Nation Special


The 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

By 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 lives.

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 action.
“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 in Negombo.

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 very high.