Lobster loot

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Pix by K.P.D.H. Kaushalya

Four detections by the Customs at Katunayake within two weeks and one by wildlife officials at Yala at the end of March have left environmentalists wondering whether spiny lobsters are being fished to economic extinction.

The regulations under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act not only about spiny lobster exports but also about fishing, possession, sale and transport are very clear, a Customs official told the Sunday Times, explaining that under-sized or egg-bearing spiny lobsters cannot be exported but many are the attempts to flout the law.

The confiscated under-sized or egg-bearing spiny lobsters being released to the sea.

Detailing the detections at the Katunayake air-cargo section between March 11 and 23, the Customs’ Biodiversity Protection Unit chief, Samantha Gunasekara said one-third, half or more than half of the consignments were either under-sized or egg-bearing or both and the exporters were fined a total of Rs. 750,000.

The detections had been by Customs Officers K.P.D.H. Kaushalya and Jaliya Pahalavitane under Mr. Gunasekara’s supervision. The confiscated spiny lobsters had been released to the sea at Negombo and near the Colombo Port.

In some consignments it was clear that the culprits had scraped off the eggs in a bid to surreptitiously pass them through Customs, said Mr. Gunasekara.

How is it that Fisheries Officers do not detect such spiny lobsters, he asked, adding that the decline in the quantum of exports, which are mainly headed for Hong Kong, points to a dangerous trend of over-fishing and depletion of this resource.

Stressing that spiny lobsters are on the verge of extinction, environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said that even at this late hour the law is not being implemented properly. Way back in 1973, under the first regulations to be brought in, fishing of spiny lobsters was prohibited along the coastal stretch from the Colombo Harbour to the Mount Lavinia Hotel. The minimum carapace length of a spiny lobster that could be fished was 8 cm while egg-bearing ones could not be fished at all.

Racketeers cash in on fast disappearing spiny lobsters Traces of scraped eggs

The early 1990s had seen spiny lobster fishing rise tremendously while regulations were also flouted blatantly. With more and more Customs detections and conservationists pointing out that the resources were dwindling, the authorities were under pressure to make the regulations more stringent, the Sunday Times learns.

In 1998, spiny lobsters aplenty could be found only from Tangalle to Kirinde and beyond, with these crustaceans disappearing from other areas due to over-fishing, pointed out Mr. Gunawardena. The regulations were amended in 2000 but brought only “disappointment” due to the carapace length of spiny lobsters which could be fished being increased only for one species (from 8 cm to 10 cm) and all others being reduced to 6 cm from 8 cm.

Although a “closed” season has been introduced in February and September when spiny lobster fishing is prohibited and the zone restricted from the Bentara river to Kumubukkan Oya, the regulations seem to have helped accelerate extinction, he said.

He pointed out that by 2002 spiny lobsters had vanished from the belt spanning Tangalle to Kirinde. “Therefore, the deduction is that the regulations have had no positive effect.”

Pointing an accusing finger at the Department of Fisheries, Mr. Gunawardena said there seems to be something rotten and fishy going on there. Asking whether spiny lobsters are heading in the same direction of the pearl oysters with over-exploitation leading to economic extinction, this environmentalist urges reassessment and quick action to remedy the situation.

Meanwhile, when contacted by the Sunday Times, Fisheries Department officials were quick to respond that although they too were cracking down heavily, they had a wider area to cover.

It is easy for the Customs to check because it is the final point. Now that the northeast has also opened up, we hear that spiny lobsters are being brought from there as well, an official said, stressing that under the regulations the police and armed services personnel could also carry out detections. “We need to focus on the north-east,” the official said.

With regard to the regulations being inadequate, the official said the change in the carapace length was based on extensive research carried out by NARA.

Since 2008, spiny lobster fishing has been prohibited in October as well and moves are underway to halt it in March, according to the official, as fishermen, just before the New Year, may be attempting to earn some quick money by catching under-sized and egg-bearing spiny lobsters.

Pointing out that resources may be depleting because of scuba diving which enables an easy catch, the official said rich exporters greedy for more money should also be made aware that when they create a higher demand, the poor fishermen who earn a pittance are tempted to over-fish even those spiny lobsters banned under the law.

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