AUGUST 31, 2022 | Nature, Climate, and the Economy
Are Marine Conservation and Sri Lanka’s Maritime Hub Ambitions Compatible?

In this interview in the ‘Economics x Environment’ series of Smart Future Forum (SFF), Nishan Perera. – a leading marine ecologist from Sri Lanka, and an avid diver and acclaimed underwater photographer – argues that sustainable fishery management does not need to be politically contentious as we make it out to be, that if done well tourism can be an effective strategy for marine conservation, and that contradictory policies are hurting our prospects for striking a smarter balance between marine conservation and maritime-related economics activities. Nishan is a marine ecologist with an interest in coral reef ecology and Marine Protected Area management. He is a co-founder of Blue Resources Trust,. a Sri Lankan marine research organization, where he currently heads the coral reef programme. His recent work has included research on impacts of climate change on coral reefs, small scale fisheries management and supporting Marine Protected Area management in Sri Lanka. He has previously worked with IUCN, Project Seahorse and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.

SFF: Nishan, it’s impossible to start any interview about the oceans right now without touching on the X-Press Pearl Disaster. But I want to ask a question from a different angle, which links to things we will cover later in this interview. Can a country ever truly be ready for a disaster of this magnitude, in terms of mitigating the ill-effects? Are these black swan events, or are there plenty of things we can and should have done/should do to be prepared?

Nishan: Yes, a country should have contingency and mitigation measures for marine pollution events and natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis. The exact events to prepare for tend to be country specific based on the probability of something occurring. As a maritime hub Sri Lanka is at risk of a shipping accident and pollution. In this regard, Sri Lanka has the basic foundations. There is a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan prepared by the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) as well as several other policies, plans and regulations in place. The next step is establishing an implementation mechanism with clear roles and responsibilities along with threshold points for specific interventions. This should include methods to mobilize both state agencies as well as private sector and volunteer groups, as well as a good communication plan to keep the public informed of events in a transparent manner that builds trust in the process. It is also important that after an incident such as the recent one there should be an evaluation of the process to identify gaps and areas of improvement. Of course we have to be aware that whatever the plans, you could possibly have events that are not predicted, but having a contingency plan will help to deal with those.

SFF: In Sri Lanka we like to talk a lot about our prospects for being a maritime nation, a maritime economic hub, a hub for trade and logistics in the Indian Ocean, and so on. In your view what are some of the key challenges this sort of vision places alongside issues of ocean conservation, pollution and ocean resource management?

Nishan: Well first, it’s the classic economic concept of opportunity cost. Sri Lanka is uniquely positioned and bio-geographically blessed in a way that we have a variety of potential economic avenues to consider. We are definitely a hub for shipping, trade and logistics, we have an important fisheries industry with significant resources, and we have the potential for marine tourism. But we need to identify which of these will bring the greatest long term benefits for the country. Sri Lanka is certainly large enough to accommodate several of these but that requires spatial planning and clear policies that are not contradictory to each other, which unfortunately is the case at the moment. This is a common factor on land and in the sea.

SFF: In economics we often tend to think of environmental issues of the oceans in the framework of the ‘global commons’, with transboundary effects, difficult to regulate and manage, often poorly understood by maritime countries like Sri Lanka. In the spirit of forging interdisciplinary thought here at the CSF – how do marine biologists like yourselves see this?

Nishan: Indeed, ocean resource management is complicated due to the transboundary nature of living marine resources such as fish stocks. There are also issues of global proportions such as climate change. But I think we need to break this down into national resources that can be managed by and within a country, and transboundary resources that require regional or global management efforts. Ecosystem management and coastal fisheries are things that can to a large extent be managed nationally. All non living resources would also fall into this category as they are defined within a spatial geographic boundary. Some fishery resources like pelagic fish stocks as well as global biodiversity conservation requires a broader effort, but there are already mechanisms for this in place. For example, Sri Lanka is a signatory to several international and regional conventions that set management goals and commitments on individual nations. Much of our offshore fisheries management is driven by commitments to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. These are designed not only to manage global resources but also to ensure equitable access for all countries. In practice of course these have their own flaws and challenges, but we at least have a framework to work from. For issues such as climate change, it is up to each country to develop their mitigation strategy. This is more in our control than actually slowing down or stopping greenhouse emissions which is a complicated global issue.

SFF: Moving on to a particular aspect of the oceans and the economy – fisheries. Is ‘sustainable fishing’ an elusive dream for Sri Lanka, given how many livelihoods depend on it now and how politically contentious fishery management can be?

Nishan: Something is politically contentious only if we make it so. In terms of GDP, fisheries is a relatively small contributor. However it does support a large number of livelihoods. But this together with much of our fisheries being subsidized indicates that the fisheries industry as it stands is not sustainable both ecologically or economically. Ultimately, ecological sustainability is required for economic sustainability. We need to identify sectors within the industry that we want to focus on that can bring economic and social benefits while being sustainable. This will require us to identify cap limits for certain fisheries and work towards transitioning within the industry to specific fisheries, gear types, markets etc. This has to be driven by data, both biological such as fish stocks and maximum sustainable yield, as well as socio economic and market analysis. All of this will take time and require continuous support from the government with a clear policy goal that doesn’t change drastically with changes in political leadership. If policy is driven by data it is also easier to have consistency.

SFF: In Sri Lanka we have the added complication of tourism promotion and the ocean. Much of our tourism pitch revolves around activities and experiences around our coastline and the seas around the country – ranging from scuba diving and snorkelling, to whale watching cruises and leisure boating. Are there inherent tensions between conservation and tourism that we would never be able to resolve, and is it simply something we have to live with? Or are there clever and implementable pathways for Sri Lanka?

Nishan: There are certainly some tensions between conservation and tourism but the real conflicting user groups are fisheries and tourism. Done properly, tourism can be an effective strategy for conservation. All natural resources have an economic value and ensuring that we obtain economic benefits is vital for justifying their conservation or sustainable management. At the bare minimum we need spatial management to allow space for non extractive uses such as tourism. This is where Marine Protected Areas or MPAs have been successfully used in other countries. It also requires policy decisions that acknowledges opportunity costs, and that you cannot allow competing uses for the same resource or the same space.

SFF: In the context of conservation and better management of ocean resources, it is interesting to understand how other countries are meeting this challenge. Can you point us to some ‘bright spots’ – examples you know of from elsewhere, where fisheries management, conservation, and tourism go hand in hand, in countries we perhaps can relate to?

Nishan: So connected to the earlier question the Maldives banned shark fishing due to the growth of shark diving and tourism. This certainly had negative impacts on some segments of the fishery in the short term but the government supported shark fishers to transition to other fisheries and also understood that tourism was a more sustainable and lucrative income generator for the country. There are many other examples from developing nations such as Indonesia, Philippines, Fiji, and Tanzania where tourism has been a driving force in conservation. In many countries marine tourism is run by communities that formerly depended on fishing. You cannot continuously expand fisheries, and grow a marine tourism industry, and have conservation within the same spatial area. However it is critical that local communities are benefited. This includes ensuring some revenue is put back into local development, and that there are opportunities for locals to enter the industry. Even with fisheries, some management like “no-take” MPAs can help conserve breeding stocks and habitats that can lead to healthier fish stocks and better catches in the long term. In MPA management we call this the “spillover effect”. Simply put, excess fish from a protected area move out of the MPA providing resources for local fishers.

SFF: We’d like to end with focussing at a more macro level – policy. If you had to point to 2-3 key policy and/or regulatory areas that Sri Lanka needs to tackle over the next five to ten years – in order to ensure environmental sustainability of our coast and seas, alongside continued economic demands on these ecosystems in terms of fisheries and tourism – what would those be?

Nishan: First, we need to have one policy that integrates all the different uses of our marine resources and spaces. Currently, each sector is working in isolation and has policies that contradict each other. For example, we will have plans to drill for oil, expand fisheries, develop marine tourism, and declare an MPA within the same area. So the first step would be to decide on a clear strategy and then ensure that sectoral plans align with and contribute towards that. At a very detailed level, and as someone who works on MPA management, we need policy changes to allow community based management and greater involvement of the private sector, both in direct management and in developing sustainable financing mechanisms. Sri Lanka has a very top down approach with the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) mandating the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) with very few provisions for true community based management or private sector participation. But this system is not working due to many reasons. Many other developing countries have developed innovative solutions that actively involve the public sector, private sector and local communities in all aspects such as governance, enforcement, financing and decision making. We seem to have an innate fear of private sector participation in conservation or in monetizing conservation. But understanding that economic benefits are important is critical for conservation. Without economic benefit, conservation for intrinsic biological value alone will not be feasible as greater demands are placed on our natural resources to support economic growth and a growing population.

Cover image: Blue whale and gas carrier in the Indian Ocean, off the Southern coast of Sri Lanka.

(c) Anushka Wijesinha

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