Archive for the ‘Marine Environment’ Category

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.

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.

The pod of about 20 pilot whales stranded on Sampur beach in Trincomalee

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.

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

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

Super pods of sperm whales put on marine spectacle

April 6, 2017

The eight-strong orca pod get ready to charge towards the sperm whales. Pix courtessy Andrew Sutton

While observing a super pod of nearly 100 sperm whales, marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara witnessed a rare occasion when killer whales attacked the marine giants in the seas off Kalpitiya. It was an epic battle.

Sri Lanka is famous for wildlife spectacles such as this along with the largest gathering of Asian elephants, huge pods of blue whales and rare sightings of leopards.

One spectacle in the making is super pods of sperm whales (physeter microcephalus). The sperm while is the largest ‘toothed whale’ which can dive to depths of 3,200 feet in search of its favourite food – the giant squid. Female sperm whales and their calves live in pods of 15-20 members, while males tend to roam alone in cooler waters closer to polar regions. A super pod of whales is formed when such smaller pods gather for feeding, socialising or mating. March to April seems to be the time such super pods form and in 2012 the largest such gathering consisting of over 100 individuals was recorded.

Marine biologist Ranil Nanayakkara who has studied the sperm whale super pods from 2010, left Kalpitiya shores on March 23 to scan the ocean specially for sperm whales. It turned out to be their lucky day when they witnessed the sperm whale super pod about 15 nautical miles from Kalpitiya at 9.15 am after travelling for about one hour. “There were over 150 sperm whales on the ocean of around one kilometre. The super pod we saw consisted of 50 to 60 individuals,’’ Nanayakkara said.

Together with Ranil, British author Philip Hoare and photographer Andrew Sutton were on the boat and it was a show of a life time. The larger sperm whale males had joined the super pod and they witnessed love making on a massive scale. The team witnessed foreplay — rubbing against each other, tail slapping, spy hopping, rolling over. Even researchers could see the animals’ aroused genitals and as they watched, a pair swam belly to belly under the boat.

The sperm whale is also famous for making sounds. It makes the loudest sounds of any animal and also emits morse-like “codas” used to communicate long distances. The sea is full of sound as well and Nanayakkara was listening to these codas using special ear phones.

The ocean was like an opera, said Nanayakkara.

A large male sperm whale that came to rescue the weaker pod

They observed a large male deviate from the super pod and swim rapidly northward. “When a sperm whale swims fast, its large head stays out of the water – so we could clearly say it was in a great hurry. Then several other large males started following the first one. Seeing several large male sperm whales moving northward we thought it could be an aggression related to mating, so we followed them,” Nanayakkara explained.

After travelling two or three kilometres, the team found the large males with a pod of about 10 females with younger whales. The males packed their bodies tightly and it was like several logs stacked tightly. The men in the boat also saw something else. One person in the boat alerted the others to a dolphin but to their surprise it was the unmistakable dorsal fin of an orca. The sperm whales had rushed to protect the pod that came under attack by the orcas.

The black and white orca (orcinus orca), is a mid-sized toothed whale. it is the largest member of the dolphin family and became a popular after being featured in the movie ‘Free Willy’. But the orca is not an innocent animal as it is an agile predator in the ocean also known as the ‘killer whale’.

“It was a pod of about eight orcas attacking a weaker maternity pod. The large males would have heard the distress call and had rushed to protect them. The males packed their bodies side by side tightly guarding the weaker whales from the predatory orcas,” Nanayakkara said. The water around the smaller pod was cloudy with orangish whale poop – a defense mechanism used by the distressed whales to conceal themselves from the predators.

Killer whale attacks on other whales have been reported on a handful of occasions previously. Working as a team, they usually challenge the weaker female or a calf to hunt it down. According to Nanayakkara, the orcas found in our waters is transient and they are born hunters.

“We had also observed an amazing communal defense mechanism used by the sperm whales where the males encircle the weaker females and young putting their bodies in front of the attacking killer whales,” Nanayakkara said. This is a known as the “marguerite formation”, named after the shape of the flower by that name. In this formation, the heavy and powerful tail of an adult whale is pointed outward, readying to deliver lethal blows to any incoming attacker.

Ranil Nanayakkara Listening to the songs of sperm whales

The researchers also experienced a somewhat scary experience. Since the marguerite formation was not effective, the whales started using the boat as a cover to avoid the orcas. They moved to the other side of the boat when the orcas charged and a collision could have been dangerous.

This ‘battle of the titans’ dragged on for more than an hour. The sperm whales finally made the orcas give up. Nanayakkara said there were about 20 killer whales at that time and it could also be the largest orca pod seen in Sri Lankan waters.

Nanayakkara said it was one of the amazing moments he had witnessed in his whole life.

Published on SundayTimes on 02.04.2017http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170402/news/super-pods-of-sperm-whales-put-on-marine-spectacle-234975.html

Know the sperm whaleThe head of the whale contains a liquid wax called spermaceti, from which the whale derives its name. Spermaceti was used in lubricants, oil lamps, and candles. Scientists have yet to understand its function, but believe it may help the animal regulate its buoyancy. Some also believe that the spermaceti has bio-acoustical amplification properties, enabling the whale to produce the loudest sounds of any animal.Mature males average 16 metres (52 ft) in length but some may reach 20.5 metres (67 ft), with the head representing up to one-third of the animal’s length. Capable of plunging to 2,250 metres (7,382 ft), it is the second deepest diving mammal, following only the Cuvier’s beaked whale. The sperm whale’s clicking vocalisation, a form of echolocation and communication, may be as loud as 230 decibels under water. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s. Sperm whales can live for more than 60 years according to sources on the Web.Ambergris, a waste product from its digestive system, is still used as a fixative in perfumes.

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

Mirissa whale boats to be reined in

February 22, 2017

whalegraphicMore regulations and guidelines will be imposed on whale-watching boat operators in Mirissa. Licenses will not be issued to vessels this year as part of the measures planned, wildlife officials say.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation says regulations will be updated, while the Ministry of Tourism wants to upgrade the infrastructure.

Sri Lanka is famous as a popular spot for whale watching, especially blue whales. Trincomalee, Kalpitiya and the southern sea off Mirissa are the ideal locations. The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. Some operators sail too close to the whales and put tourists at risk, while harassing the massive mammals.

To regulate the industry, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was updated in 2012 with 14 guidelines. But now after taking the advice of whale experts’ the DWC is planning to introduce a new set of guidelines, said Channa Suraweera of the marine division.

Activists say the number of vessels needs to be controlled, considering the chaos in Yala.

Regulations require whale-watching boats to get approval from the DWC. Suraweera also said licences will not issued to whale watching boats this year for the season that lasts until October. Monitoring is done with the support of the coast guard and the navy.

Suraweera said the DWC too will increase monitoring, revealing that a ticketing system will be introduced in Mirissa.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickrema Perera said about 500 will be recruited to the Department of Wildlife and some of them could be assigned to monitoring whale-watching.

The Tourism Minister’s Secretary, Janaka Sugathadasa, said the industry should self-regulate for the sake of its own sustainability. The Tourism Ministry officials have also met whale-watching tour operators, Fisheries Harbour Corporation, DWC, local councils, and other stake holders recently.

Sri Lanka has a unique position to promote upmarket whale-watching tourism, so it is also important to upgrade the infrastructure, Sugathadasa pointed out. He said a separate jetty has been proposed and a pre-feasibility study will be soon started.

Sugathadasa also agreed the number of boats should be controlled.

Published on SundayTimes on 19.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170219/news/mirissa-whale-boats-to-be-reined-in-229587.html

The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. (File pic)

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

Humphead wrasse killing stirs calls for protection and spearfishing ban

February 1, 2017

Declare the endangered humphead wrasse as a protected species in Sri Lanka and ban spearfishing, researchers of aquatic resources, diving groups and conservationists demand. An environment lawyer says spearfishing can be banned under existing laws.

Outrage grew after pictures emerged showing a human-sized humphead wrasse, (Cheilinus undulates) also known as Napoleon wrasse, being hauled ashore after being killed. This fish, with its thick lips and a hump on its head, is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is also regarded as a delicacy by the Chinese especially in Hong Kong where it fetches upwards of  Rs 45,000 a kilo. This coral reef fish must be in demand in Chinese restaurants in the island as well.

The fish can grow up to six feet and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It can live up to 30 years, but many are killed before they reach maturity.

Humphead wrasse is a popular target of spear fishermen.

In Unawatuna, a dive centre that mainly caters to Russians is allowing spearfishing which destroys many large marine species, marine activists say.

“In the case of the Unawatuna incident, the fish was speared outside the protected area and the law doesn’t ban hunting of humphead wrasse. So, we are unable to take any action against them,” said Channa Suraweera of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. He oversees marine affairs.

While hunting of wild animals on land is illegal, fish is treated as a food source, irrespective of the threat levels various fish species face.

Dr Sisira Haputantri of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency said the agency will be recommending to the Fisheries Department that the humphead wrasse be made a protected species. But that will only be a start as monitoring whether the fish is being hunted is difficult.

Large coral fish such as the humphead wrass are threatened in other areas of the island as well.

In 2013, the Sunday Times  exposed the danger to the humphead wrasse particularly in Kalpitiya area where divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the giant fish. They kill the fish even if it takes cover in underwater caves.

In times past, free divers engaged in spearfishing. They can stay underwater only for a limited time. But scuba gear allows divers to continue spear fishing for longer. “Scuba gear allows a diver to stay under water for long periods and chase a target fish. Most of the mature humphead wrasse in our reefs have already been hunted and large specimens such as the one that had been speared in Unawatuna are rare. Only a handful of individual fish that flee at the sight of a diver are survivors,’’ said researcher Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator, Coastal & Marine Programme IUCN Sri Lanka.

Dr Malik Fernando, who is a founder member of the Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club, a diving club, recalls how wild animals once heavily hunted in colonial times, have become a source of pride and joy in the island once they are protected.

“The land animals once hunted by a few brought wonder and joy to many, such as those who ventured into wild places and protected areas in search of them. Visiting wildlife parks became a major recreational activity and a source of income for the Government. What we are proposing for the marine environment is an extension of what has been done on land: the conservation of a threatened group of animals (fishes) that would otherwise likely disappear from our waters,” Dr Fernando writes in an appeal.

The Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club sent the appeal to the Minister of Fisheries in May 2015 outlining reasons for a ban on spearfishing.

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

“This proposal would certainly inconvenience a few people. But we are confident that those who would be affected do not depend exclusively on spearing fish or renting spear fishing equipment for their existence. Like the hunters in days gone by, they will learn to live with the new rules. The result will be that the seas around Sri Lanka will once more be home to really large giant groupers and family groups of the humphead wrasse,” he observes.

“Removal of large coral fish could be detrimental to the whole coral ecosystem affecting other species as well. For example, the humphead wrasse feed on crown-of-thorn starfish that destroys coral reefs,’’ said marine researcher Rajasuriya. Also large fish such as the tomato grouper help maintain the holes in low relief reefs where the scarlet shrimp and painted shrimp take shelter. These shrimps are high value items in the ornamental fish trade and without the large fish the shrimp populations would die out and adversely impact the sustainability of the business.

The Sub-Aqua Club has appealed to the Minister of Fisheries to protect 15 large coral fish.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said spearfishing can be banned under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act section 28, listing the equipment under the illegal gear.

The marine experts also highlight the importance of banning illegal fishing practices such as dynamiting and bottom trawling.

A diver swimming with a gentle giant Hump-head wrasse (c) www2.padi.com

A diver with giant Hump-head wrasse (c) www2.padi.com

Groupers too threatened due to spearfishing 

Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but some other large coral fish such as Groupers are threatened due to spearfishing and other illegal destructive fishing methods. So Sub-Aqua Club in their appeal to the fisheries minister to take actions, lists following coral fish to be protected. 

 

Humphead Wrasse Cheilinus undulatus Endangered  

 

Tomato Grouper Cephalopholis sonnerati Least Concern
Whitespotted grouper Epinephelus caeruleopunctatus Least Concern
Blue and yellow grouper Epinephelus flavocaeruleus Least Concern
Brown-marbled grouper Epinephelus fuscoguttatus Near Threatened
Giant grouper Epinephelus lanceolatus Vulnerable
Malabar grouper Epinephelus malabaricus Near Threatened
Camouflage grouper Epinephelus polyphekadion Near Threatened
wavy-lined grouper Epinephelus undulosus Data Deficient
saddle grouper Plectropomus laevis Vulnerable
leopard coral grouper Plectropomus leopardus Near Threatened
Roving coralgrouper Plectropomus pessuliferus Near Threatened
Yellow-edged lyretail Variola louti Least Concern
Lyretail Grouper Variola albimaginata Least Concern
two-striped sweetlips Plectorhinchus albovittatus Not Evaluated
Tomato Grouper - threatened by spearfishing

Tomato Grouper – threatened by spearfishing

Blue and Yellow Grouper 

Blue and Yellow Grouper

Giant Grouper

Giant Grouper

Published on SundayTimes on 29.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170129/news/humphead-wrasse-killing-stirs-calls-for-protection-and-spearfishing-ban-226444.html

 

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

Shark spotted in Menik Ganga

May 19, 2016

This article was published on 16.02.2016 on SundayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160214/news/extinct-shark-spotted-in-menik-ganga-182906.html

Shark-in-Menik-Ganga-23.01A few months ago, the apex predator of the freshwater riverine habitats, the crocodile, was reported in the sea off Wellawatte; recently the apex predator of the ocean, the shark, was reported in a river. The latest sighting of a shark in a freshwater habitat was reported by a group of wildlife lovers who visited Yala on January 23.

While travelling to their campsite in the evening they passed a bridge over the Menik Ganga that flows across Yala. The slow-flowing water in this part of the river is shallow and one of the group members spotted a large fish.

“That is a shark!” shouted Isuru de Soyza, pointing it out to the others before it swam away. Senehas Karunaratne, armed with a camera, had only a split of second to click before the shark took refuge under the bridge.

“The shark was about three feet long and quick in the water,” commented Mr. Karunaratne.

Rumours of sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga have been around for a while and Mr. de Soyza claimed to have seen one in the same section of the river a few months ago.

Photographic evidence of sharks in the Menik Ganga first came from a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG). While conducting an islandwide freshwater fish survey at the Menik Ganga about 7km upstream from the coast they spotted a shark in shallow, crystal-clear water about three feet deep.

They netted the shark and carefully brought it out of the water to take measurements. The shark was about three feet long. After photographing it, they released it back into the water.

The WCSG survey team had three more sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga and the Kumbukkan Oya, closer to Kumana.
Sri Lanka’s foremost expert on sharks, Rex I. de Silva, was sent the WCSG photo for examination and identified the shark as a variant of the Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hermiodon).

This species lives in the Indo-Pacific region from the Gulf of Oman to New Guinea, with most records from the coastal waters of India. The International IUCN Red List of threatened fauna lists the Pondicherry shark as “Critically endangered – possibly extinct”.

The Red List states that the shark was last recorded in 1979. Rex de Silva, however, states that the shark has been recorded in small numbers in Sri Lankan seas since the mid-1980s with the species’ presence in Sri Lankan waters first documented by himself in 1988.

Commenting on these sightings on the “Sharks of Sri Lanka” Facebook page, Mr. De Silva said it was important to differentiate between a shark in freshwater from a shark in a river.

“In times of drought, when river levels, fall seawater may intrude some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species may follow the seawater intrusion for a considerable distance up river, so although they are in a river they will still be in salty or semi-saline water.

When the salt water recedes the marine species follow it back to the sea. A shark in freshwater, on the other hand, is usually present farther up a river beyond the reach of salt water. As mentioned above, the shark photographed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle to date remains the only record of a shark from freshwater in Sri Lanka.”

Mr. de Silva states that anecdotal evidence over at least 30 years suggests that there are sharks in the Menik Ganga, but these sharks were not identified although speculation about their identity was sometimes offered.

Literature indicates that Pondicherry sharks do not grow much longer than about 3.3 feet and hence are not a threat to humans.

Sharks are not blood-thirsty man-eaters as Hollywood movies depict, so the presence of sharks in the Menik Ganga simply adds an interesting element to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and is nothing about which to feel panic.

A fisherman in Hikkaduwa caught a 12-foot, 350kg shark, reports last week said.

The shark was caught in deep ocean about 20 km from shore. Inspecting footage of the specimen, shark expert Rex De Silva provisionally identified it as a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Help for identifying a sharkAltogether, 61 species of shark have been found around Sri Lanka, however there could be more varieties living in our waters. Shark expert Rex de Silva maintains a Facebook group called “Sharks of Sri Lanka” and welcomes public sharing of images for identification purposes.

When forwarding images for identification it is best that a full lateral view (side view) is submitted as correct identification often depends on the relative positions of the fins, size and position of gill slits etc.

“I appreciate that obtaining a lateral view will not always be possible in which case any image is better than none and I am pleased to note the great interest in our sharks among lay persons,” Mr. De Silva states.

Mr. De Silva also launched a comprehensive book on sharks last year, with illustrations by prominent wildlife artist Jayantha Jinasena. Copies could be purchased from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), Department of Zoology, University of Colombo (call 2592609 or email fogsl1976@gmail.com