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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Fishermen, technology and the sea

Online edition of Sunday Observer - Features: "by Elmo Leonard

A crew of four fishermen returned to the Wellawatte beach Colombo in their traditional sail-driven fishing craft Monday morning last week with catch worth a pittance. "If we could make Rs. 200 from our catch of last night, we will yet have something to give our families," Nimal said.

"We will go out to sea again tonight, for we don't incur a fuel coat," Marcus said. It took five people to beach this catamaran. This is a classic case of the depletion of coastal fisheries around Sri Lanka's western coast. The southern coast isn't any better, but the eastern and northern coasts, which went largely unfished during 20 years of civil war before 2002, has a better story, but the irony of it is that the fishermen of the north and east are even poorer and cannot afford worthy fishing craft.

Sri Lanka is heading for an Indian tale, where fishing in coastal waters is banned part of the year, on specified days of the week. On days when fishing is banned, the Indians have in the past few years poached in Sri Lanka's northern and eastern waters and in the process used strong-arm tactics against our fishermen.

The Sri Lankans who lack longlining technology to catch deep sea fish, venture in their multiday craft to shallow waters in the Arabian Sea, southwards towards Diego Garcia and the Sea of Borneo, bypassing lucrative deep sea waters because they lack the technology to fish in the deep sea.

In the process of travelling to shallow waters, Sri Lankan fishermen spend the prime of their lives in the jails of India, Maldives and other Indian ocean nations. Tropic Fishery (Pvt) Ltd, one of Sri Lanka's largest exporters of fish employs the longlining technique and their catch of tuna is exported to Japan, Europe and to the United states.

Tropic is the first Sri Lankan company to tap the ocean's bottom layer of fisheries resources.

Just south of Sri Lanka, where her continental shelf ends fishing craft of many other nations take away our tuna resources employing longlining.

"If only our fishermen had access to longlining technology, they would not get caught in shallow waters of other nations," Tropic director Roshan Fernando said. The gill nets our fishermen use are capable of coastal fishing. Larger fish thus caught, get smashed up and cannot fetch premium export prices.

The NGOs say that the mudalalis or entrepreneurs who own Sri Lanka's 1,600 multiday fishing craft (200 of it was destroyed by the tsunami) can afford to replace the multiday craft they lost, to which Fernando agreed. Director general of the Department of Fisheries, G. Piyasena says that the island's multiday craft are manned by around five fishermen and each craft supports five needy fisher families.

Piyasena said that the NGOs who eye assisting the tsunami hit fisher folk should be encouraged to finance the building of multiday fishing craft and such craft should be gifted to groups of fishermen or to fisheries cooperatives. Fernando insists that the introduction of longlining is imperative if Sri Lanka's coastal fisheries resources are to be conserved.

There is fear among the island's poor, ignorant fisher folk that the NGOs are pouring in too many small crafts which are capable only of further depleting the already highly squandered coastal fisheries resources.

Sri Lanka has about 18 registered boatyards and six large ones. Most of the island's multiday craft are built here. A 54 foot multiday craft costs Rs. 6.5 million (Rs. 100 to a US dollar) and a 34 foot craft, Rs. 5 - 6 million. Multiday crafts stay out at sea for weeks taking their cold storage plants.

They berth in Mutwal (Colombo) Beruwela, Galle, Puranawella, Dondra, Matara, Mirissa, Tangalla and Kirinda and in the east in Cod Bay (Trincomalee) and Valachcheni.

The fibreglass boats which the NGOs provide cost around Rs 300,000 to Rs 400,000 each and are also built in local boatyards. A traditional craft costs Rs 100,000 to Rs 150,000, Piyasena said.

Tropic fishing fleet consists of second hand proven sea-worthy craft from Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan, at half the price of Rs 20 million to Rs 25 million, when a new boat is purchased. Fernando says that some of these boats are made of wood and is easy to maintain.

He thinks that government should scrap the 30 per cent duty on imports of fishing craft, when the importation of luxury yachts entail a duty of 5 to 15 percent.

The European Union in its endeavour to assist Sri Lanka plans to provide our fishermen with their decommissioned fishing craft, free of charge. Fernando says that these fishing craft made to withstand rough seas, with strong hulls to take the impact of floating ice are not fuel-efficient for the warm, calm waters of the Indian ocean."

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