Sri Lanka fisheries ready for return

16 May 2016
Tuna and fish landed to market in Sri Lanka

Tuna and fish landed to market in Sri Lanka

With its ban on fisheries exports to the EU market lifted, the country anticipates it will start to reinstate crucial trade links from next month, writes Jason Holland.

The lifting of the red card given to Sri Lanka that had banned the export of the country’s fisheries products to the European Union for 15 months presents its seafood industry with the opportunity to quickly regain a big slice of its former €100 million ($113.5 million) export market, according to fishing and political leaders.

Sri Lanka’s red card was given by the EU Fisheries Council in February 2015 under the EU Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing Regulation because of its failure to address serious shortcomings in the implementation of control measures, a lack of deterrent sanctions, as well as the failure to comply with international and regional fisheries rules. Up until this point, it had been one of the biggest exporters of fresh swordfish and tuna to the EU market, with exports of these products alone worth in excess of €75 million ($85.1 million) annually. It was initially issued with a yellow card in 2012.

The red card was rescinded in April this year after it was deemed that the country had successfully reformed its fisheries governance. Commenting at the time, Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said that, "Sri Lanka now has a robust legal and policy framework to fight illegal fishing activities.”

At a special seminar staged later that month at the Seafood Expo Global (SEG 16) in Brussels, representatives of the country’s government and seafood industry detailed the efforts taken to bring its policies into line with EU standards. Crucially, among these measures is the empowerment of Sri Lanka’s Coastguard, Navy and Fisheries Department officials as authorised officers for the mid-sea inspection of vessels, including foreign fishing boats that want to unload at local ports.

From now on, when local fishermen venture into the open sea for fishing, they will be required to have a proper licence issued by the Director General of the Fisheries Department for high-seas fishing, possess licensed gear, transponders and other equipment. They will also be inspected to ascertain whether they are engaging in any illegal fishing activities, while the penalty for such offences has increased significantly from Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) 50,000 (€302/$343) to LKR 5 million (€30,200/$34,325) for a 75-metre vessel.

Lessons learned
The move to bring in new amendments and regulations was one of 57 conditions put forward by the EU for Sri Lanka to be listed as a cooperating country that fights against IUU fishing.

“It has taken many months of hard work and a total mindset change, but we are happy and eager to be back in the game,” Rodney Perera, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Belgium, told the SEG 16 audience.

“We have a lot of potential. It won’t be long before the market is flooded with very good Sri Lankan products,” he said. “Sri Lanka has also become major player in the important area of sustainability, and this is something we are very proud of.”

Officials expect fisheries exports will resume by late June or July this year, as the European Parliament first needs to secure the approval of the 28 member states, giving Sri Lankan products a costly two-year absence from the EU.

The ban’s biggest impact was on Sri Lanka’s fishing community – 192,000 households and 222,000 fishermen – lost over half their income, said Prabhash Subasinghe, President of the Seafood Exporters Association of Sri Lanka (SEASL).

At the same time, the country’s 30 processing plants were either operating at less than 50% capacity or closed completely because of the ban. Exporters also took a year to recover, eventually finding alternative markets and sending raw material to India to supply EU markets, he said.

Next steps
Since the announcement by the EU Commission that the ban was being revoked, SEASL and the exporters have experienced increased trade enquiries from around the world, confirmed Subasinghe.

“We expect a significant boom in the market for Sri Lankan seafood products, especially in the area of tuna. This will not be only within the EU countries, but also in the other regions such as the USA, Japan and Russia and this big time demand brings more challenges for the industry.

“The tuna sector will require a complete overhaul to meet the renewed market demand. Renovation of fishing vessels, the introduction of vessel technology such as RSW, and technology that collects tuna catches, while introducing freezing capacities such as -35C and -60C into the fleet may be future necessities. We also envisage needing many improvements in the processing field, such as logistics, ice plants, freezing capacities and the introduction of new product lines,” he said.

Aligned with rebuilding the country’s fishery exports, Sri Lanka Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development (DFAR), Mangalika Adikari, revealed that considerable effort would go into expanding its aquaculture sector.

“Before the ban, Sri Lanka accounted for €100 million of fisheries imports to the EU. I think we can get back to those levels.”

Having joined Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Korea, the Philippines, Fiji, Belize, Panama, Togo and Vanuatu as a country that has reformed its systems following an EU warning, Adikari said she also hoped that Sri Lanka would be used as a model of how a country can make serious reforms to its maritime and fisheries governance in a short period of time while also achieving the level of standards required by markets like the EU.

“We successfully addressed all the shortcomings with regards to Sri Lanka’s international and regional obligations on the conservation and management of fisheries resources,” said Adikari.

Indeed it was highlighted that from an external perspective, Sri Lankan fishermen are now also banned from working in an IUU-listed country, and the sale or transfer of vessels and other technical equipment to such countries is prohibited.

The dream, stressed Subasinghe, is a strong and sustainable seafood industry that is exporting $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion) worth of products by 2020.