The 26th December 2004 tsunami devastated the coastal fishing industry, where only the fishermen, who were at sea when the tsunami hit were unaffected as far as loss of boats was concerned. Many lost their loved ones who lived on the coast.
The post tsunami rehabilitation resulted in many people who did not even own fishing boats receiving them, by making claims. Many multi boat owning fishing mudalalis were reduced to competing with their previous employees who now owned their own boats, having received them free from INGO’s, and the former had to begin anew not having received compensation as they were uninsured.
The ongoing war with the LTTE left large extents of the coast-line out of bounds for fisherman. They were restricted to the type of outboard motors they could use for fishing. The few fisherman who remained who were able to bring in fish were rewarded by high prices prevailing in the market for fish, though as in every case the fisherman receives the a fraction of the eventual price the consumer has to pay in their home village or town for the purchase of the fish at the fish stall or outlet.
Since the end of the war, the coastal areas have gradually opened up to fishing, and once the IDP’s are settled back in their home villages, those who engaged in fishing will be able to return to their previous trade if they so choose. This together with the relaxation in the permissible outboard-engines, will allow more power that permit greater distances, and result in a significant increase in the sea fish that is available at markets all over the country presumably at significantly lower prices.
Just this weekend in Godagama where my farm is, I purchased 500g squid at Rs 180 and 500g salaya (I think that is sardines) at Rs 80 both for frying for my dad and myself, and 500g prawns at Rs 280 and 500g paraw for Rs260 for the staff on the farm. It is possible that prawns are either farmed or lagoon ones, I am not sure. I however, certainly don’t think these prices are much lower than in the past.
I saw in today’s paper (November 24th) how a drag net fisherman Lal Fernando and his team, had caught 5000 paraw fish weighing 100,000kg on Sunday on the sea off Iranavila between Chilaw and Puttlam, where a 10kg fish was selling at the beach for Rs1,300 at an average selling price of Rs130/kg. I am however skeptical about the reports from newspapers as journalists don’t have common sense to verify that the figures given to them bear any semblance of reason or logic. If it was true his night’s catch would have yielded Rs13,000,000. Note that I had purchased paraw at 4times this price at retail level providing employment and profits for all in the food chain, allowing for some wastage along the way.
The government is also in the process of building a new state of the art wholesale Fish Market in Peliyagoda just outside the Colombo city limits, to replace the St John’s Market which has seen better days and is now more like Covent Garden, having outlived its usefulness and just needs a preservation order on the building and a new regeneration in the heart of the overcrowded Pettah where it stands.
It is important that refrigerated transport facilities along with cold rooms are established to enable storage and extended life of the fish catch that can be quite haphazard to meet the increased demands of a consumer base that eats little beef. There is also now concern about eating chicken due to the hormones used to speed up their growth to come to table in double quick time. Natural sea fish as well as lake fish is the natural alternative source of protein for the majority of the people.
I believe that this industry is poised for take-off, for people in this industry to benefit. The growth has to be managed is such a way that it does not impoverish the poorest people who engage in this business. The small one boat owner who for generations has been fishing in coastal waters is seeing a declining fish catch. Suddenly he is faced with lower prices for his catch that has further reduced his income. The cost of inputs like nets, labor and diesel has risen. He does not see any improvement as a result of the end of the war, but in fact a decline. So the issue has to be tackled head on. His special skills have to be recognized and if he is a candidate for a team to go on a multiday craft where the fish stocks are plentiful outside the range of the day craft, of 4km, he will be able to increase his income with better and more efficient fishing and economical methods of fishing.
This is a further example of poor management of a golden opportunity that the government has been presented with after the end of the war that already appears to have been squandered. The stooges of government have been given some of the benefits of the use of trawlers and multiday craft for those who know little about fishing but who see this merely as another opportunity for making money. They have no knowledge in the business and will stifle genuine competition.
Sadly, I see that the fish stalls in the new market have also been allocated, not based on competitive tendering but on largesse being bestowed by the relevant minister to him and his friends. In what country does the minister of fisheries have his own fish stalls where the fish are diverted to? That is just the tip of the iceberg, the result of one sorry tale.
Let us get a grip on the fish, and tackle it like any serious issue, find out the nub of the problem and find a solution that satisfies the aspirations of the industry.