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Published on Wednesday, 22 October 2014 11:36

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Two European importers of Sri Lankan tuna expressed surprise at the timing of the European ban on fisheries imports from Sri Lanka.

UK-based Le Lien, which has a plant in Sri Lanka, and French fresh tuna specialist Comptoirs Oceaniques, which has a long historical sourcing arrangement with the country, warned of the measures’ “devastating impact” on livelihoods in the Asian nation.

They also warned of the damage the ban will cause to the market, and their own companies.

Both importers have worked closely with Sri Lankan fisheries to help them improve their practices, and lauded the European Union’s tough policy on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

However, the ban was announced just as Sri Lanka is putting in place new wide-ranging laws to control its fisheries, due to take effect in January, they said.

Waiting a few months could have spared the country, and the industry, a lot of trouble, noted Alain Bailly, managing director of Comptoirs Oceaniques, which is known for its Fish is Life brand.

“Fundamentally, the EU’s policy has borne fruits, as we have seen huge improvements in Sri Lanka, with a major boost in awareness especially since this summer,” Bailly told Undercurrent News.

“But we are surprised, as there’s been some real progress lately and a bit of patience would have surely helped.”

Bailly also questioned the extent of the EU’s understanding of fishing in Sri Lanka. “[Maria] Damanaki’s speech talked of huge vessels fishing in Sri Lanka without vessel monitoring systems,” said Bailly.

“But there are no ‘large boats’ in Sri Lanka, they only have five to ten boats of more than 24 meters, and they’re all under 50 meters, except for one.”

The majority of Sri Lanka’s 2,500-strong fleet consists of artisanal vessel under 15 meters long, with only some 25 vessels measuring between 15-24 meters, and even fewer measuring 24-50 meters, said Bailly.

Peter Stagg, founder and chairman of Le Lien, echoed Bailly’s view. “It seems to me to be an excessive and a very heavy handed approach that is being taken by the EU, when surely it is a time for patience and common sense,” Stagg told Undercurrent.

Starting Jan. 1, new laws in Sri Lanka will require all vessels fishing in the high seas to have VMS and hold a new license specially issued for this purpose, said Bailly.

The country has also ordered 50 vessel monitoring systems (VMS), “which will all be installed before the end of the year”, he said.

The first batch of these VMS will first be installed on the larger boats, and then deployed on the smaller boats.

The government has also ordered 3,000 transponders, which will be installed onto the entire fleet, a process expected to take some 18 months, said Bailly.

“This means that from Jan. 1, for a vessel to go fishing in the high seas, they will have to hold this new license, and have VMS onboard,” said Bailly.

'Devastating impact’

FishingBoat1 410px 14 10 22If the ban does go through, both companies warned it will have a major impact on the market for fresh yellowfin tuna into Europe, and on Sri Lanka’s industry.

“[I] spend a great deal of my time [in Sri Lanka] and I see the potentially devastating effect this red card could have on fishermen and their livelihoods,” said Stagg.

“Surely a red card is excessive and unnecessary and will not only put pressure on other supply lines…but more importantly if enacted, will affect the lives of one million Sri Lankans whose livelihoods depend on the fishing industry there.”

It begs the question, “does the punishment fit the crime?” said Stagg.

Blocking access to Europe could see Sri Lankan processors struggle, as the EU is the main market for Sri Lankan tuna, said Bailly.

“It will cause damages,” said Bailly. “Sri Lanka relies mainly on the EU for its tuna. Some facilities could go bankrupt, or will have to lay off staff to then re-hire them several months later when the ban is repealed.”

The majority of Sri Lanka’s tuna is air freighted fresh to the EU, a trade flow that has taken years to set up and hone. Simply finding a new market is not easy – factories don’t always have frozen capabilities, while the US, another big market, is a long way away.

That said, Sri Lanka’s fisheries minister announced that it has already received interest from major exporters to buy its fisheries products, and said meetings were scheduled with the Japanese and Chinese ambassadors to discuss the matter.

Both Le Lien and CO stand to lose big from the ban, too.

Sri Lankan tuna, sold by air freight several times a week, currently accounts for roughly half of the French group’s volumes. “We will obviously lose volumes, lose margin, it’s rather bad,” said Bailly, who said Comptoirs Oceaniques might look to up its frozen purchases, from other countries.

“The impact of the red card for Sri Lanka is most certainly not good for trade in the UK and the EU as it takes away a major resource of tuna and other seafood products, which will put pressure on supply and push up prices generally from other sources,” said Stagg.

The timing is even more unfortunate considering EU consumers’ tight purchasing power these days, noted Bailly.

The directors also reminded that Sri Lanka was just exiting decades of civil war (1983 – 2009).

“[Don’t] forget this wonderful country has just come through a 30-year war and a major tsunami disaster and has had to rebuild both its country and fishery completely,” said Stagg.

Small hopes to postpone ban

For now, Sri Lankan suppliers are focused on meeting the EU’s demands, said Bailly.

Bailly himself has worked closely with Sri Lankan fisheries for 15 years. Comptoirs Oceaniques specializes on fresh tuna from across the Indian Ocean, most of which comes from Sri Lanka.FishingBoat2 410px 14 10 22

Now, he is part of efforts to convince the commission to push back its ban’s start beyond its current date of Jan. 14.

This is depending on Sri Lanka being able to implement the announced measures before mid January.

The director is flying to Sri Lanka in ten days, to meet with the industry and government representatives, and then relay as much information as possibly back to the European commission.

His hopes are slim, however. “The timeframe available is very short.”

Even if the EU in January agrees the new laws are sign of sufficient progress, the speed of the EU bureaucracy means repealing the sanctions would take a few months at least — unless a permanent review takes place in November and December, to avoid implementing the sanctions in mid-January.

Influencing the commission’s vote on the matter is also unlikely to work, considering the ban only really affects the UK and France, and to a lesser extent some other countries like Germany and Italy, said Bailly.

Both Bailly and Stagg have actively worked in Sri Lanka to improve fisheries – Le Lien is part of the fisheries improvement project which involves a number of UK companies including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S, New England Seafood, and Seachill, together with the Sri Lankan Seafood Exporters Association and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.

While Comptoirs Oceaniques is not part of the FIP, Bailly took part in its launch, and the group is indirectly active in it through close cooperation with New England Seafood, said Bailly. “We actively push all our suppliers to join the FIP.”

Started four years ago, the FIP has “contributed towards Sri Lanka addressing some of the non-compliance issues raised by the EU”, said Stagg.

According to Bailly, the main exporters from Sri Lanka are Global Seafood, which Comptoirs Oceaniques works closely with, alongside Tropic Fisheries, Apollo and Jaysea Food.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 October 2014 11:36