Remember the quote ‘water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink’. This became a reality when Sri Lanka faced a peculiar situation recently in which the western and central areas had never-ending rain and heavy flooding, while the north faced an acute shortage of water for drinking and agriculture. These thoughts crossed my mind [...]

Business Times

Fishing in troubled waters


Remember the quote ‘water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink’. This became a reality when Sri Lanka faced a peculiar situation recently in which the western and central areas had never-ending rain and heavy flooding, while the north faced an acute shortage of water for drinking and agriculture.

These thoughts crossed my mind when the issue of fish was raised at a recent Colombo discussion on economic growth in an environmentally sustainable manner.

On one side while there is overfishing closer to Sri Lanka’s coastline, on the other hand there is abundant fishing resources in the country’s exclusive economic zone of over 500,000 square km, a coastline stretching to around 1,700 km and inland water bodies. Over the years, governments and international agencies have acknowledged that this enormous resource for fish farming has not been exploited in a sustainable way because, among other things, most of the marine fishing is focusing on coastal areas and not the deep sea. As per inland fishing, changing policies by changing governments ensure politics plays a bigger role than rational, sound and pragmatic policies for the fisheries sector.

As I sat down to write this piece on the cloudy morning of Friday, sounds of scratching and scraping could be heard from the kitchen and before I ventured to check it out, Kussi Amma Sera’s booming voice cut across my thoughts, “Apoi, Mahattaya balannako, maalu hari ganang ne dang. Lankava vattey watura, habai maalu ganang,” she says, as if reading my mind!

She had been reading the morning newspaper while scraping coconut and came across a story on rising fish prices. “Api podi kaaley, kochchara wavey maalu alluwada,” she said, sighing.

KAS is spot on – there is fish here, fish there, everywhere a fish, fish (just like Old Mcdonald ‘had a farm’ …with a ‘cluck, cluck’ here and a ‘cluck, cluck’ there ‘everywhere a cluck, cluck’). Yes, surrounded by seas and despite an abundance of rivers, streams and tanks (wew) inland, good fish is pricey and out of reach of the average, middle to low income Sri Lankan.

Nevertheless a little fish gets on the plate of every Sri Lankan from the cheap Salaya to the costly Seer, depending on the individual’s purse.

Fish is a valuable source of protein and other nutrients and is probably the cheapest protein source on the planet but yet, in Sri Lanka’s case, we cannot get it right – expanding fisheries to increase production. The subject of fisheries continues to dog governments over the years, some treating it seriously and others not. If in the late 1970s (when Festus Perera was Fisheries Minister) Fisheries was considered as important as Finance, Economic Affairs or Industry, today it’s a different ball-game. Imagine Ravi Karunanayake, Mangala Samaraweera or for that matter Malik Samarawickrema being asked to handle the subject of fisheries? They would flip!

Not that the current Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, who is an influential politician, is a lesser mortal in the Cabinet. But consider this: How often has the media focused on Amaraweera’s role and development of fisheries as against his political role as General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance?

No less a person than President Maithripala Sirisena considers the subject of fisheries, not as important as other key portfolios. He was reported to have said at a public meeting before the recent, pre-Cabinet reshuffle that Amaraweera would be given a “better ministry other than the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to serve the people in a better way”.

Even at the Colombo discussion referred to earlier in this commentary, journalists looked bored when a few questions (and just a few questions) were raised on the topic of fisheries and the need for a better policy.

For the intellectual, fish is anything but interesting. That applies to the media too and there lies the reason why Fisheries is unlikely to make it big in the country’s economic spectrum and corridors of power. A good fish story won’t make the front page of a national newspaper. A ‘fishy story’ about a corrupt tender or official, makes more interesting reading, journalists will tell you.

Fisheries can be a life-saver to a country’s economy as proven by many countries with either sound policies on fisheries management or essentially just survival like the Maldives for instance where fisheries and tourism are the only two vibrant industrial sectors.

Consider these statistics (in 2014): China was the world’s largest seafood exporter with a revenue of US$14.1 billion followed by Norway $8.8 billion (population 9 million), Vietnam $5.8 billion, the US $5.1 billion, India $4.6 billion, Canada $4.2 billion, Chile $4 billion (18 million people), Sweden $3.7 billion (9.9 million people), the Netherlands $3.13 billion (17 million people) and Indonesia $3.11 billion. Some are island nations like Sri Lanka, others are not. Quite a few have smaller populations but with good policies on fisheries have not only made good in exports but are also able to feed their people on this readily and easily available source of protein.

As an aside, Vietnam whose modern development paradigm came after Sri Lanka’s 1977 growth path is a shining example of development. That country’s export earnings in 2016 were $175.94 billion against an import cost of $173.26 billion giving it a healthy + $2.68 billion balance. What is Sri Lanka’s trade balance scenario? Exports brought in $10 billion while imports cost nearly double that at $19.4 billion, with a deficit of nearly $10 billion. A proper fisheries management policy framework would very well reduce the deficit or even wipe it out completely. Sri Lanka’s fisheries export earning was $161 million in 2016 against $247 million in the earlier year compared to tiny Maldives (less than half a million people with a sizable population of foreign workers) which reported fish export revenues of $190 million in 2015.

Although there is an abundance of fish inland and at sea, fish is more costly (at least at the top end) than chicken or beef. The cheapest, Salaya which sold at Rs. 30 per kg in 1990 now costs more than Rs. 225 per kg in the open market, while prawns cost Rs. 44 and over Rs. 1,000 (then and now) and Seer Rs. 100 and now Rs. 1,300. In the supermarkets, it would cost more than that.

Seas, lagoons, inland tanks, reservoirs and all-year sun. Sri Lanka is blessed with sun, rain and everything that nature offers to run a thriving economy with plenty of food not only to feed the people but also export. So where have we gone wrong?

Remember the proverb: ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Likewise, bring fisheries to the top of the agenda; transform it into a ministry as important or even more than finance or foreign affairs. Lift its importance so that fish stories will dominate the media rather than fishy ones. Elevate the status and standards of fishermen; improve their living conditions. Transform fishing to become a ‘now thing’ in the new generation apart from being a livelihood. Fishing in troubled waters? Not if Sri Lanka has the ‘right’ politician, the ‘right’ civil society and the ‘right’ policies. And like that Simon & Garfunkel favourite, ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’, connecting the dots to bridge the gap between a proper national policy and local and export demand is the way forward.

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