wailing sound of a choking industry
Sri Lanka is to import fish, according
to news reports. The island, surrounded by sea, where fishing
has been a vocation for centuries, has decided to import fish.
The fisheries industry has been under threat for several
decades. The ethnic conflict and the 2004 tsunami have badly
affected the industry. In spite of all this, The Nation is
baffled by the decisions taken by the authorities to import fish
to the island
Jayashika Padmasiri and Vindya Amaranayake
Sri Lankans read or listen to news that shocks them, on a daily
basis. With violence, death and exorbitant cost of living being
the topics for discussion, the citizenry shows little interest
on other matters.
However there is a development in the fishing industry which has
now become the talking point. The Nation reliably learns that
the fisheries authorities in Sri Lanka is preparing to import
fish from two countries: Malaysia and Pakistan. The reasons are
clearly stated: The price of fish has risen to unexpected
heights. As a result fish is on the verge of being termed a
luxury delicacy. Informed sources say that to maintain a balance
between the high prices and customer demand the authorities have
decided to import fish.
With a coastal area around the island that spans 1340km, Sri
Lanka has always been a paradise for fishermen. The Negombo
market is one of the most famous fishing hubs in the country.
One of the main tourist attractions in the southern coast of Sri
Lanka is the poll fishing industry. Giving evidence to an
ancient tradition of fishing, the local folklore is full of
stories related to this industry.
There are two main types of fishing in the country: fresh water
fishing and marine fishing. From traditional to ultra modern,
fishermen have been utilising various techniques to increase
their daily yield.
The effects of the conflict
The decade long ethnic conflict has caused long lasting
effects on this industry. The coastal areas along the north and
east provinces have become unsuitable for fishing. The renewed
violence between the government security forces and the Tamil
Tiger rebels since August last year has further affected the
condition of the flagging industry.
Added on to this disturbing trend is the routine occurrence of
fishermen being threatened and sometimes killed in the northern
waters by the LTTE.
Most fishing families have resorted to other sources of living.
Some have crossed the boarder to Tamil Nadu in fear for their
The 2004 tsunami caused grave damage to fishing villages around
the coast, destroying fishing vessels and equipment. The
Fisheries Ministry is yet to pay compensation to tsunami
victims. The Nation learns of a discrepancy in distributing
fishing nets. The distribution of nets was supposed to be
handled by the ministry. The issue is being queried by the
Auditor General’s Department.
It is amidst these issues that the authorities have hatched a
plan to import fish from other countries.
Dependants of the sea
The Nation spoke to those who are involved in the industry
with the expectation of learning the consequences of this
“I do not know how to read or to write. I have been involved in
this profession for years. It is the only thing I know. You ask
questions about my life, but I can’t answer you. Everything
depends on the government. That is what we were brought up to
believe in, but today after many years, I’m still where I
started - this is all I have to say,” said a fisherman, living
His words spoke for himself and for many other fishermen, just
like him. Millions of rupees are made in this industry. Men get
rich everyday. People involved in the industry are known to wear
gold chains. Many lives depend on those who sail to the sea.
These facts tell the plight of a fisherman.
With the prices of diesel and petrol being increased, how do
they adjust their lives to these changes? “If the prices of fish
are raised in keeping with the increases in oil prices, then
everything will be fine. But things do not happen that way.
Right now fish is very expensive. That is because a minimum
number of fish gets caught. It is also very hard to go out to
sea at this time of the year. The sea is very rough. That is why
we have to sell fish as if it is gold,” said Maniwal Dias
another fisherman living in Negambo. He added, “When the
government imports fish our prices will drop as a result. The
merchants take fish from us for about Rs. 100 and sell at the
market for about, Rs. 150. We do get an income. We can buy a new
sarong from that money, while the merchants can buy a new boat”.
These fishermen go out to the sea and face many challenges in
the water. They return to the shoe after seven or eight days,
that is if they are luck to survive. They come back with
basketsful of fish which is their reward for the efforts put in.
They bring this fish back to the shore and sell them to
intermediaries and merchants to the prices of the wholesale. St.
John’s Fish Market is one place where this business takes place.
Business is brisk at the market
St. John’s Fish Market is not the pleasant of places to
visit. The smell, the water mixed with blood, blood stained
knives, fins, scales and gills all lie scattered in this
congested place. The place is never quiet with fish vendors
talking loudly when dealing with customers.
“Fish is being imported to Sri Lanka even now from Malaysia and
Pakistan. The prices of fish in these countries are not as
expensive as ours. Our fish is good and that is why the prices
are high. It is difficult to go out to the sea too, in most
areas of the country. We buy fish from fisherman and sell at
this market. People come from various places like Kottawa and
Nugegoda and buy fish from us. But as a result of the prices
being high, our profit is very low today,” an intermediary at
the St Jonn’s Fish Market, M.M. Chandrasena said.
Another problem faced by fishermen is the north east conflict.
People can’t go out to the sea as a result. It is difficult to
define territories and boarders, when you’re in the middle of
the vast blue ocean. But most of the coastal areas in Sri Lanka
are identified as high security zones. People can’t go out to
the sea to fish, even though it is their livelihood.
For generations, this has been their means of income.
Traditional fishermen, in most of these areas, are idling since
they have been deprived of going to the sea. As a result their
pockets are empty.
Authorities blame LTTE
Fisheries Deputy Minister Neomal Perera speaking about the
fishing industry said, “The restrictions are there due to the
north east conflict. Security zones, harbours and navel bases
are not the only places that you can catch fish. The freedom to
go out to the sea is restricted because of the LTTE, not for any
other reason.” Commenting on the hike on the price of diesel
Perera said, “We can’t say that the diesel prices are the sole
reason for the fish prices to go up, because it is not from
diesel that we get fish. When a lot of fish get caught, the
prices go down. Sri Lanka has imported fish for years. But we
are trying to improve the freshwater fisheries industry and
reduce prices,” he said.
Fishing is a vast industry. Sri Lankans, who live on an island,
have enough access to fish. It is a shame that we are importing
fish today. But what is even worse is that some people engaged
in this profession are still poor, though the prices of fish are