Lanka's biggest fish auction centre pleads for business
By Quintus Perera
The country's second largest fish market called ‘Lellama’ at Pitipana, Negombo is normally milling with crowds at 3am in the morning, bidding or jostling for a better view of the auction that takes place of all the fish that is brought there.

However last Thursday morning there were just a handful of people, more than a week after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka's coastline. The Lellama fish auction centre draws fishermen, small and big traders, consumers and officials of the Negombo South Fisheries Co-operative Society (NSF) which manages the auction centre.

The fisheries industry has received a double blow from the tsunami - destroying fishing boats across Sri Lanka and affecting the livelihood of the fishermen while on the other hand people are reluctant to eat fish fearing human flesh has been consumed, despite assurances from the Health Ministry that fish is safe for consumption.

The Negombo market had daily fish sales of an average of Rs. 10 million per day before last Christmas but now finds it difficulty to muster even Rs. 25,000 in sales. Last Thursday, fishermen, fish vendors and consumers blamed the electronic media for scare stories of another tsunami and also that fish was unhealthy for consumption.

A few fishermen who had returned after being at the sea for many days including the period before and after the tsunami hit the island, told The Sunday Times FT that they have not seen any corpses floating in the sea. One of these fishermen said that floating bodies or that of any dead animal is an absurd statement as anything floating usually gets washed ashore.

Jude Kumar from Mankuliya, Negombo, who owns three multi-day medium sized fishing boats, said that those fishermen who are well experienced and to whom the sea is their home have been worried by reports on a local TV station that has warned that a similar or worse earthquake would occur between January 3 to 8. He also said that in these areas where fishermen are mostly Christians, they normally go out to sea in the first week of January after coming ashore for Christmas. He said that he is very reluctant to put his vessels to sea worrying that no one would buy fish.

Fisheries Minister Chandrasena Wijesinghe blamed the disinformation about fish on a conspiracy by some media organizations to discredit the government and to cripple the fishing industry. He said that this is a conspiracy against the entire nation as the country is struggling to overcome a disastrous situation.

He said that as at December 31 rough estimates of the number of fishermen dead or missing is around 12,500 and now it could be around 25,000. The final count this could be much more. He said the rough estimates of the loss would be around Rs 49 billion. In the Negombo coast, damage to fishing craft and life is marginal.

The Lellama is the centre for all the fish flowing from Kalpitiya, Kudapaduwa, Kandakuliya, Thoduwawa, Chilaw, Marawila, Wennappuwa and sometimes even from Galle and Beruwala when the sea is rough.

Calistus Fernando, Manager, NSF Co-op said, "this place is normally full of people and a large amount of fish, but these days it is deserted." Joseph Peter Fernando, another cooperative official, said that spreading of disinformation about the fish would well be a ploy by processed food companies to discourage people eating fish referring as an example to the old issue of the coconut oil industry crashing after it was said to impact on one's health.

He said that tuna fish normally sold at Rs 280 per kilo wholesale is now selling at below Rs 100 and even at that price fishermen are finding it difficult to get buyers. Balaya sold at Rs 110 has fallen to below Rs 50 per kilo. Dry fish producers are having a field day buying up fish at very cheap rates.

W. D. Sebastian Appuhamy is from Nattandiya and he normally comes in a van to buy around 1,000 to 1,500 kgs of fish. He said, "I bought about 500 kg of fish and I lost Rs 25,000 from the deal as I could not sell anything. This is the only job I am able to do and I cannot learn a new job also." This time he came on a motorbike with a wooden box to buy just 20 kilos and try and sell it.

Among all the fish vendors at Lellama, the only happy trader was R. Piyadasa from Dunagaha in his late 70s, pushing his bicycle with the fish box up the hill at the Munnakkare Bridge.

Dunagaha is 12 miles away from Negombo and he comes in a push cycle, buys fish and sells along his way home from Miriswatte onwards covering 24 miles daily. He said that he used to buy fish for around Rs 800 and as usual he came to Lellama and bought Rs 800 worth of fish and said that when he reached home that day he was able to sell all the fish.

On Thursday he had bought Rs 555 worth of fish and he was confident of selling everything. There is another area where there are brisk sales - sharks. Sales are high because of the fins, which are exported for shark soup, a delicacy in some Asian countries. Fishermen say that a kilo of shark fins could be sold at as high as Rs 5,000 per kilo.

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