'Come, buy my fish'
After facing the brunt of the tsunami, fishermen are prepared to brave the sea once again. But now they face the threat of no one wanting their fish

By N. Dilshath Banu
The golden sand along the Moratuwa coast is still strewn with wood, bottles, shoes, utensils, dresses and all that once belonged to someone. The waves lash the shore with a huge noise while children run between the invisible boundaries of homes now no more.

Sitting on a pillar of a damaged house on the beach, Nimal Fernando is staring at the sea, which once provided his livelihood. His family is safe and his home intact as he is living away from the area where the tsunami struck. But he ponders how the waves could destroy the coastal area, kill people and swallow their belongings.

"The waves have brought great misfortune for us. Most of us lost our boats, fishing gear, nets and everything. But we are planning to go out to sea again because we know no other job," says Fernando, walking towards a young fisherman who is repairing a damaged oruwa. "We need to catch fish to keep ourselves and our families alive," he says.

Fernando and others like him in this area have received little relief. "A research officer from the Fisheries Ministry came here and took down our details," says Fernando.

Like Fernando, the question in the mind of the fishing community spread across the coastal areas is: What does the future hold for them? For they have received a double blow. Not only have they lost their homes and boats but fear of contamination is keeping people from buying the fish these fishermen are bringing back after braving the seas. This fear is also affecting the salt and dried fish industries.

"People are afraid to eat fish, as they think that fish would have eaten human flesh. It cannot be true, but we are not sure about the scientific truth. Most of us are not afraid to go out to sea because of another tidal wave or the weather, but we are afraid that if people do not buy our fish, we would be left destitute," he laments, stressing that "If the seawater is polluted, the fish would die first. The government should tackle this problem and assure people that there's nothing wrong in eating fish."

A fisherman for 20 years, Siripala used to love the sea. But the very same sea has now taken away his home. Washing the few pieces of cloth he is left with at a tap close by, Siripala says, "Whether I like it or not, whether people buy my fish or not I will have to go out to sea to feed my family."

"Those days this place was crowded, now we don't have many people around our stall. It's false that all fish eat corpses. Only sharks eat human flesh, not the others. The corpses are washing up on shore and don't go into the deep sea where fish can feed on them.

Even those who eat human flesh, attack when people are alive," says Edward Perera who runs a fish stall at Kollupitiya. Before the tsunami, Edward earned about Rs. 10,000-15,000 a day, but now finds it difficult to get Rs. 2,000. "We have lost our trawlers and it's very hard for us to do our job. To revive our industry, there should be a demand for fish. If there's no demand, we will have to close our markets."

Gamini, who does not go to sea , but sells the fish he buys from another fisherman in the Pettah supermarket said he had never faced a crisis like this in the past 35 years. "People used to come here to buy fish even when there were curfews, but now we are not able to sell fish worth even hundred rupees. I don't know what will happen to us," he says throwing some rotten fish into the garbage.

However, Fisheries Ministry Secretary N. Bambaravanage is optimistic. "It is a temporary fear among the people because they saw the waves destroying many people and the bodies being washed to shore. There's hardly any truth that fish are contaminated, because they live in salt water and salinity destroys dirt. But there is a possibility of contamination of fish outside the water, maybe in our own homes. It is safe to eat fish."

"Small fish eat weeds and big fish eat the small fishes, that's the food chain. The fish varieties we consume do not feed on bodies, only big fish like shark, kill and eat humans," he explains adding that currently fish sellers are using stocks which had been stored by the Fisheries Corporation. "The other fish are those brought into the harbours of Beruwela and Galle by multi-day boats, which had left two to three weeks earlier."

The fishing industry makes up about 2 percent of Sri Lanka's GDP and provides a livelihood to about 300,000 fishermen. This fishing sector earns about US $100 million annually through the export of shrimps, lobster, tuna, shark-fins and ornamental fish.

The fishing fleet comprises about 28,000 vessels of which about 15,000 are non- motorized traditional crafts. Of the motorized craft only about 1,500 are multi-day vessels and the others single-day vessels. Boat building and fishnet manufacture are largely a private-sector activity although there is one government-owned company that builds boats and manufactures fishing nets.

The tsunami has affected 186,000 fisher-folk while 100,000 have lost everything - their houses, boats, nets and fishing gear. "We are looking after the immediate needs of the fisher-folk. We have requested funds to rebuild the fishing industry," said Mr. Bambaravanage estimating that cost at Rs. 30 billion, excluding the funding for housing.

It’s safe say experts
Whatever the fish consumes will be deposited as protein in its body or flesh and when you consider the issue scientifically, there's no harm in eating fish, says Dr. Paba Palihawadana, Deputy Epidemiologist, Epidemiological Unit of the Ministry of Health. "Naturally the big fish eat the small fish and some small fish eat weeds and other things. The big fish like shark may attack humans but we don't eat the big shark varieties. Sometimes, small fish could have bitten some parts of bodies but they don't consume the whole body. What we eat in the fish is the flesh," she says. "Fish or sea water is not contaminated because of the bodies. The seawater can get polluted only by chemicals and other pollutants."

We don't have to worry about seafood. It is safe, she stressed.
Assuring that fresh fish is safe to eat, Geevika Ganegama Arachchi, Research Officer of Post Harvest Technology at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), cautions that there is a possibility of cross contamination at domestic level.

"The sea could get contaminated more by damaged latrines, septic tanks and sewage that have washed into the sea. Breeding in polluted seawater could be a danger for the fish and could make them sick," she says.

Ms. Arachchi suggests the following to prevent cross-contamination of fresh fish at home:

  • Wash the fresh fish with drinking (clean) water.
  • Use clean pots and pans to cook the fish
  • Cut out the gills, guts (making sure not to damage the guts as this could cause contamination) and if possible the skin of the fish
  • Boil the fish for 20 minutes (in addition to the normal cooking time)
    NARA is investigating the quality of seafood, for possible infections that could cause a health hazard for people.

Boom for dried fish
Although the fishing industry is floundering in tsunami waters, the dried fish industry is floating ahead. "These days business is very good. We get dried fish mainly from other countries, so people don't worry much about it. But the price has gone up and we can't help it," said Sunil Priyantha at the Borella supermarket.

"After the 27th we are getting many customers. Sometimes we can't even go home for lunch, because of the demand," says H.G. Ariyasinghe, a dried fish seller at the Nugegoda supermarket. "But I think people may stop buying dried fish soon. Then I don't know what will happen."

Weighing and bundling up dried fish for many customers, Chaminda Herath of the Kirullapone supermarket predicts that these crowds will disappear in a few days. "What can we do if the people don't want to buy fish?" he asks.

Salt not contaminated
We don't produce salt during the rainy seasons, so our production was stopped last October. We will resume production only in March. Salt stocks produced earlier are in our stores. We also don't make salt on the ground floor in the beach area, said D. Haputhanthri, the Executive Director of Lanka Salt Ltd.

"It's true that bodies were found in Karacan lewaya, but we don't use this to make salt. So the bodies did not contaminate the salt. People can consume salt without fear. Our company is certified by ISO 9002 and we have standards," he said.

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