The ‘huge vessels’ that triggered EU ultimatum

EU sanctions on SL fisheries sector - Part 2

(Continued from yesterday)

"We summoned all the Indian ocean nations - 17 countries in all - to Sri Lanka for a two day conference on the quota system and there was unanimous agreement that this quota was unfair but no one was willing to oppose the EU within the IOTC because all those countries were dependent on the EU market. So we presented a motion in the IOTC and defeated the EU proposal to have a quota system."

In part one of this two part article based on an interview The Island staffer C. A.Chandraprema had with fisheries minister Rajitha Senaratne, we dealt with the eight conditions that the EU had imposed on this country if the proposed sanctions on the fisheries sector were not to be activated.

In this part, a closer look is taken at the ‘huge vessels’ that Sri Lanka had authorised to fish in the Indian ocean which the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki had specifically mentioned as the immediate reason for the EU ultimatum made their appearance on the scene. The fishermen who protested outside the fisheries ministry in Colombo recently also claimed that the EU was going to impose sanctions on Sri Lanka because of the Chinese trawlers that had been given authorisation to fish in the Indian ocean by Sri Lanka. Minister Senaratne explained how this situation came about in the following words:

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is the regulatory body for the fisheries industry in the Indian Ocean. The EU brought a resolution in the IOTC a couple of years back to have a quota system to limit fishing in the Indian ocean for sustainability purposes. This quota system would have required every country in the Indian ocean region to cut down on its catch in proportion to a formula based on the history of catches. What this meant was that the countries that had been catching more fish, would have been allocated a bigger quota and the countries that were catching less fish would be allocated a smaller quota. Since the amount of fish that Sri Lanka caught in international waters was small, we were allocated a quota of just 362 MT per year! Furthermore, this was for all kinds of fish and not just tuna. We refused to accept that quota. If we had accepted it, Sri Lanka would have been able to export only up to 362 MT and nothing more.

The entire Indian ocean has 6000 odd vessels and 4000 of them belong to Sri Lanka. We have a large number of small boats. If Sri Lanka had accepted that quota, fish prices would have crashed in Sri Lanka without access to the international market. We summoned all the Indian ocean nations - 17 countries in all - to Sri Lanka for a two day conference on the quota system and there was unanimous agreement that this quota was unfair but no one was willing to oppose the EU within the IOTC because all those countries were dependent on the EU market. So we presented a motion in the IOTC and defeated the EU proposal to have a quota system. Now there is no quota. We cannot completely do away with the quota system because of sustainability issues. But we must have some time to bump up our catch history and become entitled to a bigger quota than the 362 tonnes that was allocated to us originally. We can’t increase our catch with small vessels which is why we decided to appeal to foreign investors.

Then the Japanese and Chinese investors arrived. According to new IOTC regulations, fishing in the Indian ocean has to be under a flag of a country in the region. There are Taiwanese and Indonesian vessels that have been fishing here for over two decades but they operate under their own flags because the new IOTC regulations were not made retrospectively applicable. When a vessel is registered in Sri Lanka we have the governing authority. It is also a requirement that we should have voting power of over 51% in the companies that are so registered. So one person will be appointed to the director board and he will control 51% of the voting shares even though the entire investment will be from overseas. This is in accordance with BOI regulations. The director on the board represents the government of Sri Lanka. The 6 Chinese vessels that we got down in this manner have brought in an income of 850 million Rupees in eight months. This is the monetary value of the 10% of the catch that they have to give to Sri Lanka plus berthing charges and taxes. Earlier, the percentage of the catch that had to be given to the Fisheries Corporation was 5%. It was I who increased it to 10%. The other 90% of the catch will be exported.

Foreign vessels can’t sell their produce here. All this fish is caught in international waters and not within our territorial waters. The Chinese vessels have taken security guards from Raknalanka because they fish near Somalia where pirates are active. The EU has taken the stance that the vessel monitoring system should be implemented quickly because these large vessels are now involved and if by some chance any of these vessels venture into the maritime economic zone of a foreign country, that would be equivalent to ten or twenty smaller craft entering foreign waters simultaneously. The concern of the EU is with ‘illegal, unreported and unregulated’ fishing. As I said earlier three of the large Chinese vessels that we have authorised to fish in the Indian ocean have already been fitted with transponders of the vessel monitoring system. We can meet the EU requirements by mid January.

A complicating factor is the presence of the French and Spanish trawlers in the Indian ocean. Diego Garcia is a British territory, and the EU has membership in the IOTC because of the maritime economic zone belonging to Diego Garcia. When Sri Lanka increases its catch with the new foreign vessels, only the French and Spanish will be affected, nobody else. India does not have a tuna industry. We are one of the largest suppliers of fresh tuna to the EU market and these countries may be worried that we will consolidate our position through fleet expansion. They may feel threatened because we supply high quality tuna. The Sri Lankan method of tuna fishing is the ‘long line’ where fish are hooked individually to a long line with baited hooks. This method brings the fish into the boat without much of a struggle. (The Chinese vessels don’t fish tuna. They cater to the Chinese market.) Other countries for the most part use ‘purse seines’ nets where the fish get squashed when the net is dragged in.

So what we export to the EU is superior quality tuna.

Because of our methods the fish do not get agitated and there is reduced secretion of histamine so the flesh remains red. In the Maldives where fish are caught with fishing rods, the fish struggles to get away and the flesh turns pink due to the secretion of histamine, and is therefore of lower quality. Some may ask whether there is any danger of these Chinese trawlers that we have brought in catching fish within our maritime economic zone when they are supposed to fish outside our waters and in international seas in the Indian ocean. We can monitor these ships and our fishermen are the best source of information. We have not received any complaints so far of these Chinese vessels catching fish in our territorial waters.

As we pointed out earlier, Randolph Payet the Executive Secretary of the IOTC has expressed his willingness to support us to get the EU decision reversed because he knows the progress that the fisheries sector has been making in Sri Lanka in the past few years. When I assumed office the total fish production in this country was only 339,350 MT. Last year, it went up to 512,000 MT. This year we expect the catch to exceed 550,000 MT. In 2009 we had 40,014 vessels of all sizes including multi-day trawlers. Now we have 62,786 vessels. The reason for this is that fish stocks increased after we banned the using of explosives, bottom trawling and light fishing. We banned the import of mono-filament nets. We imposed these conditions strictly and in one year there were more than 500 cases filed against errant fishermen. Due to the steps taken to ban harmful methods of fishing, fish stocks have increased. The number of beach purse seines (Maa del) in the country was only 359 but by last year this had increased to 1109. The number of registered fishermen also has gone up from 170,000 to 222,000. The main factor in this increase of over 50,000 is due to fishermen becoming active in the north and east after the war but the numbers have increased in the south as well.

We have two large fish canning factories - one is a joint venture started by the CFC and the other is TESS, both of which were started during my tenure. There were attempts from Mrs Bandaranaike’s time in the 1970s to start a fish canning factory. Mackerel is not available in the Indian ocean so we use the ‘Linna bolla’. If Linna Bolla goes beyond 150 a kilo the canned fish industry will become unprofitable. Linna is a shallow water fish and it has to be harvested very carefully because this is the fish that attracts the tuna into our waters. When prices of Linna go up we buy Mackerel from the Chinese at just over a dollar a kilo. This means that there is an import component in our canned fish industry but this is inevitable. In Thailand exports of fish amounts to 6 billion dollars and the imports of fish amount to 4 billion dollars. The import of canned fish decreased by 25% last year because of the local canning industry.

The Divineguma programme in the fisheries sector has been very successful and the local production of dried fish and Maldive fish has increased. Dried fish imports have come down by 32%. The import of dried sprats has decreased by 20.7%. Maldive fish imports decreased by 55% last year. Global marine fish production has been stagnating for the past ten years at around 100 million MT. So everybody has been turning to aquaculture. Any increase in global fish production is from aquaculture and not from marine fisheries. Fish production through aquaculture in Sri Lanka is now at about 90,000 MT. The reservoir stocking programme is also continuing apace. The prawn industry which was wiped out in the 1990s by the white spot disease is now recovering and is once again close to the peak of 7000 MT. Oysters are also being cultivated in Mannar Chilaw, and all the oysters in the five star hotels are our products. Some of it is exported as well. At the government parliamentary group conference in Beruwela held recently, even Treasury Secretary P.B.Jayasundera commented that there has been a big improvement in the fisheries sector.



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