Bottom Trawling in Sri Lanka and its impacts By Vinhara Randeny

Bottom trawling is an industrial fishing method where a large net with heavy weights is dragged across the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path, from the targeted fish to incidentally caught, centuries-old corals.

Due to the use of trawl nets, there is a lack of selectivity in the catch. These trawling nets collect and kill large amounts of non-target species including commercially invaluable species, juvenile fish and endangered species. The by-catch (untargeted species) are then discarded due to the little or no commercial value, the cost involved in landing fish, sorting, storage, processing and storage capacity limitations in trawlers as this facility is used almost exclusively for target species.

Moreover, biodiversity-rich marine habitats such as sea grass meadows, coral reefs, sea mounts and deep water areas subjected to little natural disturbance are plowed through causing irreversible harm to the seabed. Thereby injuring a wide variety of marine benthic creatures and damaging the structure of benthic communities. Benthic habitats not only provide shelter and refuge for juvenile fish, but the associated fauna provide food sources for a variety of important demersal fish species. Thus frequent alterations in the benthic habitats would result in decline of marine fish landings. The amount of time these sea beds will take to recover and return to their pre-bottom trawled state can range from a mere 6 years to 50 years, with some left in an irreversible state.

Bottom trawling also raises many social issues concerning small scale fishermen, since their daily catch is depleted due to the unsustainable fishing practices of those partaking in bottom trawling. Fishing nets and other gear used by the small scale fisherman are also damaged when placed in the path of the bottom trawling boats. Hence, Bottom Trawling has led to many conflicts between fishermen and a decrease in income and living standards of small scale fishermen.

As the world grows more aware of environmental and social issues everyday, consumers now look for eco-friendly alternatives by engaging in ethical consumerism. This has resulted in the seafood market of Europe and the US to be highly sensitive to the products they purchase. Since Bottom trawling is not a sustainable method of fishing, high valued markets do not condone bottom trawling, and are privy to purchasing sea food obtained through such means. This resulted in a large drop in the export of sea food to Europe and the US in 2015 from Sri Lanka.

With the combined efforts of advocacy groups and fishermen, in July 2017 Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia to completely ban bottom trawling and the use of destructive trawl nets. However, bottom trawling boats still operate along the northern and north-western coastline of the island. It is clear that although the necessary laws are in place the implementation of these laws are not taking place, due to bribery and corruption. The Ministry of Fisheries however is taking steps to reduce the use of unsustainable methods such as bottom trawling by introducing alternative fishing methods and conducting awareness programmes among the fishing community.

A key reason as to why this issue is not highlighted as a large contributor to the destruction of our oceans is due to the unawareness of the general public. We, as the citizens of this island nation have a responsibility to protect and secure our natural resources. There is an urgent need to shine a spotlight on the people harming our oceans to bring monetary value to themselves, as the damage caused may already be irreversible. Therefore, it is vitally important to create awareness and bring light to this topic so as to mainstream it.  This will pressurize the government and related ministries to implement the laws in place and bring justice to the offenders and create a sustainable form of fishing.

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