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“Political will determine the reverse of EU ban” :Mangala

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External Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera has emphasized that the political will and resolve of the heads of this government and the heads of the Ministry of Fisheries over the next few months, will determine the reverse of the EU banand the fate of the 2.6. Million Sri Lankan people, whose jobs are directly or indirectly linked to the fishing industry. The absence of such resolve will be to the chagrin of the 600,000 individuals whose livelihoods depend heavily on the success of our fisheries industry.

Addressing the House on the Bill presented by Fisheries Minister Joseph Michael Perera, Mangala Samaraweera said: ‘ As some of you many know, at the end of January, I was in Brussels, the home of the European Union. The objective of my visit was largely to revive positive relations and begin a new chapter in Sri Lanka - EU relations, based on mutual respect and understanding. But I was also in Brussels to specifically address two issues of great national importance. First, the EU IUU fishing ban which was announced on October 14, 2014 which came into force 3 months later on January 14, this year and second, the GSP + tariff concessions that were withdrawn from Sri Lanka in August 2010, as a result of the previous government’s persistent reluctance to embrace good governance and ensure basic human rights.

When engaged in high seas fishing, countries have an obligation to comply with international regulations that help ensure the sustainability of common resources. These international regulations help ensure that fish stocks are sustainable and attempt to limit environmental damage. In Sri Lanka’s case, the relevant regulations are those agreed on at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, global losses associated with IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing, are valued between US$10 – 23.5 billion annually.

The EU imposes bans on countries that fail to comply with these regulations. These bans are imposed after multiple warnings and offers of assistance to help with compliance and investigations. It is the previous administration’s failure to comply with these regulations despite repeated warnings and their turning a blind eye to IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing activities that led to the current ban. Thus, all nations and particularly countries like Sri Lanka whose coastal fisheries account for 53% of total marine fish production, have an incentive and duty to protect and manage common resources in ways that prevents the depletion of fish stocks and ensures the preservation of this resource for posterity.

In Sri Lanka, about 1.8% of our GDP is generated through fish and fishery products. Fisheries is the ninth largest export sector, in 2013 the share of seafood in the overall export market was around 2.5% generating export income of US$ 246 million. As the largest market for such products, the EU accounts for about 40% of our total seafood exports. Many seafood exporters have also invested heavily to upgrade their processing centers to meet EU regulations and this ban therefore has a huge and detrimental cost to our economy.

IUU fishing by Sri Lankan vessels was first flagged as a concern, when an Investigative Mission from the EC in 2010 found Sri Lanka to be non-compliant with standards enforced by the IOTC (Indian Ocean Tuna Commission). Thereafter, on November 15, 2012, a yellow card was issued to 8 countries, of which Sri Lanka was one, formally notifying Sri Lanka on the possible identification of the country as a non -cooperating third country in the EU – IUU fishing regulations. Following that early warning, the Ministry of Fisheries and Sri Lankan Government managed to hold several fruitful discussions and dialogues with members of the EU and IOTC, showing much progress on the ground and was even on the verge of reversing the yellow card and having the file closed. Indeed, as recently as early 2014, the EU commended Sri Lanka on its “significant progress” in terms of its compliance with IOTC regulations, including addressing IUU fishing.

Sri Lanka has 1,615 active vessels in the high seas, where over 90% of this fhisng fleet is less than 15m in length, all of which are by international standards considered to be artisanal fishing vessels and minimally damaging to the environment. However, in March 2014, a political decision was taken by the previous government to increase the quota of fish that Sri Lanka could export, by introducing eight high capacity Chinese built and owned Purse Seiner vessels. These commercial ships are over 45m long, have a capacity of 651mt and may catch as much as 300 mt of fish per trip. Their catch size is between 25 and 100x more per trip than the small sized artisanal Sri Lankan boats, which as I just mentioned, are the type of vessels traditionally found in Sri Lankan waters signified to our partners in the Indian Ocean, that we were about to embark on large-scale commercial finishing without the consultation of other stakeholders or the consideration of the environment and our international obligations.

In April 2014, the Director General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DGMARE) declared that “the momentum set in motion, during which much of the progress had been reported, is likely to be on a derailed path.” Not soon after, on October 14, 2014, the EU decided to inform us of the decision to ban Sri Lanka’s fisheries exports to the EU, but had decided to implement the ban only three months later, thus giving Sri Lanka yet another three months to rectify the situation. However, due to sufficient lack of progress, the ban came into effect on January 14, 2015.

But let us not be misguided in thinking that the ban will be so easily removed as by revoking the licenses of those eight large vessels. The EU has also drawn our attention to the fact that not all vessels flying the Sri Lankan flag and which are authorized to fish in the high seas, outside the jurisdiction of our own waters, have valid licnces (only 86.3% of the 1,615 authorized vessels). Many vessels are still, however submitting catch certificates without a logbook and VMS (vessel monitoring system) data is still only limited to a small number of vessels (35 vessels) to crosscheck high seas fishing activity by Sri Lankan vessels. Further, deterrents to violations were at the time inadequate to prevent additional violations, physical inspections rarely revealed on compliance of vessels to the IOTC regulations and when there were such reports, not enough was done to follow up.

At the time of the issuing of the ban, the vessel observer scheme was under developed, VMS reports on progress required by Resolution 06/03 had not been provided, length frequency data for coastal fisheries required by Resolution 10/02 had not been submitted and neither had the report on import, landing and transshipment of tuna and tuna-like fish products as requried by Resolution 10/10. Sri Lanka did not have in place the necessary legal and administrative measures, such as implementing the area closure of purse seiners, required by Resolution 12/13, transposing the prohibition on oceanic White Tip sharks into national legislation as required by Resolution 13/06, transposing the provision for purse seiners to carry dip nets into national legislation as required by Resolution 12/04, transposing the provision for long-liners to carry line cutters and de-hookers into national a FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices) management plan as required by Resolution 13/08.

Thus, there are many areas where Sri Lanka needed and still needs drastic improvement, especially in the application of legislative frameworks and in the ground policing of vessels. While all my meetings were extremely warm and cordial, resplendent with good will and clearly evinced that Europe was relieved by the election of President Sirisena, it be came evident that Sri Lanka needs to implement several serious reforms before the EU may begin to consider lifting the ban. The constant revision of deadlines, such as the deadlines to order and introduce the appropriate transponders (or vessel monitoring systems) on board ships, have been the cause of a significant loss of credibility or as the DG-MARE put it, the cause of much ‘disappointment’ from within the EU and despite the well-intentioned administrative work force within the Ministry of Fisheries, it was stressed that what was lacking in Sri Lanka was the ‘political will’ to execute the necessary changes.

The European Commission informed us that the time line for the reversal of the ban on imports of Sri Lankan fishery products to the EU would depend entirely on Sri Lanka and her political determination over the next few months. Slow progress will mean that this issue can be dragged out for over several years and rapid progress on our part should see the reversal of the ban in a few months. Countries like Belize who have managed to reverse fishing bans imposed on them in a relatively short period of time, are excellent case studies to study when going forward. In the context of the large amount of good will that is being exhibited towards our country at the present moment, it is important to take this opportunity to act swiftly in implementing the necessary reforms, to track progress on the ground credibility and to keep our European counterparts continuously informed about the changes we are executing, so that we can reverse the EU IUU ban as quickly as possible.’

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