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National framework and marine protection

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BY Dulki Seethawaka The marine ecosystems of Sri Lanka are renowned for their diverse aquatic species and their habitats of coral reefs, seagrass meadows in the vast Indian Ocean. These ecosystems provide a primary source of income for the marine communities who depend on fishing, and protect the island from the irreversible impacts of climate change such as tidal waves and storm surges. Furthermore, they are significant to the tourism industry in providing various recreational activities for the tourists. Despite many efforts by the state and private entities to safeguard the marine ecosystems, they are still facing a number of challenges due to various anthropocentric activities. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on some of the main issues found in the maritime zones of Sri Lanka and discuss how Sri Lankan legislative and administrative authorities can help to address them. Illegal fishing Fishing communities in Sri Lanka play an important role in supplying fish for consumption within the country as well as to address the demands of the international market. However, there are many loopholes in the legislative regime in this sector which have been neglected for years.  The continuous practising of illegal fishing methods is one such major concern. Section 27 of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act No. 2 of 1996, strictly prohibits using or attempting to use any poisonous, explosive, or stupefying substance or any other harmful substance for the purpose of poisoning, killing, stunning, or disabling any aquatic resources – including fish.  However, blast fishing, which is a form of causing a blast in the water using an explosive such as dynamite, is still carried out in some coastal and maritime zones in Sri Lanka, and even reported to be increasing despite the prohibitions. This method of fishing not only kills non-target species of fish but also causes severe damages to the marine ecosystems. The five prohibited methods of fishing in the Indian Ocean as per the 1996 Act and subsequent amendments and regulations ban the use of push nets, harpooning, and moxi, trammel, gill, or monofilament nets. However, these are still practiced within the fishing communities all over the country. It is also observed that the use of trawl nets which was banned in Sri Lanka in 2017 due to the destruction they caused in all marine life, still operates in the northern coastal zones. Purse seining is also carried out even though it was banned in 2010. In this method, a “Laila net” combined with either explosives or lights, is used to encircle a large group of fish. When entire groups of fish are caught, it affects the ecological balance in marine environments. Therefore, it is evident that even though there are rules and regulations that prohibit destructive methods of fishing, they are not properly enforced. Most of the abovementioned forbidden fishing methods ultimately result in overfishing, which can harm marine biodiversity in many ways. For instance, overfishing can remove either one or a group of marine species which can impact several trophic levels. It can also result in the by-catch and mortality of non-target species. When the herbivorous species are so reduced, there is a possibility of algal dominance which can also cause significant damages to the marine ecosystems. Adding more to the issues concerning illegal fishing practices and overfishing, is the conflicts among the Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen in the maritime zones of Sri Lanka which have been a constant debate among the two countries. The Sri Lankan fishermen argue that the Indian fishermen are practicing unsustainable methods of fishing in Sri Lankan waters which are causing irreversible damages to the marine ecosystems. The territorial seas are not divided by a straight line and it is therefore challenging to decide whether the Indian fishermen deliberately invade our waters or do so by mistake. However, the responsibility to not damage marine ecosystems is an undeniable duty of any party. Marine pollution Being an island situated in a busy international shipping route, there are thousands of ships and boats which roam in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka. Therefore, there is the obvious threat of marine pollution by the oils and other pollutants that are released to the sea. The marine environment is primarily protected by the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008, which gives comprehensive directions on preventing, reducing, controlling, and managing marine pollution in the maritime and coastal zones of Sri Lanka. Section 26 of the Act charges a criminal liability for discharging or the escaping of oil, harmful substances, or pollutants into the territorial waters of Sri Lanka. Civil liability for the same actions is provided in Section 34 of the 2008 Act. As per Section 41(2), any person who has caused marine or environmental pollution, failed to report such pollution, and failed to fulfil the necessary actions specified in the Act in the event of such marine pollution, are liable to a fine not exceeding Rs. 3 million. The Act also establishes the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) who are bestowed with many authoritative functions to prevent, control, and reduce marine and coastal pollution. However, it is debatable as to what extent these regulations have succeeded in preventing or controlling marine pollution. Yet another method of marine pollution is when the coastline and inland communities add plastic and garbage to the coastline and freshwater resources, and they get carried away to the marine waters. Such debris can be extremely harmful for marine ecosystems and creatures including fish, turtles, seals, and marine birds. Also, the plastic which is dumped into the ocean disrupts the microscopic marine algae called phytoplankton from removing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Therefore, polluting the marine ecosystems not only deteriorates the existing marine ecosystems, but also exacerbates climate change. Invasive organisms Ships which have travelled many international waters, might carry invasive organisms which can be destructive for the Sri Lankan marine ecosystems. This is recognised as a threat to marine ecosystems all over the world. Usually, these organisms can be introduced to foreign ecosystems through natural phenomena such as being carried through ocean currents or winds or being attached to a whale or a log. Clear Seas Centre, an independent research centre on responsible marine shipping based in Canada, identified that the development in commercial marine shipping can be considered as the largest source of new and significant aquatic species invasion methods worldwide. An organism can move from one marine ecosystem to another through commercial marine shipping in two methods, namely ballast water (water drawn and stored in specialised tanks) and biofouling (live organisms such as algae and microbes attach themselves to the hull). If such an organism is introduced to a marine ecosystem where their natural predators are not present, then these organisms can thrive and start harming the new environment in many ways. Therefore, there is a growing threat which needs immediate attention from the administrative authorities, to protect the marine ecosystems in Sri Lanka. Way forward The necessity of addressing these situations not only requires proper regulations, but also adequate policies, action plans, and strategies. As it was observed, there are necessary legal provisions that are implemented to regulate illegal fishing activities. However, banned fishing practices are still carried out within many fishing communities. One major reason for this is the lack of proper monitoring systems and official authorities to enforce laws. It is necessary to appoint sufficient officials who can regularly patrol areas identified with most such occurrences of such illegal practices. These officials can represent the departments directly involved in marine environmental conservation such as the MEPA and the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Department and other related divisional and local authorities. It is necessary to ensure that they can discharge their duties, avoiding any personal conflicts and benefits. Furthermore, they must be able to engage in their duties without any political influence, and it is necessary to protect them from politicians who might threaten and inflict force to get their requests performed, which is a very common occurrence in Sri Lanka. The officers must be given the opportunity to report any incidents that are likely to interfere with their constitutional and legislative duties and they must be given due protection. The need for reforming the existing laws should also be considered. If citizens are practising any activities that are prohibited by the law, then they must be liable for rigorous punishments such as higher compensation and sentences of longer imprisonment. Accordingly, contemporary laws which are practiced in Sri Lanka must be duly amended without further delay. There is an essential requirement of revising all the fines and penalties specified for the offenders in the applicable regulatory provisions. It is also important to impose provisions that would help the offenders to uplift their socio-economic conditions. For instance, they must be encouraged to willingly discontinue the current livelihoods and practices which harm the marine environment, and be provided with opportunities to engage in alternative business practices, to educate, train, and improve their capacity, and to obtain social security protection with special attention to gender equality. One such alternative employment opportunity is introducing replanting schemes such as restoring corals and planting mangrove forests which can not only help the communities but also regenerate the deteriorating ecosystems in the country. There are several such community-based and community-involved replanting projects initiated by state and private organisations. However, environmental restoration projects must not be limited to a certain area, but involve communities of different localities and even districts. For instance, the Great Green Wall project in Africa, which is an initiative to restore 8,000 km across 11 countries to prevent the expanding of the Sahara Desert, has created 10 million jobs in rural areas. Such large-scale projects can help any person irrespective of their gender, religion, and social status to earn a livelihood by engaging in a better cause for the future. It must also be ensured that such efforts by a certain sector would not be destroyed by the neglectful activities of another sector, which can only be fulfilled by implementing rigorous regulations. Another recommendation is creating awareness on the protection of marine ecosystems within all involved stakeholders such as coastline and inland communities, state actors, civil society organisations, etc. It was evident that on many occasions, people do not acknowledge the value of ecosystems and only contemplate the short-term economic profits and their convenience. Therefore, communities can be educated through local, municipal, and urban-level programmes on how to protect the environment and discontinue practices which cause environmental implications. Government officials who are involved in field activities and directly associated with the protection of the marine environment can be educated through national campaigns, seminars, and conferences on the necessity of safeguarding the ecosystems, disregarding their personal benefits. It is also important to promote awareness within the high state officials, particularly state ministers, secretaries, etc., on the long-term effects of environmental degradation and the necessity of protecting the marine environment of Sri Lanka. Improving communication and co-operation among the state and private sectors to execute, improvise, and implement conservation and restoration plans and procedures, is also necessary. The private sector must not only be able to initiate new plans to protect the marine environment but also criticise any governmental actions that would harm marine ecosystems. At the same time, the government sector must be able to regulate the private organisations and ensure that they do not misuse their funds and do not engage in any hidden agendas. It is also necessary to build collaborations with international organisations in addressing concerns which are new to Sri Lanka, such as the introduction of invasive organisms through commercial shipping. Building regional collaborations is also essential in order to address fishing conflicts. It is necessary that the governments declare illegal fishing practices which are common in the region, and thereby, enter into mutual agreements to prevent such practices without engaging in blame games. Most importantly, the state and private sectors must encourage researchers, scientists, and academics to conduct exhaustive research to identify the risks and potentially vulnerable areas in marine ecosystems. This will be helpful in recognising the illegal practises which harm the environment in specific areas, identifying invasive organisms and the resilience levels of marine ecosystems, community needs of those areas, and thereby finding applicable solutions. This intellectual analysis and statistics would be supportive in drafting the amendments and new regulations.  Thereby, the above discussed recommendations can be incorporated in regulations, policies, action plans, and strategies to protect and improve the marine ecosystems which are affected by harmful human activities. It is important to recognise the essentiality of preserving the marine ecosystems in Sri Lanka which are significant for the economy as well as to protect the nation from natural disasters and climate change induced other outcomes. (The writer is an Attorney-At-Law and environmental researcher) The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.  

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