Archive for the ‘Marine Environment’ Category

Sri Lanka scales up its domestic campaign to protect sharks with a global push

September 8, 2019

https://news.mongabay.com/2019/09/sri-lanka-scales-up-its-domestic-campaign-to-protect-sharks-with-a-global-pushpublished on MongayBay on 05.09.2019

  • With the killing of sharks and rays on the rise, Sri Lanka played a lead role in pushing three proposals to extend global protection to 18 species at the recently concluded CITES wildlife trade summit in Geneva.
  • Sixty-three sharks and 42 ray species are found in Sri Lankan waters, and are threatened by overexploitation driven by an ever-increasing demand for sharks fins, meat, and liver oil.
  • While five species of sharks currently enjoy legal protection against the species trade in Sri Lanka, conservationists see an urgent need to extend protection to all reef sharks and other endangered shark and ray species.

Decades ago along the beaches of Sri Lanka, fish sellers used bicycles to transport their catch, including sharks. It was said the sharks were often so big that, when tied down to the bicycle frame, their snouts and tail fins would touch the ground at either end.

“But not anymore,” says Hiran Jayawardene, the founder chairman of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). He says this decline is evident at shark landing sites around the country, where fishermen are no longer pulling in the large sharks they did before.

Sri Lanka’s waters are home to 63 shark and 42 ray species, but many are threatened by overexploitation to feed the growing demand for shark fins, meat, and liver oil.

The result of the voting at the CITES summit in Geneva in favor of the uplisting of mako sharks to Appendix II. Image courtesy of IISD Reporting Service.

But the country is looking to change that, rolling out a raft of regulations in the past two decades to protect various shark species domestically, and, more recently, spearheading a push for the global protection of highly exploited and endangered mako sharks.

Among the many proposals it supported at last month’s global summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Sri Lanka took a leading role in calling for the inclusion of the two species of mako sharks, shortfin (Isurus oxyrinchus) and longfin (I. paucus), in CITES Appendix II, which would subject their trade to strict rules. It also called for similar protections for six species of giant guitarfishes and 10 species of wedgefishes.

The IUCN Red List includes both species of mako sharks as endangered, all six species of giant guitarfishes as critically endangered, and nine of the 10 species of wedgefishes as critically endangered.

“All these species have seen very steep declines in their populations in recent decades and this is mostly due to overfishing, habitat destruction and degradation,” Rima Jabado, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group’s regional vice-chair for the Indian Ocean, told Mongabay.

Kim Friedman, senior fisheries resources officer at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said a mere listing would not protect the species. “It matters to change the management framework of fisheries to get implemented at ground level.”

More than 100 million sharks are killed every year, mainly for their fins. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

Protecting the ocean’s predators

In Sri Lanka, five species of sharks enjoy legal protection: the pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus), bigeye thresher (A. superciliosus), common thresher (A. vulpinus), oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), and whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Since 2001, local fishing regulations have required that any of these sharks that are caught must be brought to shore with their fins attached. The rule was enforced to curb shark finning, the practice of catching a shark, cutting off its fins mid-ocean, then dumping the live shark back into the water, where, unable to swim, it dies.

In 2013, Sri Lanka went further and introduced a five-year National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (NPOA), specifying measures for adoption and implementation of new shark conservation and management mechanisms.

Sisira Haputhantri, an ocean fisheries expert at NARA, told Mongabay that the shark action plan, since extended for another five years, should help monitor the implementation of the conservation initiatives.

Over the past 10 years, the country has official exported 59 metric tons of shark fins annually. But there’s evidence that greater volumes of shark fins are being smuggled out of the island.

There are recorded and unrecorded instances of fins being exported as dried fish, said Sevvandi Jayakody, Sri Lanka’s coordinator for the recent CITES summit.

By listing mako sharks in Appendix II, scientists can gather accurate figures of sharks killed as part of the international trade, which would help determine whether catches are reaching what’s known as the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), Jayakody said.

“We do not want to stop shark fishery but we do want sustainable fishery. CITES should help educate regulators and fisherfolk alike, on the new developments,” she said.

Both species of mako are oceanic, roam the high seas, and undertake long-distance migrations, making local protection mechanisms of somewhat limited value, according to Rex I. de Silva, author of Sharks of Sri Lanka. The CITES listing is therefore vital to protect the species in international seas.

A shark is finned at the Negombo shark landing site in western Sri Lanka. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

John E. Scanlon, former secretary-general of CITES, told Mongabay that the convention had been used effectively since 2013 to regulate the international trade in commercially harvested sharks and rays. These include hammerheads (family Sphyrnidae), porbeagles (Lamna nasus) and oceanic whitetip sharks and manta rays, as well as silky (Carcharhinus falciformis) and thresher sharks together with devil rays (genus Mobula) since 2016. Mako sharks are the latest to join the list.

“Following the 2003 listing of sharks, there had been great progress in the conservation of white sharks, basking sharks and whale sharks,” Jabado said. “The other listings are much more recent, and it is unlikely we will see a difference in the population size of these species just yet.”

Conservation management

What countries need is better fisheries management to curb overexploitation, Jabado said.

“Many species in the Indian Ocean are considered migratory but many are endemic to this region,” she said. “This means, we need higher levels of species protection. To ensure protection of the migratory species, the best strategy is collaboration with other countries in the region, both on research and conservation.”

Daniel Fernando of Blue Resources Trust initiated a nine-day survey of fish markets and landing sites at 11 localities in Sri Lanka that led to the identification of 34 shark species. Five of them are sharks new to science. “If a short survey of nine days could help discover new species, it shows the need for greater research on Sri Lanka’s sharks,” Fernando told Mongabay.

Following the listing of sharks and rays to Appendix II during the 2013 CITES summit in Bangkok, Sri Lanka’s Department of Fisheries Resources and the FAO conducted a joint survey to identify the successes and challenges experienced in the implementation of CITES provisions.

The survey showed poor awareness about the CITES process among stakeholders. However, they had a satisfactory level of knowledge of other measures, with more than 69 percent of respondents having awareness of management measures.

Sharks caught for their fins. Finning often takes place at sea, with the live shark thrown back into the water, where it’s unable to swim and quickly dies. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

“Shark conservation in Sri Lanka appears to be at the starting point: It has a long way to go in order to reach conservation efforts undertaken by neighbours such as the Maldives,” said  Howard Martenstyn, a marine biologist with the Centre of Research for Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM).

Promotion of ecotourism of sharks and manta rays as an alternative to fishing can offer a different revenue model for the local economy, Martenstyn said.

 

Banner image of a stuffed shark toy at the Sri Lankan delegation’s seat at last month’s CITES summit in Geneva. Sri Lanka played a leading role in pushing for greater protection for sharks and rays at the summit. Image courtesy of IISD Reporting Service.

Would CITES listing help threatened sea cucumbers due to overexploitation?

August 14, 2019

Published on Mongabay on 10.08.2019 https://news.mongabay.com/2019/08/sri-lanka-pushes-for-protection-of-sea-cucumbers-amid-overexploitation/

  • With fewer species of sea cucumbers being recorded in catches, Sri Lanka stands to benefit from a proposal that is calling for increased protection of threatened species under CITES Appendix II.
  • Experts say there’s good precedent for believing that the listing will raise awareness and spur action to protect the sea cucumbers, citing the example of various shark species that received greater attention after being listed. 

A fisherman drying boiled sea cucumbers in the sun image courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara.

In the early 1980s, a common sight along the still unpolluted beaches of southern Sri Lanka was that of fisherfolk sun-drying small, blackish, cylindrical objects. They called them sea slugs, sea leeches, or sea cucumbers. These marine invertebrates were so abundant in the shallow coastal regions that they could be picked by hand during low tide.

But growing demand for sea cucumbers, considered a delicacy across Asia, has since driven the largely export-oriented Sri Lankan fishery to unsustainable levels.

After the sea cucumbers in shallow coastal waters were harvested, the populations in deeper areas were targeted by snorkeling fishermen and skin divers. The fishing pressure was so enormous that the sea cucumber fishery in southern Sri Lanka collapsed within a few years.

The eastern coast of the island suffered the same fate, and today the sea cucumber fishery is confined to the northern arc of Sri Lanka. Experts say they fear the remaining sea cucumber populations there, too, will be depleted if not managed properly.

A drive to promote the farming of live sea cucumbers is being attempted in Sri Lanka as an alternative to collecting them from the wild. Image courtesy of Kumudini Ekaratne.

“As mostly scuba divers hand pick sea cucumbers now, the pressure particularly on high value species are high. Some of these high value sea cucumber species are already rare to not available on many sites,” Chamari Dissanayake, from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, told Mongabay.

Dissanayake was a former research officer at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) who studied the sea cucumber fishery. She identified 24 sea cucumber species in Sri Lankan waters, of which 20 have some sort of commercial value.

But the number being caught and sold is fast shrinking. A study published in May this year in the journal Aquatic Living Resources records nine sea cucumber species in commercial catches from November 2015 to January 2017 in Sri Lanka. That’s down from 11 species recorded in a study carried out in 2012, prompting researchers to conclude that some species are already overfished. These include the high-value Holothuria fuscogilva, known as the white teatfish and listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

Teatfish are generally in high demand, and overfishing has caused the populations to decline in many countries. H. nobilis, the black teatfish, is another rare species found in the Sri Lankan waters and listed as endangered.

Weak species management systems, overexploitation by fishers, and vulnerable biological traits are the key reasons why teatfish sea cucumbers are under threat across their wide geographic range, said Steven Purcell, an expert on sea cucumbers at Australia’s Southern Cross University.

“The teatfish species of sea cucumbers are impacted by a compounding problem called ‘opportunistic exploitation,’” he told Mongabay. “This occurs when fishers over-harvest high-value species and then shift to harvesting lower-value species but can still collect the last of the high-value ones opportunistically, while they are out in the sea. This means that the high-value species, such as the teatfish types, can be harvested to the level of local extinction.”

As these teatfish require higher levels of protection against the international trade, a proposal has been submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to list H. fuscogilvaH. nobilis and the endangered H. whitmaei (not recorded in Sri Lankan waters) in CITES Appendix II.

The proposal, supported by the European Union, Kenya, Senegal, the Seychelles and the U.S., will be considered at the 18th Conference of Parties (CoP18) to CITES in Geneva from Aug. 17 to 28.

There are three appendices under CITES offering varying degrees of protection for species. Inclusion in Appendix II will require countries to justify, through data collection and research, that exploitation and trade of the teatfish species in question won’t jeopardize their populations in the wild.

A mix of sea cucumbers freshly collected from the ocean bed. Image courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara.

For Sri Lanka, that could mean investing in field surveys to determine current population densities of black and white teatfish at multiple sites around the country, and socioeconomic surveys to determine which species, and how many, are collected by fishers, as well as identifying prevailing trading practices, Purcell said. This research would be required for assessing non-detriment findings and to inform decisions about whether trade should be allowed to continue at present levels.

Dissanayake’s research indicates that about 10,000 people depend on the sea cucumber fishery, a key earner of foreign currency.

“A solution has to be found by offering alternative livelihoods,” Dissanayake said.

Sea cucumbers are processed to make bêche-de-mer, a popular delicacy in East Asia. Image courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara.

Daniel Fernando, a co-founder of Blue Resources Trust, a marine research and conservation nonprofit, said there was good precedent to believe that achieving CITES listing for the overexploited sea cucumbers would be a key step toward protecting the species.

“Many people still consider marine fish just as a commodity and there is little focus on their protection,” he told Mongabay. “But CITES listing of marine species made lot of people around the globe to change this outlook.”

He pointed in particular to the listing of several shark species in various CITES appendices as helping to spur action for their protection.

“As a result of previous listing of sharks, many countries including Sri Lanka began investing in the protection of the species,” Fernando said. “All these marine species become threatened due to unsustainable fishing practices and lack of management.”

Citations:

Kumara, P. B., Cumaranathunga, P. R., & Linden, O. (2005). Present status of the sea cucumber fishery in southern Sri Lanka: A resource depleted industry. SPC Beche-de-mer Information Bulletin22, 24-29.

Nishanthan, G., Kumara, A., Prasada, P., & Dissanayake, C. (2019). Sea cucumber fishing pattern and the socio-economic characteristics of fisher communities in Sri Lanka. Aquatic Living Resources,32(12). doi:10.1051/alr/2019009

Banner image of a fisherman drying boiled sea cucumbers in the sun on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara. 

Crackdown after Sri Lanka bombings may help in fight against blast fishing

July 26, 2019

Create ocean science ‘champions’ to boost nation’s security

July 14, 2019

Sri Lanka needs to understand how critical the resources of the ocean are to an island nation’s security and end its centuries’-old apathy about protecting its maritime base, leading scientists told a conference.

The state-of-the-art Control room of the Norwegian research vessel Dr. Fridtjof Nansen

“As an island nation, the resources of the ocean are very important for development and changes to ocean patterns can bring bad impacts. Sri Lanka needs to put more effort into developing understanding of the oceans around us through scientific research,” Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) General Manager Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara said.

Culturally and historically, society had been detached from the ocean and the education system needed to bridge this gap.

“We haven’t realised the importance of coastal zones. For example, most often the cemeteries of villages along the coastal belt are set up adjacent to beaches, proving that, traditionally, Sri Lankan society hasn’t realised the importance of ocean and related ecosystems,” Dr. Pradeep Kumara said.

His comments were made on Ocean Science Day, marked on June 27, organised by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, which is composed of 150 member states, including Sri Lanka.

The head of the IOC’s Ocean Science Section, Dr. Arico Salvatore, said Ocean Science Day – now in its second year – was established to demonstrate that ocean science aids societal goals.

Dr. Salvatore emphasised that countries such as Sri Lanka can benefit greatly from ocean science, particularly with ocean-based weather predictions that allow more effective planning of agricultural and fisheries operations.

“The tsunami warning system is a clear example how the application of ocean science can be used to save lives,” he added.

Ruhuna University’s Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Science students conduct research on board Dr. Fridtjof Nansen

Sri Lanka and adjacent countries benefit from the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System set up under the IOC’s leadership. At the time Sri Lanka was hit by the deadly tsunami of 2004, the Indian ocean region lacked a tsunami monitoring system. The late Professor Samantha Hettiarachchi was a major contributor to the success of the warning system, which began working in 2006.

“Sri Lanka has a lot of talent that will create champions in the field of ocean science. We are lagging behind in this field so we need to focus on a program to train more scientists in ocean science,” said Dr. Pradeep Kumara, a former head of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology at the University of Ruhuna.

Ocean science has evolved rapidly in recent years in response to growing international interest in ocean use, climate change, environmental protection and the conservation of ocean resources, and Sri Lanka needs to ride on this bandwagon and not get left behind, he said.

Dr. Upul Premaratne, Dr Pradeep Kumara’s successor at the university, said the faculty worked hard at producing quality graduates and it was important that job opportunities be created for them to prevent them going abroad where there was high demand – particularly in developed countries – for experts in ocean science and fisheries.

Another University of Ruhuna expert, Senior Professor Ruchira Cumaranatunga stressed the need for more resources. “We need a full-fledged research vessel that can continuously monitor the ocean around our country without us depending on other countries,” he pointed out.

Developed nations such as Norway have been showing Sri Lanka how to use modern technology in fisheries and other ocean sciences. Twenty Sri Lankan scientists were given the opportunity to sail on the Norwegian research vessel Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, which recently surveyed the ocean around Sri Lanka, assessing fish stocks and ecosystems.

The trip provided a novel experience for Sri Lankan scientists to familiarise themselves with the latest technologies, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA)  scientist Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, said.

Published on 14.07.2019 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190714/news/create-ocean-science-champions-to-boost-nations-security-358269.html

Sri Lanka attends first-ever global summit on sustainable blue economy

December 15, 2018

Published on SundayTimes 09.12.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181209/news/sri-lanka-attends-first-ever-global-summit-on-sustainable-blue-economy-323968.html

From the Blue Economy Conference (c) http://www.nation.co.ke

Delegates from around the world gathered at Nairobi, Kenya, last week to discuss how to make the emerging ‘blue economy’ sustainable. The gathering is seen as the first global-level conference dedicated to discuss blue economy emphasising the need for sustainable use of oceanic resources.

Sri Lanka sent a six-member delegation that included officials from the Fisheries Department who said the discussions were very relevant to Sri Lanka.

The sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems, has been termed ‘blue economy’– a popular buzz word lately. The summit covered issues facing oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and other water bodies.

Fisheries is what comes to mind as the most important resource that oceans provide. However, as land-based resources fast diminish, oceans become the last frontier that can give an extended lifeline for humankind, experts point out. Nations have already started exploring the oceans for resources other than fish, such as minerals, oil, gas and other resources as well. According to reports India plans to spend more than $1billion during the next decade to develop and test deep-sea technologies – including human-piloted exploration submarines – in the Indian Ocean that could give access to once inaccessible mineral riches up to 6.8 miles (11 km) under water.

While Sri Lanka can benefit working closely with nations who have capabilities in extracting resources, Sri Lanka should not allow its resources to be over-exploited, point out experts. Sri lanka and India have already locked horns on the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen invading our waters and employing harmful bottom-trawling methods to catch fish. Having international corporation to solve these kinds of issues is important, therefore it is important that Sri Lanka makes use of these kinds of summits to tackle trans-boundary issues strategically, the experts add.

Blue Economy (c) World Bank

Fisheries Department director Monty Ranathunga who was a member of the delegation that attended the Nairobi said at the end of the three-day summit eight statements, dubbed ‘The Nairobi declaration of Intent on Advancing Global Sustainable Blue Economy’ was issued.

Participants at the summit recognised that with population growth, demand for goods and services will also grow accordingly, and that this will exert additional pressure on land-based resources, which are slowly diminishing or already over exploited in many cases and welcomed the global interest in developing and conserving the resources of a sustainable blue economy,the official said.

Deep-sea mining possibly as damaging as land mining

The Nairobi declaration also stated that with collective determination, and building on efforts at local, national and international levels, the global community can intensify investments and harness the full potential of the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers to accelerate economic growth, create jobs and fight poverty. Simultaneously, the world can improve the health of the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers and the ecosystems they support. The declaration also recognised that science and research are crucial for policy development, implementation and evaluation, the official further said.

Click below for ‘Nairobi Statement of Intent Advancing Global Sustainable Blue Economy’.

Nairobi-Statement-of-Intent-Advancing-Global-Sustainable-Blue-Economy

Whip-tailed marine beauty spotted in Menik Ganga river

August 30, 2018

Yala is a paradise for spotted animals such as leopard and deer, but the spotty creature found last week in the Manik Ganga near Kosgasmankada was unusual. Published on SundayTimes on 26.08.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180826/news/whip-tailed-beauty-spotted-in-yalas-menik-ganga-308087.html

A party having a dip in the river’s shallows found a long-tailed creature with a disc-shaped body patterned with many small dark spots or reticulations. From one end to the other, it was about 1 foot long. Biologist Rex I. De Silva identified the creature from a photograph sent to him by bather Geemal Harold as a honeycomb stingray or banded whiptail stingray (Himantura uarnak).“The honeycomb stingray is a common marine species in our coastal waters but finding one in freshwater is unusual,” Mr. De Silva said.

The stingray is named after the barbed stinger on its long tail, which is primarily used in self-defence. Rays and skates are flattened fish closely related to sharks. They do not have hard bones like other fish but a skeleton of flexible cartilage such as found in the human ear and nose.

Marine sharks and rays occasionally enter freshwater during spring tides, Mr. De Silva said. In times of drought, when river levels fall, seawater intrudes some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species follow the seawater for a considerable distance upriver.

Shark sightings in the Menik Ganga have been recorded over the past 30 years but not sightings of rays.

The disc-shaped body of the honeycomb stingray found by Mr. Harold’s party was about 30.5cm (one foot) in diameter but the species can grow up to 2m (6.6 feet), so the one found in Yala would be a young stingray that decided to have an adventurous journey upstream.

The stingray’s tail, called “maduwa” in Sinhala, which can be three times its body length, was dried and used in olden times as a whip for punishment, the barbs on the tail inflicting great pain.

Shark spotted near warahana 2016 (c) Janaka Karunaratne

Rays are masters at bottom-dwelling. They have eyes on the top of their head/body and so relies on other senses in finding food (crustaceans, small fish, snails, shrimp etc.) on usually murky ocean beds.

Special organs on their face called ampulae allow them to navigate and find prey with electromagnetic signals.

Sadly, stingray numbers are in decline due to over-fishing, habitat loss and climate change. At present, 539 species of ray are on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of endangered species, with 107 classified as threatened. The honeycomb stingray is categorised as “vulnerable”, making this Yala sighting special.

Norwegian research vessel sail in to probe fish stocks

June 24, 2018

Nansen will address 38-year gap in marine surveys. Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180617/news/norwegian-researchers-sail-in-to-probe-fishing-stocks-298464.html

The long-awaited Norwegian research vessel, RV Dr Fridtjof Nansen, which sails around the globe helping developing countries set up ecosystem-based fishery management, will reach Colombo on June 22.

The Nansen, regarded as the world’s most advanced marine research vessel, will sail around Sri Lanka for 26 days, surveying oceanic conditions and fish stocks.

The ship is named after Norwegian scientist, explorer, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), who became famous for his North Pole expeditions. The Nansen Research Programme commenced in 1974.

This is the third consecutive research vessel dedicated to surveying marine resources in developing countries. The ships have made the equivalent of 60 voyages around the globe since the programme’s inception.

The first Nansen vessel surveyed Sri Lankan waters in 1978 and 1980. Since then, no such comprehensive survey on Sri Lanka’s marine environment has taken place.

In the last decades, depletion of marine fish stocks has been rampant. A major aim of the Nansen Programme is to help scientists understand the reasons for such depletion and provide data to help to lessen pressure on fishing.

“Most of the data about fisheries are extractions based on catches by fishermen. An independent study is required to assess depleting fisheries stocks and find out new fishing grounds. There can also be under-utilised fish stocks that can be harvested successfully, and research would help us to identify such opportunities,” said National Aquatic Resource Research Development Agency (NARA) Deputy Director-General Dr. Palitha Kithsiri.

While sailing on a pre-defined path around the Sri Lankan coast, the Nansen will lay nets and carry out experimental trawling at various points. The fish and other creatures caught in the nets will be analysed for detailed information on species, sizes, and catch quantity. As well, acoustic methods will be used to estimate the quantity of fish found in those waters.

Sampling will be undertaken on plankton, fish egg and larvae, jellyfish, top predators and marine life in the main oceanic zones: demersal (bottom-feeding fish in deep waters and on the seabed), mesopelagic (fish found in the intermediate ocean layer, 200-1000m deep) and pelagic (fish that swim largely in open water away from the seabed).

The onboard researchers will collect data on water parameters, sea temperature, and salinity, and will map the sea bed using powerful eco-sonars.
“So, in a nutshell, the research will collect data that will help to implement an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF), which is more than simply assessing fish stocks,” Dr. Kithsiri said.

The Nansen Programme is executed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in close collaboration with the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) of Bergen, Norway, and is funded through the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

The Nansen’s 2018 research campaign began in January in Durban and, after taking in Sri Lanka, is expected to end in mid-October in Thailand, FAO program officer Roshini Gunaratne said.

“The overall objective of the programme is to strengthen regional and country-specific efforts to reduce poverty, create optimum conditions for achieving food security and nutrition through the development of sustainable fisheries management systems” Norwegian Ambassador Thorbjorn Gaustadsaether said.

“Norway, as a maritime nation, believes in sustainable development and plays a leading role in battling marine litter,“ the ambassador added. Plastic pollution of the oceans has become a huge problem: plastic and plastic microfibre being ingested by fish is killing them and has the potential to enter the human food chain through the fish we consume.

Global warming will change the dynamics of the ocean but we know very little about such changes. One obvious example of climate change is the coral bleaching caused by ocean warming.

While sea temperature fluctuations disrupt oceanic currents, excess carbon dioxide, believed to be the triggering fact of global warming, could create acidification by dissolving additional carbon dioxide in seawater from the atmosphere.

Fish species are particularly sensitive to these parameters, so it is expected that changes in acid levels in the seas would change fish movement patterns.

Changing temperatures in the seas could make migratory fish such as tuna, sardines and squid could shift their paths of migration and this would affect fishing catches.

Capacity-building is central to all the activities of the Nansen programme. Twenty Sri Lankan scientists active in the fisheries sector will gain the opportunity to be part of the Nansen programme according to NARA’s Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, who has been nominated the local cruise leader of the Nansen.

A conference on sustainable development goals linked to the oceans will also take place as part of the visit of the Nansen.

The Nansen vessel docked at Colombo

Nansen’s gear used for experimental fishing

The State-of-the-arts equipment inside the ship

Even fish favourites threatened with extinction
When we visit the market to buy fish from the “malu lella” we seldom think about how these fish that are free-living creatures can face extinction if we continue to catch them without set limits.Some fish, such as sharks, are slow breeders that cannot stand over-fishing. The increasing price of some fish varieties is an indication that they are becoming rarer.Sri Lanka’s favourite fish, the yellow-fin tuna (kelawalla) and seer fish (thora) are categorised as “Near-threatened” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Fauna – only two steps away from the more dire “Endangered” category.Some coral-inhabiting fish such as the hump-head wrasse are “Endangered”, along with elephants and leopards – but fish rarely gain the attention its terrestrial counterparts attract in conservation.

The ocean has different zones based on depths and particular fish inhabit each regions. NARA’s Dr. Palitha Kithsiri said the Nansen’s research will focus on studying the mesopelagic (200m-1000m deep) region, which is currently not much targeted in fisheries.

Floating lifeline to rescue dying Bar Reef

June 13, 2018

Scientists hope a line of buoys enclosing threatened sections of the Bar Reef will provide a lifeline for the dying marine sanctuary. Published on SundayTimes on 13.05.2018
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180513/news/floating-lifeline-to-rescue-dying-bar-reef-293881.html

Bar Reef, off Kalpitiya, is one of the marine sanctuaries affected by catastrophic coral bleaching. Marine activists who deployed a number of floating buoys demarcating two sections of Bar Reef from March 26-29 to keep human activities at bay and assist the reef’s recovery, say a united front is vital for the success of such projects.

“Evidence-based science, support from the community and the right attitude are the combinationthat will work to conserve Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity,” marine researcher Dr. Sewwandi Jayakody said.

Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary covers 306.7 sq km of coral reef and is considered the healthiest coral reef area in Sri Lanka, with live coral cover of around 80 per cent of the underlying layer, until it was hit by a warm oceanic current in 1998 that also destroyed other coral reefs around the island.

Bar Reef recovered to some extent from this destruction, but was again damaged by another large coral bleaching event in 2016. “On some areas of Bar Reef, the live coral cover had fallen lower than 2 per cent,” marine researcher Prasanna Weerakkody revealed. Dead corals have turned into rubble that moves with strong currents, impeding coral building-organisms from settling in and thus slowing the recovery of the reef.

Human activities such as fishing on the reef further disturb the recovery process, so marine biologists agreed that keeping the area free of such activity could hasten its recovery. Coral reefs in and around the southern coast at Hikkaduwa, Rumassala, Unawatuna and other places have not recovered from the 1998 bleaching event. Mr. Weerakkody suggested that one factor that had contributed to the partial healing of the coral reefs in the northern, north western and eastern seas was that the war had restricted seagoing activities in these areas. This prompted the notion to keep an area of the damaged southern reef protected from human activities.

Most of the coral reefs are located adjacent to beaches, but the Bar Reef is farther from the shore and is fully submerged. In some parts, the Bar Reef is nine metres (30 feet) underwater but there are shallower areas just a metre below the surface that are affected by human activity, and a section measuring half a sq km and another smaller section have been “fenced off” by buoys.

Mr. Weerakkody explained that setting up the buoys had to be carefully-planned as they had to be fixed firmly underwater so that they would not move around and damage the coral.

The laying of the buoys was carried out by the Ocean Resources Conservation Association (ORCA) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation under the Environmental Sensitive Areas project which is implemented by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment and is supported by the UNDP with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The critical factor is how different parties joined hands to protect a natural resource, said Dr. Jayakody, senior lecturer at Wayamba University, which is also involved in this project.

“This has been a case where scientists, policy-makers, funders and even communities came together for the protection of a natural resource,” Dr. Jayakody said.

The co-operation of ORCA, the Wildlife Department, the navy, the UNDP, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), district and divisional authorities and community members of Kandakuliya, Kudawa and Kalpitiya was the crucial factor in the success of this assignment, she said.

The project team had involved the community by educating people on the importance of the Bar Reef for their livelihood. The coral reefs act as fish breeding grounds, so a healthy reef would bring up fish stocks that would help fishermen. They were told a healthy coral reef would be a jewel for tourist operators and this too would benefit the community,

As Bar Reef is difficult to monitor, being at a distance from land, Dr. Jayakody is calling on visitors to the reef and others to respect the buoy boundaries as the success of the project would depend on this.

Coral expert Arjan Rajasuriya, who co-ordinates the IUCN’s coastal and marine programme, also emphasised the importance of isolating sections of the reef from human activity and obtaining community support.

Porpoise completes Lanka’s full hand of cetacean wonders

February 23, 2018

Sri Lankan waters are home to 30 species of marine mammals, including dugongs, whales and dolphins. Now the remaining member of the cetacean group, the porpoise, officially joins this list.

Indo-Pacific finless porpoise washed ashore at Talaimannar (c) Department of Wildlife Conservation

The porpoise is a close relative of the dolphins; both look similar, with a shorter beak helping to distinguish the porpoise.

There are six species of porpoises in the world and researchers confirmed the kind found here is the Indo-Pacific finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenofides).

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, researcher Ranil Nanayakkara writes that he first observed pods of Indo-Pacific finless porpoises during survey trips in 2014. In addition, a photograph by Sandaruwan Abeyratne showing a marine mammal washed ashore off Talaimannar beach, was identified as being of the same species.

The researchers continued obtaining records of dead specimens of Indo-Pacific finless porpoises, confirming their presence in our waters. The paper quotes local fishermen describing a marine mammal found near the islands of Adam’s Bridge as having features that match those of the porpoise.

“Their presence in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay is not surprising as habitats such as shallow estuaries and bays are ideal for these porpoise,” Mr. Nanayakkara said, adding that they were also present off the Indian coast, just 30km away.

Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoise swimming in Palk Bay (c) Ranil Nanayakkara

The lack of previous scientific records of the porpoise in Sri Lanka could have been due to the war that prevented researchers investigating in these areas, Mr. Nanayakkara added.

This is the only porpoise to lack a true dorsal fin. Instead, there is a low ridge covered in thick skin bearing several lines of tiny tubercles, according to literature. With 15-21 teeth in each jaw, the mammals also have, on average, fewer teeth than other porpoises. The flattened, spade-shaped teeth of porpoises distinguish them from the conical teeth of dolphins. Porpoises are not as acrobatic as dolphins but are quite active swimmers.

The Indo-Pacific finless porpoise is categorised as “vulnerable” to extinction in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Fauna and Flora which states that since this species remains in coastal waters there is a high degree of interaction with humans that often puts it at risk.

They are particularly vulnerable in Sri Lankan waters because they inhabit the heavily-used part of the Palk Bay where boat traffic and fishing pressures are high.

Many porpoises die after becoming entangled in nets. Illegal fishing pressure such as dynamiting and “Leila nets” that enable bottom purse-sein fishing also occur in these areas, posing a threat to the species, the researchers state.

The proposed Sethusamdram shipping canal project aimed at dredging the sea deeper could also pose a bigger threat to the species, Mr. Nanayakkara said.

The fact that this porpoise and other endangered species of marine mammals are regularly encountered off the southern coast of India indicates that a cross-boundary research initiative by Indian and Sri Lankan scientists focusing on the conservation of the species is essential, the researcher pointed out.

“We believe that through such an initiative a more holistic approach could be adopted when studying and conserving the species, which could then be expanded to encapsulate many other marine species and ecosystems,” Mr. Nanayakkara said.

Bizarre legged fish in Kalutara catch   
The ocean still hides many secrets and some bizarre-looking creatures such as the strange fish with legs and a large mouth caught two weeks ago in a Kalutara fisherman’s net about 8km offshore.

Residents of Kalutara alerted the Department of Wildlife Conservation about the strange creature and the department sent marine biologists photographs of it to obtain identification. Expert Ranil Nanayakkara identified it as the frog fish.

Frogfish, which distantly resemble a typical fish, are about 2.5–38cm long and live at the bottom of the ocean.

They are ambush predators that lay motionless on the seabed until the prey comes closer. They move slowly but strike extremely rapidly, sometimes in as little as six milliseconds, without giving chance of scape to unwary

Frogfish have a stocky appearance and belong to the Antennarius genus that consists of 11 species. From the photograohs he had been sent, Mr. Nanayakkara tentatively identified the fish caught in Kalutara as the Indian frogfish, Antennarius indicus. Mr. Nanayakkara said he had seen frogfish in Kalpitiya, Hikkaduwa and Trincomalee.

Published on SundayTimes on 11.02.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180211/news/porpoise-completes-lankas-full-hand-of-cetacean-wonders-281496.html

Get on with total bottom trawling ban say conservationists

February 19, 2018

Published on SundayTimes on 28.01.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180128/news/get-on-with-total-bottom-trawling-ban-say-conservationists-278835.html 

Sri Lanka passed laws to ban destructive bottom trawling in July last year but the laws are yet to be enforced and might even be watered down. Rich marine habitat is being damaged by bottom trawling in the Puttalam and Kalpitiya lagoons and in the north, including Jaffna.

Mechanised bottom trawling in broad daylight in the Puttalam lagoon

The United Small Fisheries Association (USFA) of Kalpitiya says there are 23 boats carrying out mechanised bottom trawling in the Puttalam lagoon itself. Despite being illegal the trawling occurs openly from morning till dusk, says Francis Fernando of the USFA.

Bottom trawling is trawling (towing a fishing net) along the sea floor. Two heavy metal panels are fixed at both sides of the mouth of the net to make sure it remains at the bottom of the sea floor.

This unselective, aggressive form of fishing results in the capture of many species other than the targeted fish – and largely juvenile sea life. Non-target species often constitutes more than half and as much as 80 per cent of the catch in bottom trawling for prawns, according to fisheries experts.

Sanjeewa Dinesh, a fisherman in Puttalam lagoon, lamented that the authorities act quickly against poor small-scale fishermen for using illegal types of nets but turn a blind eye to the more destructive bottom trawling that happens in broad daylight.

Fisheries Ministry officials recently stated they need time to implement the ban and that immediate stoppage of bottom trawling could affect the livelihood of practitioners. Reports say the ministry is even planning to relax the bottom-trawling ban, according to the National Aquatics Research and Development Agency (NARA).

Marine environmentalists vehemently oppose relaxing the bottom-trawling laws. “There cannot be a ‘less destructive’ bottom trawling method,” one marine biologist said, explaining that mid-water trawling was difficult to monitor. The scientists urge a total ban.

When purse seining was allowed off the northwestern coast in 2012, fishermen who were purse seining illegally through so-called “Laila nets” obtained purse seining permits.

Purse seining, which involves huge walls of net drawn tight at the base, is illegal in waters less than seven nautical miles from shore but now the nets are being used just 2km from shore, including inside the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary. Marine environmentalists fear a similar situation may follow if the bottom trawling ban was watered down, saying monitoring is weak and there are no limits in Sri Lankan fishing.

“If the policy of no-trawling is reversed Sri Lanka will never be able to argue with India that trawling is damaging to resources and habitat so we lose one of the main factors in the argument to stop Indian trawling. Indians and Sri Lankans trawling together can be the worst situation for the resources,” fisheries expert Dr. Steve Creech argues.

He warned Sri Lanka could experience a situation similar to that faced by India. Sri Lankan bottom trawlers use similar mechanisms to that of Tamil Nadu fishing folks, the only difference being that the Lankan boats are smaller.

Bottom trawling, an unselective, aggressive form of fishing, results in the capture of many species other than the targeted fish – and largely juvenile sea life.

Dr. Creech pointed out, however, Tamil Nadu fishermen used smaller boats for bottom trawling in inshore areas, which contributed to the depletion of fisheries resources and caused Tamil Nadu fishermen to use bigger boats to go further and poach stock in Sri Lankan waters.

One excuse bottom trawlers give is that the method is best for catching prawns but Dr. Creech said small scale fisherfolk routinely used other methods to catch prawns and other bottom-dwellers. “If bottom trawling is allowed, then the small-scale fishermen will find it difficult to find enough fish. So they too will be forced to turned into illegal fishing methods in order to continue their livelihood,” Dr. Creech said.

Softening the bottom trawling ban will have other economic effects. It undermines tourism, which depends on a healthy marine environment; there is also concern for the seafood industry.

The issue also raises conservation worries: the Gulf of Mannar is one of the last areas inhabited by the endangered dugong. This marine mammal feeds on sea grasses and bottom trawling will destroy the sea grass meadows in the area.

“The law proscribing mechanised bottom trawling was published in July but sadly no action has so far been taken to implement the law,” conservation group Environmental Foundation Limited said.

Referring to the government’s concern about the “livelihood” impact of stopping illegal bottom trawling, the group said the impact on legal fishermen and the ecosystem are far greater than the ban’s effect on a small number of fishermen employed by owners of illegal bottom trawling vessels.

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.

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

Sampur pilot whales stranding will remain a mystery

July 31, 2017

Published on SundayTimes on 04.06.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170604/news/sampur-pilot-whales-stranding-will-remain-a-mystery-243484.html

A pod of about 20 pilot whales stranded on Sampur beach in Trincomalee were pushed back to sea last Wednesday by some navy-men and locals.

Marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara, identified them as short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus). While this is rare in Sri Lanka, there have been occasions elsewhere when pilot whales have run aground. Mr Nanayakkara points out that in February more than 400 pilot whales washed up on a New Zealand beach.

Beached whales die due to dehydration, or drowning when high tide covers the blowhole. In some cases, they die by collapsing under their own weight.
Available literature indicates that about 10 species of whales – mostly toothed whales are more prone to being stranded than others.
Why whales get beached in an apparent suicide mission remains a mystery. Many whales use echolocation to navigate, so one theory is that man-made sonar in ships etc. may be interfering with whales and/or natural brain wave activity causing them to become disoriented. Seismic activities on the ocean floor too could be contributory factor.

Most of the whales have close-knit family units, so another hypothesis is that a pod of whales can accidentally become stranded when attempting to come to the aid of a beached whale that is sending out distress calls.
A pilot whale pod can be made up of 20 to 50 individuals, but large super pods with hundreds of individuals too are frequent. They are primarily matrilineal or a female-based society with strong family bonds, so if one swims on to the beach, the others could follow. They have an acute sense of hearing according to marine researchers, making them more prone to stranding. In 1918, over 1,000 pilot whales got beached in New Zealand.

Although the pilot whale’s behaviour resembles that of larger whale species, it belongs to the oceanic dolphin family. Pilot whales are large, robust animals with a bulbous head and no discernible beak. They are black in colour. A male pilot whale can grow up to 5.5 metres (18 ft) in length, whereas adult females are about 3.7 metres (12 ft) in length.

The short-finned pilot whale primarily feeds on squid while certain species of fish and octopus too are included in their diet. They dive deep 300 metres (1000 ft) deep or more in search of prey and spend great lengths of time at depth. Pilot whales are also known as the ‘cheetas of the deep’ for their ability of high speed pursuit of prey deep in the ocean.

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.

“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.

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.

 

Fishing net may have killed dugong and calf

July 31, 2017

Wildlife offcials suspect that the carcass of a female dugong found afloat in the northern seas off Mollikulam on Thursday July 27 with a new-born calf may have been drowned after being trapped in a fishing net.

Dr Sevvandi Jayakody of the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries of the Wayamba University, said that the female was over seven feet in length and the calf was about three-and-a-half feet in length and well developed. She said she was saddened.

Dr Lakshman Peiris of the Department of Wildlife, said the aminals may have died of suffocation after they had been snared in a fishing net.
The dugong needs to surface to breathe from time to time. If one gets entangled in a net it would not be able to to breathe. In this instance, the mother may have aborted the baby.

Dugong (dugong dugon) known as ‘Muhudu Ura’ in Sinhala, is considered to be ‘critically endangered’ in Sri Lankan waters. They are seen only in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay area in the northern ocean. They are protected by law, but a number of dugongs get killed every year. Dynamite fishing is a major threat, while other fishing gear such as gill nets are death traps. Last year, at least 13 dugongs were killed.
Ocean Resources Conservation Association, reports that another dugong was killed last month in Pukkulum, Wilpattu.

A project funded by Global Environment Fund Project and Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund with management of the United Nations Environment Programme is carrying out ground work to help protect dugongs. Experts are surveying the dugong habitat to identify a protected.

Sri Lanka is also a signatory of the memorandum of understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their range (Dugong MoU) of the Convention on Migratory Species.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.07.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170730/news/fishing-net-may-have-killed-dugong-and-calf-252575.html

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