By Medha De Alwis
You love the sea, seafood, and a good swim, but did you know of a live deathtrap that you have yourself placed in the sea?
What are ghost nets?
Ever heard of ghost nets? These are nets abandoned at sea. Once abandoned, they sink into the bed of the sea. They collect algae as time passes, and appear in colours of black, grey, and green. Yes, it is none other than the sight of a ghost.
What is ghost fishing?
With the look of a ghost, though attached to the bottom of the sea, it moves about, trapping marine life of all forms, including fish and all other sea creatures that come its way. Precious corals are its prey too. And divers at sea better beware as ghost nets see no difference between the fish and you.
How does this happen?
This is a global problem, and Sri Lanka is a definite victim and culprit in the menace of ghost nets. A net could drift due to adverse weather conditions when at sea or may get run over by ships and trawlers. Although prohibited by law, fishing around rocky crops continues so that fish like rock fish (gal malu) can get caught. When entangled, these fish break away, making the net sink into the sea. Fishermen would certainly say that they never leave torn nets at sea and that they dive in and retrieve nets that tear, but given the risky conditions at sea, the uselessness of a torn net, and insurance not covering fishing nets, it would seem they make false promises.
How bad is it? Here is what the experts have to say
Cey-Nor Foundation Managing Director and Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development State Minister Adviser Ayesh Ranawaka shared his experience. He said in 2016, in a coral cleaning project done in Trincomalee alone, 45 truckloads of plastic and fishing nets were found.
Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) General Manager, University of Ruhuna Department of Oceanography Senior Lecturer, and former Head of the Department of Oceanography Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara, being an experienced diver himself, had the experience of diving into a shipwreck in the east coast and getting entangled in a ghost net, nearly losing his life if not for another diver who rescued him.
Once an animal or human gets caught in a ghost net, the more he tries to disentangle himself, the more entangled he gets, said Dr. Pradeep Kumara. For a scuba diver, it then becomes a mere matter of how much oxygen time is left for him to live. When ghost nets settle on corals, it smothers not only corals but also all bottom-dwelling animals.
MEPA Chairman Rear Admiral Rohana Perera, who has extensive experience with his service in the Sri Lanka Navy, said that 300 metres interior to the land from the high-water line and 200 nautical miles into the sea comes under the purview of the MEPA. He assured that every possible effort is taken by the MEPA to eradicate this menace, given the fact that the nylon these nets are made of lasts centuries.
Who are the stakeholders?
The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development in the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Economic Affairs, Livestock Development, Irrigation and Fisheries, and Aquatic Resources Development; Central Environmental Authority; Sri Lanka Navy; Sri Lanka Coast Guard; and of course; the fishermen and fishing merchants in addition to Cey-Nor and MEPA.
It is praiseworthy that most of the officers we spoke to showed keen interest and provided a wealth of information on the matter, as well as suggestions on how to combat the issue. Fisheries inspectors, marine environment officers, and coastguards are the law monitoring officers in contact with the fishermen and at the harbours.
It was learnt that due to the scarcity of fisheries inspectors (FIs), development officers too are used in their place. It was also shocking that some officers had absolutely no idea as to what was going on. Some tried to deny that there is a problem.
Leeton, a traditional fishing merchant who inherited the trade from his ancestors, said that he had never heard of the problem of ghost fishing, and neither did he know of any prohibition by law on abandoning nets.
Speaking to many fishing merchants and fishermen along the coast, their lack of knowledge on the matter was appalling. They seemed to concentrate most on what kind of catch would bring in more money, and what exact gear should be used for that purpose.
Navy and Coast Guard
Officers of different ranks from the Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Coast Guards shared their rich experiences on the subject. Some of them had worked with organisations such as MEPA and had also come into contact with ghost nets while on duty in various naval commands around the coast. They had personal experiences of sea turtles and dugongs being trapped in the Bar Reef and Silawathura area. Some of them were of the opinion that this was an issue in Palk Strait, due to the laying of a star-shaped network of nets by Indian dhows (similar to Sri Lankan kattumaran or oruwa, but smaller than trawlers). Others voiced that Pedro Bank was not as affected due to the prevailing sea current that pushes them northward. A concern that the majority of the officers expressed was that the situation was not reported.
What does the law say?
Speaking to Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Legal Officer Kumari Nambukaravithana, we learnt that there is a law in place. Under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act, the portfolio minister is vested with the power of issuing gazette notifications depending on the need of the situation. Hence, Gazette No. 1904/10 of 3 March 2015 was issued and defined ghost fishing as “continued fish caught by broken or abandoned fishing gear at sea”. Section 11 of the Gazette clearly stipulates that every effort shall be made by the crew owner or operator to retrieve lost or abandoned gear.
Why cannot the culprits be brought to law?
We discussed with numerous officers concerned and/or involved in fisheries and fisheries-related activities the reason why this problem cannot be combated.
Fishing gear is unmarked and as such, there is no way of finding out the responsible crew. While some had suggested marking the gear and keeping an account of the gear that is taken to sea, we questioned them of the practical problem of who would retrieve the net once it sinks to the sea bed. We do not have professional divers tasked at this, and we learnt from Dr. Pradeep Kumara that recreational diving does not extend beyond 30 metres deep.
So who can retrieve these? Even if any volunteer diver could help in retrieval, what about the nets abandoned at distances too far and areas dangerous for the average diver?
The gazette notification of 2015 came into effect in the backdrop of immense pressure by the European Union (EU) with the warning that fish from Sri Lanka would not be purchased by the EU. The state is a signatory to salient international agreements including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and it is sad if any state opts to wait for international pressure to amend its legislation. There is pressure currently too, not only from the EU but also from the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). Is Sri Lanka complacent enough to risk the image of the country for not honouring the Conventions she has ratified and for not abiding by the treaties she is signatory to?
Does Sri Lanka not mind being listed as a country that practices IUU (illegal unreported unregulated) fishing? The IUU status is certainly not a feature in one’s cap.
What can be done?
A ban on bottom-set nets, monofilament nets, and trawling is already in place. Hook-based fishing gear and long lines are encouraged and no relief aid is provided for users of nylon nets. Bottom-set nets are designed for sandy bottoms, but Sri Lankan fishermen use them for non-sandy bottoms too, making it cause a massacre of habitats of non-sandy bottoms at sea. Drift nets cause excessive ecological damage. They are kept vertical in the water by use of floats, hence there would be a non-targeted, massive bycatch of all forms of marine life. Trawlers have bottom-dragging gears, which have a serious adverse impact on habitats in the sea bottom. Monofilament nets are made of plastic. That means they take centuries to decay. Their razor-sharp fibre will not spare fish from being injured or dead.
But the question to ask is, although there is a ban, how strictly is this ban monitored and implemented?
This article is not a fault-finding mission to point the finger at any institution. All institutions, as per the research, have done their fair share of what ought to be done. But could we do more? Could we address ghost fishing just as we would address a ghost who perpetually lives in our home? No one wants to live with a ghost, does one? And what is the difference between having a ghost at home and having one at sea?
Let it be the earth, sky, or sea, they are all different chambers of our home. Let us not find fault trying to find out who the culprit is. The culprit in this case cannot be found, no matter how much we try, as ghosts have no names – the ghost nets are unmarked. But it is in our best interest that we realise we are all victims. Let us work towards minimising and eliminating our own continuous victimisation.