) of NARA, Dr. Chintha Perera, admitted that there was an impact on marine biology as a result of such unlawful activities.

Governmental measures
The use of Laila and Surukku purse seines were banned since February, 2016. A research conducted by NARA has proven that the fish population in Sri Lankan waters is decreasing at an alarming rate due to the use of illegal fishing methods.

The length of the seine should not exceed 225 metres, the height not be more than 25 metres and it should be with a creel (a big wicker basket to hold the fish) and the size of the mesh should be two and a half inches. A circular issued previously by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, granted a concessionary grace period till February 21, 2016 for the use of fishing methods prevalent at the time until the required adjustments were made to the nets including Laila nets. When queried as to what the costs involved to alter such nets were, Fernando did not possess the information pertaining to such.

Elsewhere, Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, Mahinda Amaraweera had also brought this to the notice of the Navy. Most recently, over 20 local fishermen were arrested in Silawathura by the Navy and dinghies, monofilament nets (in a separate arrest a similar net was taken into custody in Kadakarachchenai) and global positioning system device units were taken into custody and handed over to the Fisheries inspectors of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in the relevant areas.
The Navy and The Sri Lanka Coast Guard have also been instructed to take stern action against fishermen using the banned fishing nets and had ordered them to confiscate their fishing gear and boats. There is also a law which states that purse seine fishing can only be done and the purse seine nets can only be legally used at a certain distance from the shore. For example 13 kilometres from the shore if fishing in Mannar or 10 kilometres further away from the shore.

Bribery allegations
Another major issue, the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development highlighted was the number of complaints the Ministry received with regard to allegations that officers including inspectors of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, officers of the Police and personnel of the Navy took bribes to release fishermen caught engaging in illegal fishing and the material confiscated from them.

An official at the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources who wished to remain anonymous too alleged that officials of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Police and Navy personnel accepted bribes and allowed fishing near the coastal areas which affected small time fishermen. The official further explained that owing to the fact that the majority of the boat owners were financially well off, the likelihood of officials being bribed was more.

Apart from the need for a road map and action plan to tackle these issues and the basic aspects which they have an adverse impact on, Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, WMMR Adikari explained that the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act which was weak in provisions for dealing with those caught engaging in dynamite fishing, should be amended.

She charged that the judiciary (courts and judges) at times gave decisions, rulings and judgments which were not compatible with the provisions of the Act.

She added that the Navy, the police and the Coast Guard should work together in this regard, instead of operating in isolation.

Elsewhere, Punyadewa observed that it was the responsibility of the Department to
monitor fishing activities.

“We intend to stop fishing using dynamite by 2017. This move will also reflect on the 52 permits issued as being licences granted only for legal fishing. There are different illegal fishing methods. Measures will be implemented to monitor it. Taking bribes is not going to work. The relevant officials cannot be bought or paid for. We do not know with absolute certainty whether they are taking bribes, however since there is no smoke without a fire there is some truth to this. We will handle this problem,” Adikari pledged.

While acknowledging that the lack of a proper monitoring system had aggravated the present situation, MCL Fernando pointed out that there were practical and logistical issues concerning the monitoring of the situation in the ocean.

“There is no way we can monitor the situation at sea. The Navy sometimes assists upon us, but it is not their job to do so. We do have logistical issues with regard to achieving this,” he said.

The police however said that they had received no such information pertaining to their officers taking bribes or received any complaints.

According to the police they provide assistance whenever it was requested by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development. Police media spokesman, Deputy Inspector General of Police Priyantha Jayakody explained that the Ministry could not wash its hands off the matter and should inform the authorities if there was any
truth to it.

The Navy also refuted allegations that their personnel were engaged in taking bribes in order to allow fishermen to fish in shallow waters.

Navy spokesman, Captain Akram Alavi pointed out that while there was no need for their personnel to take bribes they were not aware of what happens once naval personnel hand over suspects they had arrested to the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. “We do not know what happens at that end,” he claimed.