This is by no means a fishy tale but built around a conversation between Kussi Amma Sera, Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina on Wednesday morning.  At the gate when Karthelis, the fish vendor, came on his motor-bike, the trio pounced on him, saying that the fish prices were too high. “Aney, aei ape ratata athewenna maalu [...]

Business Times

Fishing in troubled waters


This is by no means a fishy tale but built around a conversation between Kussi Amma Sera, Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina on Wednesday morning. 

At the gate when Karthelis, the fish vendor, came on his motor-bike, the trio pounced on him, saying that the fish prices were too high.

Aney, aei ape ratata athewenna maalu neththe, ratawateta muhuda thiyena kota (Why, aney, don’t we have adequate fish stocks for the country, when we are surrounded by the sea),” asked Serapina.

Eh, Indiyawe deevarayo uthure muhudata horen avith, ape ratata aythi maalu aran yana hinda (That is because in the northern seas, Indian fishermen encroach on our waters and take away our fish),” said Mabel Rasthiyadu. Adding to the conversation, Kussi Amma Sera said: “Mama paththare dekka, Cheena bottuth ape muhude thiyenawa kiyala. Aei aanduwata eka navaththanna beri (I have read in the newspapers that there are also Chinese boats fishing in our seas. Why can’t the government stop them?)”

Poor Karthelis was flabbergasted by the high decibel-pitched protest over prices, at times, interrupting with a “Sorry madam, mama monawa karannada. Mamath maalu walata loku ganak gevanava (What can I do, I too pay high prices for fish)”.

Just as I ‘switched’ off their conversation and moved from the office window to pick up my mug of tea, the phone rang. It was ‘Nana’ Mohideen, the jolly trader from Moneragala. “Hello… my friend, I haven’t spoken to you for a while,” I said welcoming his call. “Yes… yes, I was reading an article about the President when I thought of you,” he said, in a pleasant tone. “What was the article about,” I asked. “It’s about the President’s comments on the fisheries industry and the need to reduce fish imports and save foreign exchange,” he said.

According to the President’s Media Division, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said at a meeting that every effort should be made to reduce the foreign exchange spent annually on fish imports. It was stated that the government spends around US$500 million on importing fish, dried fish, Maldive fish and canned fish. “The President emphasised that the fishing industry in the country should be placed among exports that earn foreign exchange by harnessing the fishing potential along the coastal belt around the country and the inland tank network,” it was reported.

Serapina’s comment about Sri Lanka being surrounded by the sea but still fish, particularly varieties such as thora (seer), being the most expensive protein compared to beef or chicken, is a fact that has perplexed Sri Lankans for many years. With an abundance of fish in the seas surrounding the country, why is fish so expensive? Apart from the President’s focus on the fisheries industry, there needs to be a comprehensive study (if not done already) on how to increase production, what extra investment is required and what additional infrastructure is needed for this purpose. For an island which also has a vibrant inland fisheries sector, fish should be the cheapest protein that should be on the plate of all Sri Lankans to ensure a balanced diet.

High protein foods available in Sri Lanka include lean chicken, lean pork, fish, lean beef, tofu, beans, lentils, low-fat yoghurt, milk, cheese, eggs and nuts.

For the record, fish production which includes marine (coastal) and freshwater (inland) fisheries has been falling over the years. Production in 2014 was 535,050 mt, while in 2019 it fell to 506,000 mt. Fish production in 2019 declined by four per cent from 2018. The fisheries sector contributes just 1 per cent to the GDP when it could easily be higher. Some decades ago the Ministry of Fisheries was assigned to a senior Cabinet minister; not anymore. It doesn’t have that kind of importance today.

According to the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, total fish imports increased by 13.2 per cent to 95,637 metric tons in 2018, almost 1/5th of the country’s annual production. Unlike beef or chicken, fish prices have soared over the years. In Colombo, salaya priced at Rs. 92 per kg in 2003, rose to Rs. 220 in 2017; hurulla was Rs. 133 (2003) and Rs. 409 (in 2017); kelawalla Rs. 262 (2003) and Rs. 918 (2017); thora/seer at Rs. 434 (2003) and Rs.1,415 (in 2017); and prawns Rs. 458 (2003) and Rs. 1.152 (in 2017).

One of the biggest problems in the fishing industry, resulting in reduced production, is the intrusion of Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka’s northern seas which has become a political football between India and Sri Lanka, often figuring in high-level talks between the two countries. On many occasions, Indian fishermen have been arrested by the Navy, in the wake of which the Indian High Commission here mediates for their release. Chinese trawlers fishing in Sri Lankan waters, in some cases legally, and exporting the catch is also a problem in increasing the country’s annual fish production for local consumption.

As pointed out often, the fisheries sector lacks sufficient modern multi-day trawlers with freezers and cold storage facilities and this is urgently required if serious efforts are to be made to increase production. Sri Lanka’s neighbour, the Maldives, is a good example of how this sector can be developed. Currently fisheries is the second biggest industry after tourism. Modern and mechanised fishing vessels are deployed, while there are facilities for canning fresh fish including tuna for export. The fisheries sector represents half that country’s workforce.

Sri Lanka needs to up its game in the fisheries sector and come up with a plan to increase production for local consumption and export and map out a proper investment plan that would increase infrastructure in terms of modern multi-day fishing fleets – which can easily be built by the Colombo Dockyard, Neil Marine – a reputed builder in South Asia, among other boat builders and also provide freezer and cold storage facilities. Fisheries cooperatives – bringing together a group of fishermen – to invest in high-tech boats, need to be encouraged and incentives provided with loan facilities for boat builders and the fishing community. Investing in modern fishing fleets, increasing production and enhancing the quality of life of fishermen will also uplift the fishing community.

As I paused to find the right words to end today’s column, Kussi Amma Sera walked in with my second mug of tea, saying, “Sir, maalu gena neda liyanne. Hondai, hondai (Sir, you’re writing about fish? Good, good).” I nodded in acknowledgement and looked forward to an era where fish would be the cheapest protein available on my plate!

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