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Illegal fishing: The Sunday Times invokes RTI law to get to the bottom

By S. Rubatheesan
As many as 641 permits were issued to foreign fishing vessels between 2012 and 2015 despite warnings by the European Union (EU) that many of them were engaged in illegal fishing practices which ultimately cost Sri Lanka a ban on exports, the first application by the Sunday Times under the new Right to Information Act has revealed.

The EU eventually banned Sri Lanka’s fish imports in 2015 costing the country more than 75 million euro (Rs. 12 billion).

This information was hitherto not provided by the Fisheries Department despite several requests.

The former government had repeatedly declined to disclose details of licences issued to foreign vessels for fishing.

The permits were given to fish in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – a zone beyond the territorial sea of 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from the shores of Sri Lankan waters.

The licences were issued to foreign vessels registered in Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Imposing the ban on Sri Lanka in 2015, the EU said it was urging Sri Lanka to implement measures to dissuade illegal fishing by Sri Lankan vessels or by foreign vessels using Sri Lankan ports.

The Fisheries Department said that since February 2015, with the imposition of a ban on Tuna imports to EU countries, Sri Lanka denied port facilities to foreign vessels.

The highest number of licences amounting to 257 were issued to foreign fishing vessels in 2012 followed by 256 in 2013. In 2014 the Department issued 159 licences and nine in 2015 until the scheme was suspended.

The Government went on to implement recommendations set out by EU to stop Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in Sri Lanka and eventually the ban on fish exports to the EU countries was lifted in April last year.

Though the foreign fishing vessels were allowed to carry out fishing only in the EEZ, local fishermen regularly complained that they also engaged in fishing in Sri Lankan waters disrupting their fishing activities.

Local fishermen accused the then Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne of involvement in issuing licences to foreign vessels. The charge was denied by the minister.

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