Archive for the ‘Fisheries’ Category

They are marine eels, not sea snakes

December 12, 2017

Reports that swarms of what were initially mistakenly identified as venomous sea snakes had got caught in fishing nets in the east coast, had many puzzled and others worried with rumours spreading of an impending tsunami. But scientists have categorically said they are not sea snakes but a species of marine eel.

The hundreds of eels that caught in fishing nets. Pix by Adiran

These creatures had got caught in areas including Batticaloa, Kalladi and Nawalady. They were reported as having slender bodies with the largest specimen being about four feet long.

The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) has identified the sea creatures as a species of snake eels. NARA’s Marine Biology Division Head Dr. Sisira Haputantri said that snake eels like fish have gills, a dorsal and anal fins, although not clearly visible like in the case of fish. However, they do not have scales and a tail fin but have tapering tails ending in a point. This gives the species the appearance of a snake.

Explaining further Dr. Haputantri said the species is scientifically categorised into genus Callechelys belonging to the family Ophichthidae. The name itself gives the hint of a snake with the term “Ophichthidae” originating from Greek ophis (“serpent”) and ichthys (“fish”). Some snake eels have coloured spots or stripes to mimic the appearance of venomous sea snakes to deter predators. These eels cannot be consumed as food and have no economic value, according to NARA.

Snake eels live mainly in sandy reefs burrowing in sandy or muddy bottoms waiting to catch their prey of crustaceans and small fish.

According to NARA the snake eels caught in the east may have been washed ashore as a result of conditions in the Bay of Bengal.

This is not the first time such an incident had been reported. Riayas Ahmed, a senior lecturer attached to the Eastern University said a similar infestation of eels was reported in 2012 during this same period of the year.

Marine Biologist Arjan Rajasuriya said that some oceanic fish species show spawning aggregations that could lead to them getting caught. However he said more research needed to be done to find out the reason behind this rare phenomenon.

Meanwhile, snake expert Dr.Anslem de Silva said it is easy to identify sea snakes as they have a rudder-like tail useful in swimming as opposed to the pointed tapering tails that eels have. He said 15 species of sea snakes have been recorded from Sri Lanka, all of them highly venomous. This includes the beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistose) commony called ‘Walakkadiya’ in Sinhala. It is regarded as one of the most venomous sea snake in the world.

Veteran diver and marine naturalist, Dr.Malik Fernando said divers occasionally encounter sea snakes and they are common in areas like the Gulf of Mannar. “Sea snakes are stunningly beautiful. They swim underwater hunting for their prey in reef crevices – many eat eels. I have seen them off Negombo. They show no fear of divers. And we have to dodge them when they come our way,” Dr.Fernando added.

Dr.Fernando who is also a medical doctor pointed out that snake antivenom available in Sri Lanka is not effective against sea snakes and warned not to meddle with them if one spots them on a beach or while diving.

Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/171210/news/they-are-marine-eels-not-sea-snakes-272310.html

Batticaloa fishermen with their unusual catch

Nandikadal lagoon fish perished without oxygen, says NARA

July 31, 2017

Published on SundayTimes on 11.06.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170611/news/nandikadal-lagoon-fish-perished-without-oxygen-says-nara-244783.html

Thousands of fish seen floating in the Nandikadal and another nearby lagoon in Mullativu this week died because of a lack of oxygen, experts say.

Nandikadal is where a decisive battle against LTTE terrorism took place in May 2009. So the news of the dead fish triggered more curiosity. The Fisheries Ministry directed the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency to investigate. One June 4, a team led by NARA’s head of Environmental Studies S A M Azmi visited Nandikadal.

Sea of dead fish. Pic by Thayalan

“Different species of fish ranging from shrimp, eels to modha were found in the mass fish grave. We tested the water in the lagoon and found that the oxygen level is zero in the affected section of the lagoon. So literally, these fish died due to depletion of oxygen in the water,” Mr Azmi revealed.

They did not find any bacterial infection.
He also pointed out that this is a common phenomenon.
The water level of the Nandikadal lagoon had dropped below the sand bar as a result of the drought and this prevented the flow of water between the sea and the lagoon.

“Usually a sudden rain that brings lot of nitrogen and fertilizer to a water body triggers an algal boom – a rapid growth of microscopic algae. The algae soon die and the decomposition process consumes a lot of the oxygen dissolved in the water rapidly depleting the lifeline of the fish in the water. Once in a while fish in Beira lake and other inland water bodies, too, die due to this phenomenon according to the NARA expert. The area in Mullativu got some rains on the 29th of May, but there was little time for such algae bloom,” he said.

Mr. Azmi believes disturbances of the bottom sediments due to activities such as fishing could have triggered different oxygen consuming processes that led to the sudden depleting of oxygen in the Nandikadal lagoon. He said it is rarely that they record a zero oxygen level in a body of water, adding that even in cases of fish deaths in other areas due to low oxygen, the level is not zero.

The NARA team advised that a section of the sand bar be excavated to let the sea water flow into the lagoon.
Mr Azmi said the NARA team heard from locals that this is a common occurrence at this time of year. “So it is advisable to cut this barrier every year around the 15th of May,” Mr Azmi said.

This could happen in shallow coastal areas as well. These areas are called ‘dead zones’ resulting in deaths of fish in the open ocean as well.

Unseen invaders afloat in plastic wasteAlong with the World’s Ocean Day on June 8, a high-level United Nations Conference on Oceans was held last week in New York.
Sri Lanka assured its support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.One of those goals is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources’’, or goal 14.
Arjan Rajasuriya, coordinator, coastal and marine programme, IUCN Sri Lanka country office, said Sri Lanka should ensure sustainable fisheries, reduction/elimination of pollution, ocean litter etc.

Waste dumped on the Wellawatte beach

Much of the pollution of our seas comes from the land in various forms such as non-biodegradable waste including polythene, plastic, chemical waste from household detergents, vehicle service stations, factories etc.

Mr Rajasuriya cited pollution of the sea from Panadura to Negombo as an example. There are two sewage outfalls – one in Dehiwala and the other in Modera. All the new condominiums are spewing out high volumes of polluted water and massive loads of toilet waste. “Where one or two houses stood in the past, now we have high-rise buildings with about 20 to 30 apartments. Just imagine the increase of waste-water alone and the volume of sewage,” Mr Rajasuriya points out.

Sri Lanka is also concerned about invasive alien species. Studies are being done in ports and fishery harbours on the possible invasive species coming into our waters from ballast water and hulls of ships and fishing boats. But we are completely ignoring invaders attached to floating plastic debris. Much of the floating plastic waste that goes from land add up to large floating piles (rafts) of plastic litter floating out at sea. Eventually currents and wind bring them to shore. Many invaders can come through these sources, but we are not giving much attention to these floating plastics, Mr Rajasuriya worries.

Waste washed up on the beach in Mullaitivu. © Arjan Rajasuriya.

 

Gentle marine giant stays more on our waters

April 30, 2017

A whale shark seen with a swimmer off Colombo. Pic courtesy Nishan Perera

As the sightings of whale sharks increase in our waters, experts say the world’s largest fish needs to be protected.

“We still know very little about whale sharks, but the fish is already ‘endangered’ and highly threatened by both target and bycatch fisheries,” says marine biologist from Blue Resources Trust, Daniel Fernando. He made the remarks at a lecture at an event organised by Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club this week.

The blue whale is the largest creature on Earth, but since it is a marine mammal, the crown of being the largest fish goes to the whale shark. A whale shark can grow up to 40 feet (12 meters) or more and weigh about 20 tons. The average whale shark is 8 metres long, but the ones found in Sri Lankan waters are 6-7 metres according to Mr Fernando.

Scientifically classified as rhincodon typus, the whale shark called ‘mini muthu mora’ in Sinhala is in fact a species of shark. But unlike other sharks, they do not have teeth and they are filter feeders that depend on plankton. By opening their huge gaping mouths closer to the surface, they scoop in these plants along with any small fish.

Divers have reported more sightings in the seas off Colombo.

Nishan Perera, a marine biologist who has made regular dives in the oceans off Colombo, reported more whale shark sightings in February and March when these fish are seen in our waters. “Two or three whale shark sightings during this period is normal, but this year there were dozens of encounters,” Mr Perera said.

A giant whale shark seen in colombo seas (c) Sanjeev de Silva

The Maldives is a famous destination for whale sharks and queries revealed a lower number of encounters in Maldivian waters when there was an increase in our waters said Mr Perera. The whale sharks have spots on the body and its pattern is unique for each individual. So, the Sri Lankan marine biologists also shared the photos of the whale sharks seen in Sri Lankan waters with other international whale shark databases to verify where they are from.

It could be the same individuals seen in different occasions, but the fact that they are seen more often means that the fish that are used to passing through our waters are staying a little longer than previous years.

Author of the “Sharks of Sri Lanka”; Rex I De Silva says the large number of recent sightings baffle him. He says these fish usually migrate to areas rich in plankton. These areas are where there is an upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the depths. So, it is possible that, fuelled by changes in hydrologic factors, such upwellings are now occurring with greater frequency in our coastal waters. Upwellings encourage the growth of plankton which, in turn, attracts other plankton feeders such as fish. Whale sharks also feed on fish (especially small scombrids) which are attracted to the plankton.

Changing oceanic patterns due to global warming is another reason according to the expert. However, these are just suggestions as to why whale shark sightings have become common in recent years. We just do not have sufficient data to draw firm conclusions, cautioned Mr De Silva.

Howard Martenstyn, another expert, points out that there are more nutrients in the western seaboard compared to 2016 as evidenced by increased rainfall and river outflows and that may explain more whale shark sightings. Mr Matenstyn also reminds us that the number of sightings in the same area does not usually equate to the number of whale sharks, highlighting the need for more supporting data and investigations.

The whale shark is a gentle giant, which allows divers swim with them. They pose no danger to humans but an accidental blow from the powerful tail can cause injury. Experts advise keeping a minimum distance of 1.5 metres from the front of the body and 3 metres from the rear.

The whale shark takes about 15 years to mature to reproduce and is vulnerable to overfishing. Sri Lanka passed laws banning the catching of whale sharks in 2015, but awareness of such regulations, along with implementation, is often lacking points out Daniel Fernando.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170430/news/gentle-marine-giant-drawn-to-our-waters-238733.html

Experts urge Sri Lanka to join global effort to protect sharks 
Sharks have slow reproductive cycles and cannot be fished at levels similar to other fish. But sadly, Sri Lanka is among top 20 shark killing countries ranked at 14th place according to a 2013 report by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and the Pew Environment Group.

The Fisheries Department says that steps have been taken to protect sharks. Five species are protected by law, including three species of thresher sharks, oceanic-white tip shark, and the whale shark. The department says it even distributes tools such as de-hookers and line cutters among fishermen that can be used to release sharks caught in nets or hooks.

But more needs to be done to protect these apex predators in our ocean near the top of the marine food chain and help regulate populations of species in the marine ecosystem, the experts say.

Sharks are also important to the economic survival of the fishing industry and have the potential to attract tourists. So Sri Lanka should follow the example of the Maldives and other nations to support international conservation and protection of sharks, marine expert Howard Martenstyn, says.

Several species of shark migrate into different areas of oceans governed by different countries. So to protect them, the Convention of Migratory Species initiated a memorandum of understanding on the conservation of migratory sharks in 2010. Sri Lanka has not yet signed this, but marine experts say this would be a great step forward in recognising the value of sharks within our national and regional waters, points out Daniel Fernando.

Sad plight of a whale shark in Galle, 2014- photo courtesy Lankadeepa

Red light for spearfishing

April 17, 2017

Following continuing action by activists and reports in media including the Sunday Times, the government has banned spearfishing.

The gazette notice last month says: “No person shall engage in any fishing operation using spear guns or hand held spears within Sri Lanka.” The regulation also specifies that no person shall use or possess, or have on board any local fishing boat, any spear gun.

Spearfishing is a method of killing fish by a shooting a ‘pointed spike’ using a ‘spear gun’. Earlier, spearfishing was done by skin divers, but now scuba kits allow divers to remain under water longer to target larger, valuable fish species such as grouper and hump-head wrasse, which are also highly threatened.

Marine activists welcomed the ban.

Some of the large reef fish such as Napolean Wrasse are threatened

But there are those who claim spearfishing is a sustainable method, as it only removes the targeted fish and there is no by-catch.

“But if we specify a list of fish not allowed to be speared, will those spearfhishing in our waters adhere to such guidelines? How can we monitor?” asks marine activists. They say a total ban is the solution.

The Director General of the Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources, M C L Fernando said the support of the navy and the Coast Guard are needed to enforce the ban.

The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act bans several methods of fishing.

Mr Fernando said the department and the ministry were planning to regulate few other fishing methods, including bottom-trawling.

TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran submitted a bill in Parliament proposing to ban bottom trawling. But some technical issues have surfaced and the bill will be re-drafted and resubmitted by the Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, the Director General of the Fisheries Department, Mr Fernando, said.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/incentives-for-dugong-hunters-to-abandon-illegal-killings-abandon-illegal-killings-237146.html 

Some of the illegal fishing methods

Another dugong butchered in Mannar

April 17, 2017

Can giving incentives for abandoning illegal fishing methods save dugongs and other threatened marine life..? 

Caught red-handed – Dugong meat found in the 3 wheeler with the culprit

Two people who were arrested while transporting 80 kilos of dugong flesh in a three-wheeler have been released on bail by a court.

There were detained on Sunday, April 9, by the navy at Thavulpadu in Mannar and handed over to to regional officers of Department of Wildlife Conservation. They were then produced in court and released on surety bail of Rs.100,000 each. The DWC unit in Mannar is investigating, according to Channa Suraweera who is overseeing its marine unit.

Dugongs recorded in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka continue to be hunted for meat and are now believed to be ‘critically endangered’ locally. Killing a dugong or the possession of its meat was banned in 1970s. Dugongs are often killed when entangled in fishing nets as well as through dynamite fishing.

Despite the laws, the killing [as bycatch] continues [with atleast 13 dugongs killed last year].

Marine activists say innovative methods are needed to discourage fishermen from killing dugongs. A trial is underway in Kalpitiya, Puttalam and other areas where dugongs are found. The project aims to give financial aid to the fishermen to replace illegal fishing gear.

A Kalpitiya fisherman inspecting his Sea Bass cage

“We have replaced about 30 illegal nets in Sottupitiya area in Kalpitiya. An agreement was also signed with fishermen not to resort to illegal methods,” said Thushan Kapurusinghe of the Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, which is implementing the initiative.

This initiative is financed and managed Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment (UNEP) under the ‘Dugong and Seagrass Project’ that also functions in number of other countries of the Dugong range.

The project is also helping fishermen to set up crab cages and sea bass cages in the shallow waters, Mr Kapurusinghe said.

There is high demand for sea bass, also known as moda. The baby fish are being fattened in metal cages set up in shallow seas. Lagoon crabs, too, are being raised this way. “Raising sea bass is profitable. So this is an added income for us,” said Mr Priyantha, a local fishermen who plans to set up a sea bass cage in Kalpitiya.

The project is part of an international effort across the dugong range. It is an incentive-based approach to dugong and seagrass conservation. It is funded and managed by the Global Environment Facility and UN Environment.

The project, which ends in April, is also supporting alternative livelihoods for fishing communities including batik, sewing, dried fish packaging, coir mat production, and ornamental fish breeding.

During a recent media visit, we got a chance to meet a fishing community in Serakkuliya in Kalpitiya.

K B Nilmini, who has taken up sewing, together with a group of housewives said she can earn a decent living. “Our men used nylon nets to catch more fish. It is not legal, but that was a way to earn enough money. But, now, as I can support the family with the income from sewing clothes, we can abandon illegal fishing,” Ms Nilmini said.

But the numbers engaged in illegal fishing is large and they need to be persuaded to give up the practice.

Sewing for getting an additional income for abandoning illegal fishing

[Published on SundayTimes on 16.04.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/incentives-for-dugong-hunters-to-abandon-illegal-killings-abandon-illegal-killings-237146.html. Please note that some corrections are required from the edited version. This blog post is published with all the corrections] 

Rare bottom-dweller is a vulnerable fish

April 9, 2017

‘Why humans are so cruel..?’ could it be Shark Ray’s last thoughts..?

In the animal kingdom, there are species that look alike, or ‘hybrids’, between two or more creatures. Marine creatures with such features often go unnoticed, but the fish caught in nets off the southern coast puzzled many as it appeared like a shark and a ray (‘mora’ and ‘maduwa’ in Sinhala, respectively).This strange fish had ‘shark like’ fins and tail. However, its head looks like a ray and had ray-like ‘wings’. The fish photographed by Devsiri Peiris last month is said to have been caught accidentally in a fishing net. It is about five feet long and a male.

“It is a fish we call ‘shark ray’, known by fishermen  as ‘thith mora’’’, says Rex I. De Silva – an expert on sharks. “Despite its Sinhala name, it is not a shark but a ray,’’ he says.

The shark ray is scientifically named as Rhina ancylostoma also called mud skate as it is found in sandy bottoms doing bottom feeding. Due to the shape of its head the fish in this group is also known as ‘guitarfish’. The one caught is a Bowmouth Guitarfish. According to literature, this large species can reach a length of 2.7 m (8.9 ft) and weight of 135 kg (298 lb). They are found in depths of up to 90 m (300 ft).

Shark expert, Mr de Silva says the species is rare. “Nevertheless the species appears in very small numbers from time-to-time in fish markets. I have seen them at Negombo, Kalmunai and Kirinda markets,” Mr De Silva says.

The Red List of Threatened Fauna by IUCN categorises the shark ray as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction. Other than getting caught in fishing nets, dynamite fishing, bottom trawling pose a threat to shark rays. Habitat degradation and destruction too threaten this rare fish.  Published on SundayTimes on 09.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170409/news/rare-bottom-dweller-is-a-vulnerable-fish-236477.html

The Shark Ray or Guitar fish with fins similar to that of sharks and upper body similar to a ray (c) Devsiri Peiris

Shark ray in New Port Aquarium – she has given birth to 9 pups

Threatened dugongs thrown a lifeline

March 28, 2017

The dugong is the most threatened marine mammal likely to disappear from our waters, but there are efforts to save the species reports Malaka Rodrigo. Published on SundayTimes on 26.03.2017  http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170326/news/threatened-dugongs-thrown-a-lifeline-234096.html

A Dugong (Dugong dugon) swims in the Red Sea (c) Fergus Kenedy

Thirteen dugongs were killed last year, according an informal survey in the North Western coastal areas by marine activists. This is one dugong killed every month and considering their rarity, is worrying, says Prasanna Weerakkody of Ocean Resources Conservation Association.

A dugong washed ashore on Nadukuda beach in December, 2016 (c) ORCA

The latest dugong deaths occurred December last year. A carcass was found on Nadukuda beach in Mannar. A few weeks earlier, another carcass washed ashore near Thavilpadu beach. Fishing activities using explosives are common in the nearby Vankalai Coral Reef and marine activists initially thought dynamite had killed the dugong found in Nadukuda.

“Through informal discussions with fishermen, we found out that one dugong had been trapped in a net. The fishermen knew it was illegal to pull it ashore and had it anchored under water to collect it when the navy is not around. But the carcass got loose and washed ashore,” revealed Weerakkody. There could be many other dugong deaths that go unreported, he said.

Dugongs are also called mermaids of the sea because some sightings of mermaids are actually misidentified dugongs seen from afar

The dugong is also known as the ‘sea cow’ for its habit of grazing on the seagrasses on the ocean bed. Seagrass is different from seaweeds (which is an algae) and are actually more closely related to the flowering plants with roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. Seagrasses can form dense underwater meadows and an adult dugong consumes as much as 45 kg seagrass according to experts.

Dugongs are vulnerable to extinction because they are killed directly or indirectly by human-related activities, which include fishing, coastal development and hunting. The seagrasses on which they depend are thought to be one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth.

In 2015, the “Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project” was initiated to improve protection and conservation of dugongs and their seagrass habitats around the world, said United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP)’s Max Zieren who recently visited Sri Lanka. Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste and Vanuatu is part of the project, which is the first coordinated effort, he added.

In Sri Lanka, the project focuses on the northwest region, namely the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay where dugongs have been recorded. The project is coordinated by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and eight other partner organisations are supporting.

Sugath Emmanuel, local fisherman and diver in Kalpitiya, said he had not seen a dugong alive. He recalled eating dugong flesh during his childhood, in an area where many dugongs were caught. The flesh was considered a local delicacy. Hundreds of dugongs were killed before it was outlawed in the 1970s. Now, about 90 percent of the dugong killings are accidental or by-catch.  

Dugongs are categorised as ‘vulnerable’ in IUCN’s threatened species list considering global populations, but they can be ‘critically endangered’ in Sri Lankan waters, says Arjan Rajasuriya, project manager of International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He has been diving for the past 30 years, but has yet to see a dugong alive.

IUCN’s responsibility in the project aims at establishing an additional 10,000 hectares of marine protected area in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. Rajasuriya says dynamite fishing should be halted.

The project also aims to raise awareness among people and also give incentives to abandon illegal fishing methods. Project partner, Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, is seeking to reduce the negative impact of destructive fishing practices on seagrass habitats and provide income generation opportunities to local communities in return for their commitments for the prudent use of habitat and natural resources in the Puttlam lagoon.

The Biodiversity Education and Research NGO has taken on the education aspect of the project, especially targeting schools. Ranil Nanayakkara, who heads the group, says the response from school children has been positive.

The overall project is financed by Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP / UN Environment)  supports its implementation together with the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their Range of the Convention on Migratory Species.

Dr Lakshman Peiris, who is the project manager of DWC, said the Wildlife Department was focused on addressing marine issues with the establishment of a special unit.

The Sunday Times also asked Peiris what will happen after the four-year project ends in 2018. “The project will give us lots of information. We will create a management plan and will make sure its implementation together with other strategic partners such as Department of Fisheries, Coast Conservation & Coastal Resources Management Department, and the Marine Environment Protection Authority. The Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Coast Guard can give us lots of support by monitoring and stopping illegal activities,’’ Peiris added.

Dugongs are also found in the Indian part of the Gulf of Mannar, but unfortunately India is not part of the project. Marine biologists say India too needs to get on board. Peiris of the DWC said plans are underway to increase coordination between two countries.

Marine biologists also stress the need for action, once a strategy to save the dugongs are made. “Since the dugong is a charismatic species, we can use activities geared to protecting it to also help us to provide a refuge for other threatened marine creatures,” marine expert Rajasuriya said.

Experts gather to discuss future of Dugongs 

The third Meeting of Signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Dugongs and their habitats (Dugong MOU) was held last week in Abu-dhabi. A number of DWC and NARA officials participated at the meeting representing Sri Lanka that signed the Dugong MOU on 2012.

IUCN’s Sirenia Specialist Group (dugongs and manatees)’s Sri Lankan representative Ranil Nanayakkara said the gathering provided a good platform to learn about conservation initiatives used by experts in other countries

Surveying Seagrass habitats

Tech tools track dugongs
The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency has developed seagrass mapping methodology and is doing research to produce seagrass maps on distribution, species composition, density and status, and threats in Mannar, Palk Bay and Palk Strait.
Prasanna Weerakkody says sonar is being used to identify seagrass beds. These are then mapped and what varieties of seagrass available in that area is marked. The Ocean Resources Conservation Association team is using drones above shallow waters to map the areas. “We particularly focus on areas in which fishermen say they had seen dugongs in the past,’’ Weerakkody said. “To conserve, we first need to know where dugongs are.’’
He says informal investigations are necessary to find out where dugongs are being caught. DWC’s Channa Suraweera showed us a new mobile app they had developed to get more records of exact dugong sightings. When a dugong is seen, a fisherman who has the mobile app can record its exact GPS location while taking a photo at the same time.

Mannar Dugong carcass washed ashore in November, 2016

Dugong also attracts tourists

Fishermen playing deadly games with dolphins

March 12, 2017

A video captured by an onlooker shows some of the dolphins being hauled in while alive

Deaths of a dozen dolphins trapped in a beach seine net (ma dela) last Wednesday evening in Trincomalee has stirred strong emotions.

A video captured by an onlooker shows some of the dolphins being hauled in while alive, contesting claims by fishermen that they had released some.

Nine Trincomalee fishermen who were arrested were denied bail and are in remand custody.

All marine mammals in Sri Lanka are protected under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance, and Fisheries Act. The fishermen were arrested under the provisions of these laws, said Roshan Aluthgamage, the OIC of Trincomalee Harbour.

The dolphins had been caught near the inner harbour. The fishermen who had come from nearby Manayaweli village started laying the net around 4 pm and it was dark around 7pm when they pulled the net in. According to the fishermen, they realized dolphins were in the net but that it was too late.

Beach seine nets are known as ‘ma dela’ in Sinhala. It is a fishing net laid from the shore and is a traditional fishing method, which is legal. The fishermen also had a license and it is also possible that they did not target the dolphins. But as it is a crime to kill the protected marine mammal, they were arrested, Aluthgamage said.

Marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara, identified the victims as spinner dolphins (stenella longirostris), the most acrobatic of all dolphins.

In 2013, the killing of 40 dolphins as a result of an illegal purse seine net, called the ‘laila net’ in Kalpitiya, highlighted the need to look at fishing practices around Sri Lanka.

Laid out: The dead dolphins. Pic by Rahul Samantha

There are suspicions that hundreds of dolphins are getting killed in fishing nets.

As it is illegal to kill a dolphin or possess its flesh, Sri Lankan fishermen also tie their tails to sand bags and sink the carcasses, say marine activist Upali Mallikarachchi.

Often the flesh is used as bait, he said.

There are occasions when fishermen target dolphins. Two fishermen in Mirissa were arrested last year in the possession of a dolphin thay had harpooned, according to news reports.

Senior Lecturer of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology University of Ruhuna, Dr Terney Pradeep Kumara, said dolphins alive are more worth than dead pointing out the benefits from the whale and dolphin watching industry. The worldwide whale and dolphin tourism industry was estimated to be worth US$2 billion in 2010. he said Sri Lanka stands to lose a good opportunity.

Travice Ondaatjie, the Conservation Officer of the Sri Lanka Sub Aqua Club, said that killings in Trincomalee show the need for more effective monitoring by the Ministry of Fisheries and law enforcement. A few years back many more dolphin were killed in Kalpitiya, too. But were the perpetrators punished? he asks.

Dr Pradeep Kumara, general manager of the Marine Environment Protection Authority, urged greater cooperation among government agencies. He suggests a coordinating framework involving the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Fisheries, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, Central Environment Authority, and even the Forest Department as they manage some of the mangroves, to protect marine resources. Published on SundayTimes on 12.03.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170312/news/fishermen-playing-deadly-games-with-dolphins-232419.html

 

Sea cucumber hatchery to give momentum to industry while saving species

February 26, 2017

The construction of a new sea cucumber hatchery was initiated in Mannar yesterday at a cost of Rs 180 million rupees, says Nimal Chandraratne, the director general of National Aquaculture Development Authority of Sri Lanka.

Once completed this year, the hatchery will produce a million juvenile sea cucumbers annually, Chandraratne assured.
Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling primitive marine invertebrates closely related to starfish and sea urchin. They have elongated soft bodies resembling the shape of a cucumber or a sausage, giving rise to its common English name. In Sinhala they are called ‘muhudu kudella’ (sea leach). East Asian countries regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy where it is commonly known as bêche-de-mer (literally “sea-spade”) in French, creating a lucrative market.

Sea cucumbers seen at Mannar . Pic courtesy Kumudini Ekaratne, IUCN

Sea cucumbers seen at Mannar . Pic courtesy Kumudini Ekaratne, IUCN

The sea cucumber is a slow-moving animal that allows easy collection, so it was soon over-harvested in many areas. On average, a hectare of sea bottom should have a population of about 30 individuals, but a survey by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, a decade ago, revealed the number has dropped to one or two individuals in some areas, according to senior scientist Ajith Kumara.It is stated that the sea cucumber industry in Sri Lanka is quite old, having been introduced by the Chinese. Some old records mention that processed sea cucumbers appear to be one of the commodities taken to China during the last 1,000 years when trade existed via the silk route. But the demand has arisen sharply with a high price tag, so the industry surged in 1980s in coastal areas. They are dried and the entire processed harvest has been exported to countries like Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan bringing much needed foreign exchange.

In Sri Lanka, 27 different species of sea cucumbers are found, but the high value species are mainly confined to north, east and north-western coastal areas. The war had deterred over-exploitation with restrictions on maritime operations, but the post-war scenario seems to be detrimental to sea cucumbers.

A study funded by the Mangroves for the Future, carried out for six months between October 2013 and June 2014 by the University of Jaffna, found that the population is depleted in the Jaffna Lagoon. According to the study of 29 sites in the Jaffna Lagoon only10 locations had any sea cucumbers. The total in the 10 sites was only 360 individuals. But another survey between 1980 and 1981 recorded 20-160 individuals of high-value sea cucumber species per square metre.

The sea cucumber species called sandfish (holothuria scabra) that has higher value in the market is now categorized as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN Red List of threatened fauna. So the industry is doomed to collapse without intervention.

Against this backdrop, the sea cucumber farms are being introduced in Sri Lanka. A number of farms are already operating and the Mannar hatchery will help produce juveniles for farms.

Chandraratne of NAQDA said that holothuria scabra, that has a high demand, will be bred in the hatchery. The creatures will be artificially bred. At present there is a privately-owned hatchery and another operated by NARA.

Chandraratne said there are plans to establish a sea cucumber farm in Nainathivu and more hatcheries later.
NARA’s inland aquaculture and aquatic resources division researched to develop technology for breeding sea cucumbers since 2011 at their Kalpitiya field station independently.

Scientist Kumara said it was difficult to distinguish male and female sea cucumbers, so about 50 individuals are put into a tank and given a thermal shock by increasing the temperature of the water in the container and cooling it down quickly. This results in the male sea cucumber releasing sperm. Then the female starts to release eggs.

One female releases several million eggs, but very few hatch, Kumara explained.
Kumara said they are working closely with the community to protect the sea cucumber fishery by releasing some of the hatched juveniles into the natural environment.

Fisheries expert Dr Steve Creech, emphasized the importance of having a management strategy for Sri Lanka’s sea cucumber fishery to save the free living population. He recognizes the issue of open access for Sri Lankan sea cucumber fisheries that will further deplete the natural living species. So he suggests there should be harvest control strategies based on annual assessment of the status of the stocks. Dr Creech thinks that sea cucumber farming is a good development with low impact on the environment and ecosystem and fishing.

Published on SundayTimes on 26.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170226/news/sea-cucumber-hatchery-to-give-momentum-to-industry-230528.html

FISHERMEN, 302 SEA CUCUMBERS SEIZED
Fourteen fishermen were arrested by the navy on February 20 for illegally gathering sea cucumber. They were arrested in the Keeramunal area and 302 sea cucumbers, a dinghy, and diving gear were seized. They were handed over to the fisheries inspector at Kilinochchi the navy said. The navy has often intercepted smugglers bringing sea cucumbers from India, mostly in dried form. Due to over-harvesting, India banned gathering of sea cucumbers from the wild, so racketeers are not allowed to export the sea cucumbers through India. It is believed they are selling their stocks to Sri Lankans who can re-export taking advantage of loopholes in regulations.

Sea cucumbers seized by Navy in Northern seas

Sea cucumbers seized by Navy in Northern seas

Alarm bells ring for popular reef fish

February 22, 2017

A beautiful parrotfish photographed in Colombo. Pic by Dharshana Jayawardena

Sri Lanka will need to protect its overexploited coral reef fish which are rapidly becoming rarer, conservationists believe.

Gal malu, or rock fish, are generally popular in the country and these include varieties of grouper and parrot fish (girawa).

The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) initiated a study in January to asses status of ‘edible reef fish’ commonly known as ‘gal malu’. The study will take about a year, the Sunday Times learns.

“The size of fish caught is smaller on average. Fishermen now must use more fishing gear to catch a similar volume of fish they caught a decade ago. This alone indicates the depletion of edible ‘gal malu’ populations,” points out Dr Sisira Haputantri – the head of Marine Biology Division of NARA.

The killing of a human-sized humphead wrasse (cheilinus undulates) in Unawatuna by spearfishing two weeks ago helped intensity demands for a ban on spearfishing.

The Director General of the Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources, M C L Fernando, said a proposal to ban spearfishing is now being reviewed by the government’s law drafters.

Action has been also taken to ban the fishing of tomato grouper (cephalopholis sonnerati) – a beautiful coral fish known as ‘ran thambuva’ locally. Tomato grouper inhabits holes in the reef with cleaner shrimp and helps maintain the hiding places by fanning out sand. Scarlet shrimp and painted shrimp are high value items in the ornamental fish trade and without the groupers, the shrimp populations would die out.

Many other reef fish are threatened by overfishing and high consumption locally and overseas. The SundayTimes reported last week that the Sub-Aqua Club has appealed to the Minister of Fisheries to protect 15 large coral fish. Most of them are groupers and listed under threatened categories in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List with the humphead wrasse being listed as ‘endangered’. However, the DG of the Fisheries Department is not convinced of the threat facing these fish and insists on a study to assess the situation.

But marine biologists and divers that the Sunday Times contacted say their encounters with large reef fish are becoming rarer, which itself is an indication of their vulnerability.

Meanwhile, news emerged this week that the Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera wants to ban the fishing of parrotfish.

When contacted, the minister also said that the fishing of parrotfish no smaller than 500 grams will not be allowed. But, the Sunday Times found out from the DG of Fisheries that there are no immediate plans to ban the fishing of parrotfish and that such a move would be based on the study on reef fish.

The parrotfish inhabits coral reefs and feed on algae growing on the reef. There are about 10 different species of parrotfish in Sri Lanka. Thankfully, locally there is not much demand for it as a food fish.

Unfortunately though, this beautiful fish is in high demand among Chinese. There are suspicions and fears that the appearance of parrotfish in local supermarkets is to cater to demand from increasing numbers of Chinese living and visiting Sri Lanka.

Arjan Rajasuriya Coordinator, Coastal & Marine Programme IUCN Sri Lanka emphasises that fish stocks of Sri Lanka need to be monitored regularly, especially to check whether demand has grown in recent years for species that had not been sought-after previously.

He also notes that reef fish are threatened due to pollution, invasive alien species, climate change, and illegal fishing methods such as dynamiting. Conservation is necessary before its too late, he said.

Published on on 05.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170205/news/alarm-bells-ring-for-popular-reef-fish-227272.html

List of reef fish Sub-Aqua Club requests to protect

List of reef fish Sub-Aqua Club requests to protect

Spear-fishing threatens Giant Coral Fish

January 25, 2017

Images showing large Hump-head Wrasse (which is about 4.5ft) speared at Unawatuna raised concerns again whether spearfishing has to be banned. The Hump-head Wrasse  is categorized as ‘Endangered’ and it is important to protect this fish. Here is my article published on SundayTimes on 03.03.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130303/news/spear-fishing-threatens-giant-coral-fish-35194.html

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

Kalpitiya’s unsustainable fishing practices came under the spotlight recently after dozens of dolphins were killed after being trapped in banned fishing nets. Besides the charismatic dolphin, other “endangered” marine creatures are falling victim to illegal fishing methods, including spear fishing. Spear fishing could wipe out the world’s biggest reef fish, the Hump-head Wrasse, from Kalpitiya and other marine areas, warn marine biologists.

A Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

The Hump-head Wrasse is also known as Napoleon Wrasse, and is scientifically categorised as Cheilinus undulates. The male can grow up to six feet (two metres) and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It has a prominent bulge on its forehead, hence the name “hump head.” Some females have a sex change and turn into males with maturity. The Hump-head Wrasse can live up to 30 years, but many get killed even before reaching maturity.

Kalpitiya fisherman Chanaka says divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the Hump-head Wrasse. “Most of the larger Hump-head Wrasse are gone from Kalpitiya,” Chanaka said. In a bid to survive, the giant fish sometimes hide in cavities in underwater caves, but this does not stop divers from shooting their spears into the cavities and killing the fish.

In times past, spear fishing was done with free diving, without scuba kits. The time a hunter can stay under water was limited, but now modern spear-fishing makes use of elastic powered spear-guns and slings, or compressed gas-powered spearguns to strike the fish with accuracy. The scuba gear allow the diver to stay underwater for long periods, and divers use the extra time to go for the larger fish.

Kalpitiya Bar Reef Sanctuary architect Arjan Rajasuriya confirmed that the Hump-head Wrasse is becoming a rarity in Kalpitiya. All the larger fish have been hunted, and the Hump Head Wrasse appears to be highly vulnerable to over-fishing, he said.

The absence of the Hump-head Wrasse could be bad for the health of the coral reef, says Mr. Rajasuriya. The Hump-head Wrasse feeds on hard-shelled prey such as mollusks, starfish, or crustaceans. This includes the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorn starfish. With the disappearance of the large fish, the Crown-of-thorn starfish population is increasing and putting the system out of balance. There was a Crown-of-thorn starfish outbreak at the Pigeon Island coral reef last year.

In 1996, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Hump-head Wrasse as vulnerable. In the Red List of Threatened Species it was later upgraded to “endangered”. The fish is also targeted for the live restaurant fish trade, where fish are kept live in tanks for the customer to pick the fish he wants cooked for him. Samantha Gunasekara of Customs Biodiversity says this kind of trade is not found in Sri Lanka.

Marine biologist Nishan Perera said spearfishing is practised in other parts of the island as well. Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but also Giant Groupers, Parrot Fish and most of the giant fish are being over-fished in our waters by spear fishing, he said. The Giant Grouper can grow up to three metres, but such big specimens are rare these days, Mr. Perera said.

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Sampur power plant may pose threat to marine life

October 27, 2015

Published on SundayTimes on 11.10.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151011/news/power-plant-at-sampur-a-non-starter-167417.html. Please note that the title of the web version should be changed as “Sampur power plant may pose threat to marine life” 

The siting of the Sampur Power Plant seems to be unsuitable with its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) being rejected twice and the third amended EIA report being currently scrutinised by the Central Environment Authority (CEA).

India’s media reported that Sri Lanka has requested India to consider relocation of the coal power plant being planned to be built at Sampur in Trincomalee. The possible environmental impact of this power plant on marine life appears to be a cause of concern.

The power plant is expected to operate two generators adding 500 MW of electricity to the national grid. For the operation of a coal fired thermal power plant, water in large quantities is a necessity.

The proposed power plant is estimated to use as much as 90,000 m3 (cubic metres) of water per hour to generate steam as well as for cooling the system after the electricity is generated. It is planned to use sea water sucked in from Koddiyar Bay through a 2.6 metre diameter pipeline large enough for a man to walk inside it. The water used to cool the system is then to be discharged into Shell Bay – a biodiversity rich area.

This is particularly detrimental to the area as Shell Bay has a high biodiversity. A study conducted by National Aquatic Resources and Development Agency (NARA) shows there are 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates living in Shell Bay.The discharging of as much as 90,000m3/h of water is predicted to be a problem as the water so discharged will be at a higher temperature than the normal sea water. It is predicted that the water so discharged will be about 4 degrees Celsius higher. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) using computer generated models show that this discharge would not be a problem, but discharging of such a large volume with a higher temperature for 24 hours a day and 7 days a week worries concerned scientists.

SampoorGra

Relocation due to return of IDPs 

Indian media reported that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has requested India to consider relocating the coal power plant that is being planned to be built at Sampur, Trincomalee. There were environmental concerns over building a coal power plant in Sampur. However, the main reason for the Government to request the relocation of the plant is believed to be a social issue where the Government itself started to resettle displaced people in Sampur.

President Maithripala Sirisena inaugurated this exercise last August handing over the deeds to a selected group of occupants. The unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.

When the Sunday Times queried about this news report from the CEB General Manager M.C. Wickramasekara said he has no information about such a plan. (please note that there was a mistake in print version where CEB General Manager M.C.Wickremasekara was mistakenly referred as Nihal Wikckramasuriya who is the vice chairman of CEB)  

The area has also got its name due to large volumes of shells washed ashore indicating the area is rich in these shells’ live bearers. A rare creature that can be found in Shell Bay is the giant clam.

Giant Clamp in Shell Bay

It is known that even a slight temperature rise can damage corals by triggering bleaching. Despite results obtained on computer generated models, if the temperature in the sea water continues to increase, it could impact a large area.

Not only the temperature, it is fear that the discharging water can be contaminated with sulfur emissions from the burning coal and heavy metals such as mercury.

Chlorine too will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a chain impact making a collectively bigger impact in the long run, is the fear o f biologists.

Such pollution is not only impacted on the bio diversity of the Shell Bay but also there is a risk of health impacts on the human beings from such heavy metals through food chains.

The Mahaweli Ganga also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

Another color variation of Giant Clamp

“If the discharge of water is done in a careless manner, it can impact on this environmentally sensitive area” warns Dr.Hiran Jayewardene – former chairman of NARA.

He pointed out the need for doing the Environmental Impact Assessments with care, so that the project will not damage the environment.

The Sampur Power Plant did not have a proper assessment from the start. Its first EIA was submitted on August 2012 and was rejected due to being inadequate in several aspects.

The Trincomalee Power Company Ltd (TPCL) which is a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) and Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has resubmitted another EIA in April 2014 with amendments.

But this EIA too was found not adequate enough and it compelled the Indian consultancy firm ManTec to employ local scientists as well. The EIA was submitted in February 2015 for the third time and is being currently reviewed by a Technical Evaluation Committee.

Cooling the heated water to the sea temperature or extending the pipeline and discharging the water further into the open sea are suggested as solutions for this issue, but this will add an additional cost which at present is estimated at US$ 512 million.
The Sunday Times query sent to India’s NTPC’s general e-mail asking whether it is considering mechanisms to cool down the heated water to the sea temperature and the company’s willingness to implement such a solution has not been answered up to Friday evening.

 

It is also claimed that discharging these water to the Eastern side too will not be a solution as eventhough corals in those areas could be degraded, new corals can come up on top of those dead corals as they need a hard substrate.

However, a news report published in the Island newspaper in May 2015 quotes TPCL Managing Director Sanjeev Kishore as saying most of the complaints lodged against the current EIA by the public were baseless and the majority of them were repetitions.

Mr. Kishore said the company would correct the misconception that the plant would be similar to a nuclear plant and consequences of an accident would be similar, the news report further mentioned.

The Sunday Times also contacted Prof. O. Illeperuma to know about the possible air pollution impact. He said there are mechanisms to contain the pollution by coal power and it is very important to first scrutinise whether these methods would be set up and secondly, do continuous monitoring of their functioning to prevent air pollution.

However there is another issue as the present EIA has been done before the Government’s decision of resettlement of people in the area. Hence it may also need a re-evaluation in the present EIA on the air pollution radius, experts point out.

Central Environment Authority Chairman Prof. Lal Mervyn Dharmasiri said the technical evaluation of the Sampur Power Plant EIA is being done. He said the evaluation is thorough and the results will be released soon.

How a coal power plant works 

In a thermal power plant, large volumes of cleaned water are being heated by burning coal. This process converts the water to steam which is discharged through nozzles on to the turbine blades making the turbines rotate which in turn rotates the electricity generator.

The steam is then passed through a condenser that contains tubes through which cold water is constantly pumped. The steam passing around the tubes of the condenser loses heat and condenses as water. During this process, the steam gets cooled while cooling water gets heated up.

This warm water can be discharged into a natural water body for cooling (once through cooling system) or it may be cooled in a cooling tower and recycled for the cooling (closed cycle cooling system). 

Murder of a mermaid

September 18, 2015
Police inquiry into rare dugong killed in Mannar

Police are investigating the tragic killing of a dugong, the rare creature possibly believed to be a “mermaid” in olden times, in Mannar after the Navy came across a group of fishermen chopping up the mammal’s flesh on South Bar beach.

A local resident, Mohammed Haleem, said the Navy handed over the culprits to police and wildlife officers last week, and that they are out on bail.

tail side of the dugong (c) Mohamed Haleem

Carcass of slain dugong in Mannar – photo by Mohamed Haleem

Dugongs are sometimes hunted but they also fall victim by being inadvertently included in fishing catches or drowning after being entangled in mist fishing nets or falling victim to dynamite fishing. The cause of the action that killed the Mannar dugong is unknown. Its vital organs have been sent for analysis.

Also known as sea cow or muhudu-ura (sea pig) in Sinhala, kadal pandi in Tamil, the dugong (Dugong dugon) is a marine mammal that primarily feeds on seagrass. Dugongs were hunted openly for their flesh and oil decades ago and their population plummetted.

In the 1970s, legal sanctions to protect dugongs were incorporated into legislation but rarely enforced. It is a known secret that still several animals are still killed annually, researcher Dr.Ranil Nanayakkara said.

The Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay are the last known hideout in Sri Lanka and India for these elusive beings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List on threatened species categorises the dugong as “vulnerable to extinction”.

The dugong population in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka could be “critically endangered”, points out the IUCN Sri Lanka’s country office’s Marine and Coastal Thematic Area Coordinator Arjan Rajasuriya.

A mermaid related to an elephantThe dugong, referred to as a sea cow, sea pig and even sea camel by different communities, is scientifically close to elephants. These mammals can stay underwater for six minutes without surfacing.
It is also claimed that the legends of mermaids have been inspired by dugongs and manatees as they sometimes breathe by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water. With forelimbs containing five sets of finger-like bones and neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their heads, it is possible that
dugongs and manatees could be mistaken for humans
from afar.

In global terms, there are more stable dugong populations in places such as off Australia but if quick action is not taken the species’ future is indeed bleak in our local waters.

Dugongs are long-lived, and animals as much as 70 years of age has been recorded. But it is a slow breeder, giving birth to a single calf after an 18-month pregnancy. The mother dugong then looks after the calf for more than one and half years. So the kiling of even a few dugongs can have serious implications.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) confirms that the dugong is already extinct in several island states and suffering steep declines in at least a third of the areas where it is found.
It is ironic that the dugong at Mannar was killed just when a new project to protect dugongs and their seagrass ecosystem had begun, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

 Dynamite fishing poses grave threat

Vankalai reef destruction from blast fishing (c) Arjan Rajasuriya

Illegal dynamite fishing is common on many parts of the east coast, and a marine researcher said his team heard dynamite blasts almost every day while surveying the Vankalai coral reef, located in dugong habitat.
It is not known how many dugongs are killed in blast fishing, which destroys underlying ecosystems such as corals in addition to killing all living creatures within range of the blast.
A pair of fully-grown dugongs were killed by dynamiting in 2010.

Blast fishing Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Marine and Coastal Thematic Area, said dynamite fishing occurs particularly in around Errakkandy, north of Nilaweli, and around Batticaloa and Kalmunai. It is also commonly practised by fishermen in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, Mr. Rajasuriya said.
He witnessed the destruction the dynamite caused to the corals underwater. “If explosives are used at close range while the researchers are under water they could cause severe injuries. We had to chase the blast fishermen away in order to do our work,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.
Constant sea patrols can prevent blast fishing only to a limited extent so Mr. Rajasuriya believes this matter has to be pursued mainly on land to prevent explosives going into the hands of fishermen.
Trying to arrest culprits at sea is difficult as there are many ways they could evade arrest, such as by dumping the explosives when the authorities are spotted. It is also difficult to prove that a haul of fish had been killed with the use of dynamite.
“We need to turn our attention to land and find out how these fishermen get explosives. A good intelligence network and consistent action could effectively seal off the sources of dynamite,” Mr. Rajasuriya said. 

Published on 13.09.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150913/news/murder-of-a-mermaid-163945.html

Sri Lanka still a hub for seahorse trade?

May 20, 2015

The 60kg of dried seahorses that two Chinese were attempting to smuggle out of Sri Lanka last week were intended to satisfy the myth of aphrodisiacal benefits that seals the fate of 150 million wild seahorses a year globally. The species cannot sustain such a casualty toll, conservationists say. The hundreds of slaughtered seahorses were concealed in the baggage of two Chinese nationals bound for Shanghai from Bandaranaike International Airport and were valued at Rs. 2.3 million. After a Customs inquiry the culprits were fined Rs. 50,000 each.

Customs media spokesman Leslie Gamini said this was one of the largest consignments of seahorses being smuggled through the airport although there had been foiled attempts to send larger consignments by sea. Seahorses have horse-like heads, monkey-like tails that can be used to grasp sea grass to anchor themselves, eyes that can independently move like those of chameleons and a kangaroo-like pouch that acts as a womb, helping the male to gestate eggs deposited by the female. They are, however, a species of fish that breathes through gills, and can range in size from 2cm to 30cm depending on the species.

There are four species found in Sri Lankan waters and potential for the presence of more, said researcher Nishan Perera.He said the seas in the north and north-west are preferred habitats given the areas’ shallow, calm waters with rubble and seagrass habitats. Seahorses face a threat in Sri Lanka because they are caught as by-catch and because their habitat, the seagrass beds in shallow areas, is mostly being destroyed. Even worse, seahorses are very sensitive to environmental changes, so pollution that first hits the shallow seas around the coast can adversely affect them.

Mr. Samantha Gunasekera, who established the Customs Biodiversity Protection Unit, said because India banned seahorse fishery some years ago dried seahorses caught there are smuggled into Sri Lanka by sea and re-exported because there was weaker protection in this country for these creatures.

Mr. Gunasekara said he suspects the consignment caught last week could consist of seahorses from India considering their bigger size; the same species found in Sri Lankan waters are smaller.

photo (1) photo (2)

Seahorses make perfect husbands
Many seahorse species pair for life and the male seahorse could be the ideal husband every wife dreams of as it takes over the trouble of pregnancy from the female.At breeding time, the female transfers its eggs to the male, which self-fertilises them in its pouch. The pouch acts like a womb where the eggs receive everything from oxygen to food while removing waste.After gestation, the male seahorse goes into labour, pumping and thrusting. This can be a long process with contractions sometimes lasting up to 12 hours.http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150510/news/148444-148444.html

Operation starfish to save reef

October 7, 2013
Volunteers dive at Pigeon Island to protect the corals from a carnivorous predator – Malaka Rodrigo 

Armed with improvised spears, the team clad in scuba gear, were submerged in the clear waters off Pigeon Island. Seeing an area where corals were destroyed, they descended like sharks that had spotted their prey. Taking aim, they speared the starfish that was the cause of the destruction.

The thorny interloper: Starfish that have been removed from the coral reef 

Pigeon Island is one of Sri Lanka’s two Marine National Parks and it is prohibited to hunt any creature in this sanctuary. But Wildlife Officers too supported this mission as the ‘Crown of Thorn Starfish’ are extremely destructive to the corals, feeding on the microorganism polyps that build them. According to marine biologists, the number of COT in the Pigeon Island reef began increasing last year exceeding the threshold of their natural occurrence, hence the need for action to control the damage.

“We came to know about the outbreak at Pigeon Island and as conservation oriented underwater explorers, we wanted to organise a programme to remove the COTs on Pigeon Island Coral Reef,” Upekshi Perera, President of the Sub Aqua Club said.

It was no easy task as some of these creatures are hidden inside the corals. The starfish also has protective thorns that are venomous. The recommended method of removing the COTs is by injecting Sodium bi-sulphate using syringes with long needles, but the team had to come up with other methods.

Travice Ondatje of Nilaweli Beach Hotel who is also a member of Sub Aqua Club was the mastermind behind creating the team’s main weapon – the ‘broomstick spear’. “It was simply a broomstick with a five millimetre steel rod (used for concrete) tied to one end,” Travice said. The team had taken time to learn how to manoeuvre the improvised spear.

The team comprised 12 divers from the Sub Aqua Club and three from the Ypsylon Dive Centre that also provided some of the dive equipment. Forming three teams, they had done two dives – each taking one and half hours. Teams moved in semi circles inspecting the corals on the southern part of the reef. One diver held ‘plastic laundry bins’ to collect the starfish speared by the other members.

The team fills up buckets of Crown of Thorn starfish

At the end of the day, the team had removed 181 Crown of Thorn Starfishes – double the number we thought we could achieve, said Dharshana Jayawardane, dive officer of Sub Aqua Club. The density of the COT on top of stag horn corals was more, he added.

Dr. Malik Fernando, an expert on Sri Lanka’s marine life and founder member of the Sub Aqua Club said there are COT outbreaks once in a while and intervention is required to manage them. Coral ecologist Arjan Rajasuriya praised the work done by the Sub Aqua Club members highlighting the need for such an exercise annually. Government agencies should organise a programme to facilitate volunteers as diving is a costly exercise, he said.

The worst outbreaks were in the 1970s and early 80s. Not only the East coast, but many other areas too have been infested and thousands of COTs had been removed under the guidance of Dr. de Bruin, a Research Officer attached to the Department of Fisheries, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Mr. Rajasuriya said that there can be various reasons for a COT outbreak. More nutrients in the water and removal of fish that prey on COT and also the warming oceans could provide optimal conditions for COT larvae to thrive.

Upekshi further added that Pigeon Island is a tourist attraction and unless we take care of such habitats, there will be nothing to showcase in time to come. She was grateful for the support that Nilaweli Beach Hotel and Ypsylon Dive Centre gave them. The Sub Aqua Club is planning to do this as an annual event, she said, happy that they had done their bit for Pigeon Island.

Coral monitoring programme needed

According to IUCN Red Data, Corals are one of the most threatened species in the world. Corals are useful for many reasons even in breaking the power of unexpected sea surges such as a Tsunami.  Some years ago NARA had a coral- monitoring programme and NARA chairman Dr. Sayuru Samarasundara said the agency plans to re-commence it next year.

Know the enemy

The crown-of-thorns (Acanthasterplanci) receives its name from venomous thorn-like spines that cover its upper surface like the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus. An adult starfish can grow up to 35 cm (14 in). They usually have 21 arms but this number can change from population to population, points out Arjan Rajasuriya.

Their spines are stiff and very sharp. The adult crown-of-thorns is a carnivorous predator that usually preys on reef coral polyps. It climbs onto a section of living coral using its large number of tube feet and flexible body and fits closely to the surface of the coral, even the complex surfaces of branching corals. It then extrudes its stomach out through its mouth over the surface to virtually its own diameter. 

The stomach surface secretes digestive enzymes that allows the starfish to absorb nutrients from the liquefied coral tissue. This leaves a white scar on the coral skeleton which is rapidly infested with filamentous algae. 

An individual starfish can consume up to six square metres (65 sqft) of living coral reef per year according to Wikipedia.

published on SundayTimes on 06.10.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/131006/plus/operation-starfish-to-save-reef-64660.html

Indian govt. floats Sethusamudram Canal project again ?

September 18, 2013

The controversial Sethusamudram Canal project is back on the Indian government’s agenda under pressure from some Tamil Nadu Political parties such as the DMK the Indian Media reported recently. This in turn has raised concern among environmentalists in Sri Lanka.

The project aims at shortening the sea route between India and Sri Lanka by dredging the canal as the sea is not deep enough for ships to navigate. Environmentalists are concerned that the project will destroy Adam’s Bridge, a natural chain of limestone shoals. According to the Hindu epic Ramayana the bridge also known as Ram Sethu was built by Prince Rama’s monkey army led by Hanuman. The project was started in 2005, but soon got into troubled waters as both environmentalists and many Hindu political parties such as the Hindu nationalist party BJP opposed it.

SethusamudramGraphicEnvironmentalists point out that the project would be detrimental as it would disturb the Gulf of Mannar one of the world’s richest marine biodiversity spots. The Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar is already a Marine National Park that was recognised as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve (MAB) in 1989. Research is underway to declare Sri Lanka’s side too as an MAB.

The proximity of the maritime boundary suggests that Sri Lanka must be wary of trans-boundary effects of the Sethusamudram canal, NARA founder chairman and specialist on Marine Affairs in the region Dr. Hiran Jayewardene has warned.

He points out that continuous dredging would result in soil being deposited on the bottom habitats such as coral and sea grass beds. Dr.Jayewardena also highlighted the need to conduct our own research in the area to get a better understanding of its ecological characteristics.

The Indian Supreme Court issued a ruling to suspend the operations, but according to Indian media, the central government was planning to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court to get the green light for the project.

This was is in spite of the R.K. Pachauri Committee, appointed by the government after the Supreme Court asked the government to explore an alternative route, pointing in its report that the project was not viable, the Indian media reported.

Let’s solve environment problems together, says expert

Dr.Hiran Jayewardene has called for a joint scientific body between India and Sri Lanka to protect the biodiversity of the Gulf of Mannar and its surrounding areas. Pointing out that some of the issues such as the problem of Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters using bottom trawlers resulting in the destruction of marine habitat and the Sethusamudram project had political implications for both countries and science may be able to provide an answer to these complex issues.

“A jointly managed regime with required conservation concerns may be a way out. This would allow scientists on both sides to work together to address and understand the environment allowing for sustainable use. Confidence building and finding alternative approaches such as conservation and ecotourism that can bring added value and much needed development alternatives to the area could be achieved through such a joint effort,” he said. 

Published on the SundayTimes 15.09.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130915/news/indian-govt-floats-sethusamudram-canal-project-again-62290.html

 

Manta ray struggles for survival

February 25, 2013

Overfishing threatens the magnificent and prized ‘Ali Maduwa’, writes Malaka Rodrigo�

A giant “maduwa”, or manta ray, was netted last week by fisherman in Welipatanwila, Ambalanthota, on the South coast. The ocean creature was pregnant and weighed 1,500 kilograms. A week earlier, another manta ray was caught by fishermen in Akkaraipattu, on the East coast. Both sea creatures have been identified as Giant Oceanic Manta Rays, the largest member of the ray family.

“Maduwa”, or manta ray, that was netted last week by fishermen in Welipatanwila, Ambalanthota, on the South coast

The Giant Oceanic Manta Ray was a common catch a decade ago, but the creature is steadily becoming less common. Known locally as “Ali Maduwa”, the creature is hunted primarily for its gill plates, which are extracted, dried and exported. Dried gill plates are widely used in Chinese traditional medicine. A kilogram can fetch between Rs.15,000 and Rs. 20,000. The manta ray uses its cartilaginous gill plates to filter the plankton that it lives on. The delicate gill filaments also play a role in the manta ray’s breathing system.

Manta rays are slow breeders with long lives. The animal, which can live to 50 years (some are known to have lived to 100 years), has a gestation period of more than a year and gives birth to just one single pup. Young mantas take between 10 and 15 years to reach sexual maturity.

“Manta ray populations simply cannot survive the current level of commercial fishing,” says manta expert Daniel Fernando. “Any target fishing that annually removes even a relatively small percentage of the breeding adults results in a rapid decline in overall populations within a few years. The remaining mature rays cannot breed fast enough to replace those lost to fishing. Manta rays in our waters are already in decline. Fishermen say they rarely catch large mantas in our waters any more.”

Daniel Fernando works for the Sri Lanka Manta Project (Manta Trust) and collects manta ray landings data for his research. �Most of the time mantas are a bycatch of gill nets, says Dr. Rekha Maldeniya, a marine fish expert who works for the National Aquatic Research and Development Agency (NARA). “Our fishermen do not like it when these large creatures get entangled in their nets, because they can damage the net.”

The manta ray comprises only 1 per cent of large pelagic fish catch, such as tuna, Dr. Maldeniya says. “NARA identifies the importance of skates and rays, but we don’t have the funds to carry out comprehensive research on these sea animals.”

Daniel Fernando of Manta Trust says fishermen can release manta rays that get entangled in their nets, but do not because they know the commercial value of the manta’s gill plates. He says the manta would be spared if fishermen used other sustainable methods of fishing, such as the pole-and-line tuna fishing method practised in the Maldives. The gill-net is one of the least sustainable of fishing methods, he adds.

Sri Lanka, like most countries, has not reported manta ray landings to world bodies such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Researchers believe Sri Lanka is among the leading countries that fish manta rays, and the closely related Devil Ray. There is hope on the horizon for the rays if the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) makes a global decision on manta exploitation.

Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil have proposed that the two manta ray species be listed under CITES, an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to prevent international trade from threatening animals and plants in the wild. Proposals to list manta rays and scores of other species in the CITES list will be discussed in March at the 16th Conference of Parties (COP16) to CITES. CITES has 177 member countries, including Sri Lanka. A two-thirds majority vote is required for the adoption of listing proposals. If this is agreed, Sri Lanka will have to introduce a permit system for the export of manta ray gills, a step that would help monitor and manage this particular fishery.

Manta expert Daniel Fernando said the move was directed at international trade and would not affect Sri Lankans fishing for local consumption. The move would help manage manta ray populations. Alternatives, such as manta ray tourism, as practised in the Maldives, would bring long-term benefits.�Mr. Fernando said a workshop on manta rays was held in Colombo for CITES delegates. It was attended by major countries in the region, including India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Indonesia, and the Maldives. All participants were positive about regulating the manta ray fishery.

In 2011, Shark Advocates International president Sonja Fordham met senior Sri Lankan officials to discuss shark and manta ray conservation.

Ms. Fordham was a leading figure in bringing the Giant Manta Ray under the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS). Through this listing, Sri Lanka and all CMS parties with giant mantas in their waters have agreed to protect the species and cooperate in preserving manta habitats.

Sonja Fordham says equal efforts should be extended to protect the oceanic whitetip sharks and three species of hammerhead, all of which are found and fished off Sri Lanka.

“We are hopeful Sri Lanka will participate in the CITES meeting and support the listing of these vulnerable shark and ray species,” Sonja Fordham told the Sunday Times.

“Support from Sri Lanka would send a positive signal about the country’s commitment to sustainable exploitation of marine resources and can help secure a much-needed global safeguard, before it’s too late.”

Published on SundayTimes on 24.02.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130224/news/manta-ray-struggles-for-survival-34300.html

Kalpitiya killer

February 3, 2013

The banned ‘laila’ net is steadily killing off the dolphins, writes Malaka Rodrigo�

Illegal fishing practices used in the seas off Kalpitiya have resulted in the death of more than 40 dolphins, investigations reveal. The dolphin casualties have sparked demands for a rigorous crackdown on banned fishing methods.

Dolphins are frequent casualties of illegal fishing methods

A sandbag used for a Laila net dropped among shallow corals

Last week, Police arrested 14 fishermen and confiscated six boats and banned fishing equipment, including what is known as the “laila” fishing net. The Police were acting on a directive from the Fisheries Ministry based on complaints from members of the Kalpitiya fishing community.

The “laila net” was the cause of the death of the 40 dolphins, Dr. Sayuru Samarasundara, chairman of the National Aquatic Research and Development Agency (NARA), told the Sunday Times.

The laila net is a type of large ring net or purse seine net used to encircle large shoals of fish. It can be closed at the bottom to maximize the catch. This fishing practice has been condemned as destructive, as it entraps both large and small fish and can result in the elimination or extinction of a fish species in targeted fishing areas. Dolphin groups are known to associate closely with tuna and related species such as skipjack tuna and bullet tuna. Because dolphins feed on small tuna-related fish, fishermen follow dolphin groups in order to locate high-value fish, explained NARA fish expert Dr. Rekha Maldeniya.

A laila net operation involves the use of between five and six boats and a team of fishermen as well as divers and snorkellers. It is said that the force of the fish struggling to break through the net is so great that the fishermen use dynamite to kill or stun the fish. Dolphins are regular casualties of this fishing method.

Kalpitiya sources say the destructive laila fishing method has been in use for some time, and that dolphins are a frequent by-catch. As dolphins are a prohibited catch, laila fishermen are careful to dump the dead dolphins at sea. Local sources say the dolphin carcasses are sometimes tied to sand bags and dropped so that they sink to the sea floor.

Marine biologists say laila nets are laid in close proximity to the Bar Reef Sanctuary, an important ecosystem in the Kalpitiya area. The Bar Reef was declared a sanctuary after extensive work conducted by NARA under environmentalist Arjan Rajasuriya.

Mr. Rajasuriya said laila nets were not around at the time he was doing his Bar Reef research in 1989 and the early 1990s. The laila net came into use only in the late 1990s. Mr. Rajasuriya told the Sunday Times that the Bar Reef is one of the country’s most diverse marine habitats and requires protection. “But, sadly, all the larger fish are gone, and the destructive laila net is the chief culprit,” he said.

The destructive impact of laila netting goes far beyond killing dolphins, Mr. Rajasuriya said. This form of fishing basically targets spawning aggregations of fish. Many species of fish, especially those that live in groups, come together seasonally to spawn. Jack (paraw), snapper (atissas) and barracuda (jeela) often aggregate in Kalpitiya waters days before the real spawning, travelling as a “large ball of fish.” One laila net is sufficient to wipe out whole colonies of these fish. Most of the larger fish are now gone, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Environment and wildlife activists are working with tour operators to push for the protection of the country’s marine resources. Kalpitiya Dolphin Watching is lucrative business. Tourists go to see the dolphins and the underwater corals. If dolphins continue to be killed and corals continue to be destroyed by dynamiting, tour operators will have little to show tourists. Tourism operators should be at the fore in action to protect the Kalpitiya ecosystem, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Displaced Mannar fishermen brought laila net during war years

Laila netting is not a traditional fishing mode in Kalpitiya. According to locals, the laila was introduced by Mannar fishermen who were displaced during the war. �Although the war is over, the Mannar immigrants continue to operate on the northwest coast where the fishing grounds are much richer than on the east coast.

Residents say the Mannar fishermen operating in the area have political backing. The indigent Kalpitiya fishing community is against the laila fishing mode, and has held several protests to demand preventive action.

Back in 2004, Kalpitiya fishermen held a satyagraha to condemn laila net fishing. Another sit-in was staged two years ago in Kalpitiya town.�A catch made with a laila net can weigh up to 8,000 and 10,000 kilograms. To get such a large catch on board can take up to one hour, ample time for the authorities to conduct a raid on the operation.

For now, however, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has no designated marine unit or even a boat to conduct a raid. The Sri Lanka Navy too has taken no action in regard to illegal laila net fishing. zUpali Mallikarachchi of the Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation Foundation says sustainable fishing methods should be strengthened and supported.

Published on SundayTimes on 03.02.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130203/news/kalpitiya-killer-31489.html