The fisheries export trade welcomed reports that the European Union would be a potential growth area for fishery exports following lifting of the ban imposed on the country’s seafood exports.
However, fisheries officials and exporters last week said that Sri Lanka was in a critical situation in terms of finding new markets amid dwindling exports to the European Union.
Local seafood exporters claim that Sri Lanka was on the verge of losing the European Union (EU) to the Maldives, despite the EU lifting its ban on the country’s seafood exports. Exporters pointed out that owing to the ban on Sri Lankan seafood exports that existed for some time it had allowed the Maldives to capture the EU market.
Meanwhile, the Fisheries Department pointed out that there was drop in our catch while adding that the quality of seafood exported had also been affected.
The ban on Sri Lanka which was imposed in 2015 was lifted in June last year. However, the exporters said the damage had already affected the sector.
Spokesperson of the Seafood Association of Sri Lanka, Col. Channa Weeratunge told the Nation that Sri Lanka did not allow foreign vessels to fish in its waters and in addition charged an exorbitant amount to dock in the local fisheries harbour.
Slump in exports
According to Weeratunge, the vessels have to pay a royalty of US$ 500 per tonne in Sri Lanka whereas the Maldives charge a mere US$ 50 per tonne.
“We used to get fish from foreign vessels too. But now, even that has stopped since they are not encouraged to dock in our harbours,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation (CFHC) countered the argument made by the Seafood Exporters Association of Sri Lanka that one of the reasons for foreign vessels fishing in international waters and not unloading their catch by docking in local ports and instead going to the Maldives to dock was that docking charges for such vessels were high. “It had nothing to do with docking charges”, he said.
The CFHC explained that the reasons were due to the European Union (EU) ban imposed on domestic fisheries exports and the regulations imposed on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and the EU.
Deputy General Manager – Harbour Operation (I) of the CFHC, Percy A. Samarasinghe said that following the EU ban there was a total restriction imposed on the use of infrastructure such as the berthing facilities like the one in the Dikovita Harbour, with regard to foreign vessels fishing in international waters unloading their catch.
“At present, only local vessels are allowed,” he said.
According to Samarasinghe, the fee per month (the maximum charge being Rs 4,625 inclusive of Value Added Tax for a fleet of 55 to 60 multiday boats) was “extremely nominal.” In certain cases, the charge is approximately Rs 3000 a month for a fleet with less than 60 vessels.
The procedure for unloading catch obtained by foreign vessels via fishing in international waters involves obtaining a landing permit from the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
Samarasinghe pointed out that there were two categories of foreign vessels – fishing vessels and commercial vessels.
“Prior to the EU ban, multi-day fishing vessels were charged US$ 30 per day for a fleet with less than 80 vessels. This is not in practice anymore. Regarding commercial vessels which dock for purposes of repairs, which are accommodated during their distress and helped, the charge in comparison with the cost for fishing vessels is high,” he said.
He added that these vessels were not registered with the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development.
“Although such unloading has not been permitted yet, two to three companies are currently in the process of registering with the Ministry and the Department. In this regard, in the coming few months, the situation will improve,” Samarasinghe added.
As of now, there are discussions underway with the Ministry planning to introduce local vessels to fish in international waters with the Sri Lankan flag, the charges of which Samarasinghe noted required revisions.
Further, the exporters have also suggested that the government establish fish farms to increase local productivity and thereby improve exports.
“We will be meeting government officials in the coming days where we would make our proposals. Our resources are dwindling. Establishing farms is one way through which we can improve our productivity,” spokesperson of the Seafood Association of Sri Lanka, Col. Channa Weeratunge added.
In the year 2015, Sri Lanka’s seafood exports declined by 35.5 percent, US$ 163.1 million compared to US$ 252.7 million earned in 2015.
Sri Lanka was previously the second biggest exporter of fresh and chilled swordfish and tuna to the EU with exports worth 74 million Euros (US$ 83.4 million) in 2013.
The percentage of exports to the EU had been dwindling since 2010 before it slumped to 11.8% in 2015.
The ban was imposed on Sri Lankan seafood exports for engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities.
The EU had demanded that Sri Lanka take necessary action if the ban was to be lifted. Sri Lanka was asked to implement a vessel monitoring system that could observe the movements of local vessels.
In addition, the country was also asked to maintain an electronic log book which would keep a tab on when the vessels go out to sea and return with the catch. The ban was lifted last year after Sri Lanka had conformed to the requirements.
The Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources too confirmed that the Maldivians had invaded the market during the period of the European Union (EU) ban on local fishing exports.
SL in critical position
Director General of the Department MCL Fernando raised concerns about the critical position in which Sri Lanka was presently in taking in to account the terms of new markets and the EU.
He pointed out that the country was experiencing a shortage of raw materials, meaning that the current catch was insufficient for export purposes.
“There is also a question with regard to the quality of the catch,” he further noted.
He however said the sector had made some progress in 2016 compared to previous years while adding that Sri Lanka had focused on finding new markets to export seafood and had been successful in doing so.
“The export market was not as affected due to finding new markets. Tuna (18,000 metric tonnes) was exported to Canada, the United States of America and Japan. Thus, there was no problem even though we did not have the EU market,” Fernando said.
“We also exported species like kingfish, ribbonfish and swordfish to the Middle Eastern market. There is a tendency for exports to increase but the catch and quality has to be increased as otherwise we would not have opportunities”.