Marine research collaboration promises blue economy boost

Sri Lanka’s renewed focus on marine research and collaboration with international partners is a promising step towards harnessing the potential of the nation’s rich maritime resources and bolstering the blue economy, according to Rear Admiral YN Jayarathna (retired), former chief of staff and chief hydrographer of the Sri Lanka Navy.

Emphasising the significance of marine research collaboration with other countries, Jayarathna said: “Marine research collaboration with any country is important, as those data are vital for Sri Lanka. The experience students gain is crucial for their careers.”

He pointed out the need to secure both raw and processed data when conducting research with foreign vessels. This data, he said, plays a pivotal role in comprehending weather patterns, especially for optimising agricultural activities.

Regrettably, Sri Lanka’s policy-makers have in the past suffered from what Jayarathna referred to as “maritime blindness”. This lack of maritime awareness has led to missed opportunities and the failure to fully harness the potential advantages offered by the nation’s vast marine resources.

“The government’s financial support for ocean research initiatives has been limited, prompting universities to rely on foreign grants. Also, some research data are not available today, and a significant number of talented scientists have left the country, taking their valuable insights with them,” Jayarathna told University World News.

Turning point

The establishment of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), a statutory body established in 1981, and the department of oceanography and marine geology at the University of Ruhuna marked a turning point in the country’s commitment to marine research.

Before NARA’s establishment, Sri Lanka’s education system placed limited emphasis on marine research and universities primarily concentrated on land-based studies. However, the visionary leadership of individuals like Professor Ruchira Cumaranatunga at the University of Ruhuna saw the university playing a pioneering role in the field of marine research.

A research vessel built by the Sri Lanka Navy was handed over to the University of Ruhuna for the purpose of enhancing fisheries, marine sciences education and research in Sri Lanka.

Untapped potential

Sri Lanka has a coastline of approximately 1,300 kilometres that not only attracts tourists but sustains countless livelihoods in the coastal fishing industry.

The country’s marine resources extend far into the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, forming an exclusive economic zone spanning over 500,000 square kilometres. The exclusive zone’s area is approximately eight times greater than Sri Lanka’s land territory.

Most of the area’s underwater resources remain unexplored and untapped.

With 17 state universities across the country and around 130 academic courses on offer, only a modest fraction of these programmes caters to the field of marine sciences, which is essential for Sri Lanka’s geographical context and potential growth in sectors like fisheries and marine conservation.

Currently, only three universities have a total of five marine sciences-related degree courses. Out of an annual student enrolment of 45,000, a mere 500 students have pursued degrees in marine sciences, according to 2020-22 data.

With approximately 8,000 students admitted each year to arts-related degree programmes, there is a growing realisation that many courses may not effectively prepare graduates for the contemporary job market. A large number of these courses are perceived as outdated and lacking in relevance to current industry requirements.

Internationalisation efforts

Recently, the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced a degree programme in aquatic bioresources at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

The UGC has made calls for international students, encouraging them to pursue undergraduate programmes such as fisheries and marine sciences, aquatic resources technology, and marine and fresh water sciences. The annual course fee for these degrees stands at US$6,000.

Though the UGC has advertised these programmes, Sri Lankan state universities have witnessed a relatively low number of foreign student enrolments.

A recent report prepared by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura for the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises aims to encourage universities to adopt financially sustainable and self-sufficient funding models and to look to international students as a vital source of revenue.

One of the key recommendations from the report, submitted in August 2023, highlights the importance of establishing a standardised academic calendar for degree programmes which will eliminate current variations in the start and end dates across universities.

The report also emphasises the need for government investment in university infrastructure, including the provision of adequate student accommodation, hostels and dining facilities. These improvements are intended to contribute to a conducive environment for both local and international students.

Sri Lanka’s initiatives to attract foreign students date back to 2013 when the country increased the quota of international students admitted to its universities and offered additional scholarships to foreign scholars.

However, these moves have encountered resistance from certain quarters, including student unions, which have expressed concerns that the increased presence of international students might reduce opportunities available for local students.

As part of the internationalisation project for universities, foreign and Sri Lankan-origin professors with overseas experience have been invited to teach and conduct research in state universities in Sri Lanka.

Regional politics

On 25 October, in a surprising move, Chinese research vessel Shi Yan 6 (Experiment 6), visited Sri Lanka. The research vessel was cleared to enter Sri Lankan waters after an agreement with the state-run University of Ruhuna. However, the university said it will no longer be collaborating with the vessel.

The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency received approval to be involved in research carried out by the Chinese ship. But both India and the United States raised concerns over the visit of the Chinese research vessel.

The geographical location of Sri Lanka is a pivotal factor in this matter, as it is strategically positioned at a crucial chokepoint in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka is considering the implementation of a new standard operating procedure to guide future decisions and approval regarding access to vessels and aircrafts.

There is a widespread view that amid India-China naval power rivalry in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka should uphold neutrality through its non-aligned foreign policy. This position argues that by safeguarding sovereignty and economic interests, it can strike a balance, contributing to regional stability, peace and sustainable development.

According to media reports, China has sought approval from Sri Lankan authorities for another research ship to arrive early next year (February), but approval is yet to be granted.