Negombo is a pretty-city located thirty two kilometers off the capital, along the western coast of Sri Lanka. Also christened ‘Little Rome’ due to the high Christian presence in the city, Negombo, during Colonial times had been a centre for cinnamon and a hub for internal trade, Chronicles record.
With favorable conditions, and several other factors including developed infrastructure, Negombo naturally is a solid location for fishing. Given that over 40 percent of fish consumed in the country come from Negombo alone, needless to say that folks largely treasure the lagoon as it feeds thousands of families while beautifying the city with her rich vegetation of mangroves, which also acts a breeding ground for prawns and many a shrimp species.
Fishermen, who make a living thanks to the lagoon in Negombo, can be mainly divided into two groups – as the traditional and the modern, depending on the equipment or methodology they use. ‘Stake nets’ or Katudel, in this context, can be regarded as one of the oldest. In Katudel fishing however, the ‘right’ to tie up nets is passed from father to son, and nobody else can carry out activities unless they join pelle – The club.
The net takes the shape of a large tea strainer. During low tide, waters switch between the coast and the lagoon and this is when the nets are tied up in the way of the current, to filter out shrimp carefully. An age old technology, the net is laid horizontally and is tied up between two strong mangrove trunks for support.
Even with membership and equipment, fishermen cannot tie up nets as they please. Once every three days, all members or Pelle Karuwo meet up and draw lots and in order to pick where each will go. Altogether, there are four Katudel societies in Negombo namely, the Sea street St. Sebastian’s society, Grand street St.Peter’s society, Duwa- Pitipana Street society and the Pitipana St. Mary’s society.
All of these societies have congruent rules and regulations and a bunch of officials to oversee and ensure that the activities are being carried out justly and smoothly. Although the lagoon of Negombo is 35.02 square kilometers in surface area, these Katudel fishermen are only allowed to tie up nets in 18 marked placed of the lagoon, and at a time only 46-50 nets can be laid out in total, depending on the water current and other factors. These marked placed in the lagoon are referred to as Paadu by the fishermen. Of these, they have recognized Kawatiya, Keerikkatuwa and Kongaha as places with highest harvest.
Generally, these fishermen leave for work during the evening hours and come back late in the night, if not early morning the next day. Each member is expected have his own boat, either fiberglass or wooden and own nets and rods for support. These rods are made generally by polishing mangrove barks. However, as it had been declared illegal to chop down mangroves for any purpose, fishermen are now looking at alternatives like Maara, which they say, are costly and inconvenient in obtaining.
“Authorities chop trees and clear mangrove vegetations to allow businessmen put up hotels, I hear. But if we do so, we will probably end up in jail” revealed a fisherman, on the condition of anonymity. Further he also said, “We don’t want to cut mangroves either, we are aware that it takes years, if not centuries for certain mangroves to grow up and replace. But if authorities can provide us with affordable alternatives it would be a large favor”.
“Like everywhere else, pollution has largely affected the Negombo lagoon too” fishermen lamented. Explaining the adverse effects pollution has on the traditional fishermen in particular, they pointed out that, since the stake net is kind of a sieve that filters shrimp from water, when the current brings along polythene and plastic, these foreign matter get stuck and tears off the nets. Also, marine fishermen moving fast in motorboats dragging along their apparatus, intentionally or otherwise, is a great hassle the Pelle Karuwo noted.
According to them, the future of this traditional industry is at risk mainly because the fathers barely encourage their sons to take up the trade as it is not very profitable commercially, and is fast loosing it’s acceptance as a proper job in the globalized world, today. “Our kids are not fond of the ‘kaaraya’ suffix. They prefer going for white-collar jobs over this, prejudice” a fisherman remarked.
However, when white-collar dreams do not come true, the youth attempt at migrating illegally to countries like Australia and Italy and end up in trouble. The Lagoon is an asset to the city, a resource that requires proper management. But despite that, having seen the modern generation withdrawing themselves rapidly from the industry, it is high time the state act– “or by 2050, they will have to sell the lagoon for a water-park and with that income, import fish for domestic consumption” he quipped, prophetically.
Random Fact: Bus ‘01’ runs from Negombo to Kandy!