I’m particularly saddened and concerned at the recent news that a dozen dolphins have died after being trapped in a beach seine net in the inner harbour at Trincomalee, northeast Sri Lanka. The dolphins were identified as spinner dolphins by WDC colleague, conservation biologist, Ranil Nanayakkara. Spinners, possibly the most acrobatic of all dolphin species, are incredibly popular and delight whale watchers off Sri Lanka and elsewhere around the world.
Distressing video taken by an observer shows that some of the dolphins were still alive when the nets were hauled in. All marine mammals in Sri Lankan waters are protected by law and nine local fishermen have been arrested and remain in custody. The fishermen claim that they realised too late that the dolphins were caught in the net.
Beach seine nets, known as ma dela in Sinhala, are seine nets which are operated from shore. The use of beach seine nets is legal here and these fishermen apparently had a licence. However, there are fears that hundreds of dolphins each year may be victims of ‘bycatch’ in nets – both legal and illegal – in these waters. Indeed, WDC is aware of incidents in both 2013 and 2015, off Kalpitiya to the northwest of the island, when dozens of spinner dolphins died due to illegal fisheries using dynamite and purse seine nets (laila nets).
The problem, sadly, is by no means new. The introduction of nylon fishing nets in the 1960s led to heavy bycatch which killed thousands of dolphins and other small cetacean species in Sri Lankan waters each year and created a ready supply of dolphin meat for use as shark bait, as well as for human consumption. In some regions, local demand for the meat inevitably tempted some fishermen to deliberately target dolphins in order to supplement their income. Despite whales and dolphins being legally protected in Sri Lankan waters since 1993, dolphins have continued to die (both accidentally and occasionally, deliberately) and it is clear that fishing practices around Sri Lanka require urgent review.