SL should not promote ‘killing tourism’: Dr. Asha de Vos

By Pamodi Waravita

Spearfishing, the trophy fishing sport of hunting fish underwater using spear guns and diving gear, was practised in Sri Lanka until 2017. It was banned a mere three years ago under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act, following a particularly concerning event where a humphead wrasse, part of an endangered species, was killed on the southern coast.

A report published last week alleged that the Ministry of Sports was planning on informing the Navy and the Ministry of Fisheries to permit spearfishing for tourists in Sri Lanka, with the aim of increasing tourism into the country. However, urging the Government to stand by the current ban on spearfishing is marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos, who is the Founder of Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation and education research organisation Oceanswell, and one of the “BBC 100 Women” in 2018.

Considering the pioneering research she has conducted on Sri Lanka’s marine environment, alongside her other achievements, The Morning queried her about her stance on the spearfishing issue.

Following are excerpts of the interview.

Why is spearfishing destructive to the marine environment, specifically in the Sri Lankan context?

Spearfishing using scuba gear is banned across the world, including the Pacific Islands, and with good reason. When you use scuba gear, you are not holding your breath, so you are not diving on a single lungful of air. When you do this, you are artificially lengthening your time underwater, which means you can get to places you wouldn’t be able to go on a single lungful of air.

This means you can also venture deeper into places where fish typically seek refuge. This makes fish an easy target and gives them little opportunity to escape. Because there’s little time to assess the size of a fish before it gets disturbed and swims away, spear-fishers have been shown to catch bigger fish than, say, line fishermen, and they typically select larger fish.

At Palm Island in the Great Barrier Reef, scientists looked at the impact of spearfishing and found that it caused a decrease in the average density and average size of fish targeted by this activity – in this case, coral trout. The issue of taking bigger fish is that quite often, they are the ones at reproductive age. So if you take those out, where does the next generation come from? This results in a reduction in fish in the ocean.

Other studies have shown that spear-fishers also have an impact on the coral reefs in which they look for fish. These are studies done in places like Australia, where they have strict rules that are actually enforced. They have restrictions on everything – from what size can be caught and how many speared fish you can have in your possession (including in your home), all the way to what species you can take out. They also do not permit spearfishing with any source of artificial air – again, scuba tanks. It must be done on breath-hold, which is challenging for the diver, but gives the fish a chance as well.

Sri Lanka needs to open up to learning lessons from other countries that do a far better job of implementing and enforcing regulations around the marine environment.

Did Sri Lanka have such strict regulations before implementing the ban?

In Sri Lanka, there were people diving in scuba gear and taking out the biggest fish in our waters – like 50 or 60-year-old fish – for the sake of fun, as a sport. This was done merely on the request of a few tourists who engage in the sport and was happening in areas where there is dive tourism. So dive tourists were reluctant to go there because all those nice, beautiful, big fish were being killed. If spearfishing does happen, dive tourists would turn away. Why would they come when all the big fish are gone?

In an economic sense, when the fish are alive, they will come back repeatedly to see the fish. Once you kill that fish and take it out of the water, people wouldn’t return because there’s no point in coming back when there’s nothing left to see. So economically, it doesn’t make sense. Basically, a fish is worth more alive than dead.

The attitude is that we can draw more tourists to Sri Lanka by permitting the killing of fish. This is a very short-term mentality. If we destroy all these fish stocks, dive tourism will die. If we take out all the big fish at their reproductive prime, there won’t be a next generation of fish. If that happens because of a sport, then all other livelihoods associated with this resource will suffer. Nobody is thinking about the long-term impact.

We would destroy our dive areas by letting spearfishing happen. “Killing tourism” is not something Sri Lanka should promote at all. We should entice people to come, look, and leave with only memories. We should be proud to protect, rather than destroy.

Wouldn’t legalising spearfishing increase the number of tourists into the country at all?

No. I think we have to be proud of what we have and showcase to the world that we care about what we have. “Killing tourism” is not something we should be promoting. The ethos of our country, our traditions, and our culture discourage killing. So now why is it convenient for us to use killing as a means of income generation? There are people who can make a livelihood if we keep these fish alive – that’s what we should be encouraging and supporting at this time.

Although the Ministry of Sports has stated that they will reconsider the legalisation of spearfishing due to its harmful nature, are stronger preventive methods than a ban needed to end spearfishing?

A hard-stop, or a ban, is the only way to control it; if there is ambiguity, then there is wiggle-room. For example, we banned spearfishing, but we have heard of tourists coming to Sri Lanka with spear guns in their bags. We should increase the ban to say these instruments should be confiscated, or not allowed into the country. In a country where regulation is poor in general, particularly in the marine environment, we must not leave room for options or loopholes.

If the Government does go ahead with lifting the ban, what do scientists and conservationists such as yourself hope to do? Since your organisation also engages in marine conservation efforts, do you have any plans to stop this from happening?

This legislation only came into place three years ago. It is sad that they are already talking about overturning it. State Minister for Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera has, however, made a strong statement that they are opposed to lifting the ban on spearfishing. I am going to trust him and hold him to it. People have thought long and hard before putting this ban into place, for the sake of the country and the nation. I commend the Fisheries Ministry for stating this. Something like this can only be controlled from the top.

It is very hard for small organisations to get involved in something like this because it is an issue of regulation and enforcement. When the ban was first put in place, I got threatened on my social media by individuals who indulged in spearfishing. Most often, the threats came from foreigners who lived along our coastlines and indulged in the sport. Not just me, but also my colleagues from the Sri Lanka Sub Aqua Club – who were a big force behind the initial ban – were being threatened. We got threats from people who were thinking only in the short term.

I encourage the Government and the Fisheries Ministry to stand by the ban for the sake of the country, and to maintain a long-term vision for our nation.

How can awareness be increased among local tour operators about the dangers of spearfishing?

This has to come from the top. Fundamentally, our Tourist Board (Sri Lanka Tourism) and Tourism Development Board should be openly talking about their support for this ban. Welcoming people to Sri Lanka on our terms – terms that consider the protection of our resources for future generations. The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) has put out a statement saying the hotels don’t want it, and we need more statements like that. The Government should be telling tourists that they are welcome in Sri Lanka, but that “killing tourism” is not encouraged here. This is not part of what we sell – please do come and enjoy the country, but we won’t allow the destruction of our resources.