‘Sharks’ control fish trade

Bulk purchase for cash, modern storage facilities dictate availability

A year or so after the war ended, people living outside the north and east were hopeful of, among other things, fish at reasonable prices.

During the conflict years, fish stocks from the north completely dried up, owing to the ban on fishing in the waters surrounding the Jaffna peninsula and other areas extending to Mannar and elsewhere, although a limited stock entered the main cities in the south from the eastern port city of Trincomalee.
The war is no more and it appears that fish is also no more from this particular area, while prices of every variety of seafood soars sky high in almost every town and village, compelling the authorities to go for imports to meet the shortage.

Fish aplenty at a price at Mannar market
A fisherman with his day’s catch on Kalpitiya beach

Fisheries Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has charged that a hidden ‘mafia’ operated by a few mudalalis was throttling the fish trade by hoarding large stocks, and involved in price fixing, while the ordinary fisher folk who bring in the catch from the ocean are left with only a pittance, and the consumer sucked dry by high prices.

Minister Seneratne has vowed to crack down on this so-called ‘mafia’, but despite this assurance, these unscrupulous mudalalis are continuing from where they started, laughing all the way to the bank with large profits at the expense of the fisherman and the consumer.According to the Chairman- Jaffna Fisherman’s Co-operative Federation, S. Thavaratnam, the high prices are largely due to the outright purchase in bulk by big businessman operating from outside the peninsula.

He said these business persons make the purchases in hard cash from the fishermen on the beach , and thereafter determine their own prices to consumers elsewhere in the country.

This was not the case earlier when individual fishermen sent their catch to the Colombo auction on a day-to-day basis. As a result, the retail price was kept at a reasonable level all the time, except during off-season when fishing was severely restricted.

However, this situation also prevails in other fishing areas outside the north and east, the coastal belt of Kalpitiya in the North-Western province being one such place.

According to local fishermen and small-time traders in this area, the problem lies with the bulk purchases made by businessmen from outside, who own high-tech freezer trucks, cold storages and other facilities that could stock fish for a longer period of time, and release them when they feel the price is right

So, at the end of the day, the small man is forced to sell his fish at prices determined by the big-time mudalalis, because he lacks the facilities to store his catch on one hand, and depend on daily sales for his livelihood on the other.

At the morning’s auction in the Kandekuliya Jetty, the local collector, S. Anthony sells fish to the mudalalis for prices ranging from Rs 30 to Rs 950.

The smallest variety Salaya or ‘Spanish Mackeral’ in English, is sold at Rs 30 per kilogram to these mudalalis, and later sold to consumers at something like Rs 230 per kilogram all over the country, Anthony lamented.

“So, one can imagine the prices of the other varieties. This is the way it goes. Should we hold on to our catch, it will only rot at the end, with plenty of empty stomachs in Kalpitiya, where some 70% of the population survive on the fish trade.

The authorities must put forward a mechanism to protect both the fisherman as well as the consumer. The present situation should never be the case in a country surrounded with rich maritime waters, says Christi Lord, a local teacher in the area.

(Reports and pix by Padma Kumari in Kalpitiya and our Mannar Correspondent Lambet Rosarian )

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