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The fishermen’s problems on the West Coast: Are NGOs missing the woods for the trees?

2016-01-12 03:16:53
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By Michael Soris

Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll, a Climate Scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, in his report published in the ‘Geophysical Review Letters’ website on December 15th 2015, says that there has been an alarming decrease of up to 20 percent in phytoplankton in the western region of the Indian Ocean over the past six decades. 

The region, which was considered to have the largest concentration of phytoplankton, has had the largest warming trend in sea surface temperatures in the tropics during the past century. The writer attributes global warming to this decrease and says that marine phytoplankton plays a central role in global biogeochemical cycles, as it forms the base of the marine food web, and regulates the global climate. 

The report says that changes in plankton production can have an immense impact on marine species as well as humans who rely on them as a source of food. Downward trends in primary production over these areas can be detrimental to the marine food webs and the fishing industry. Future climate projections suggest that the Indian Ocean will continue to warm, driving this productive region into an ecological desert.



Complains about fall in fish stocks
According to recent newspaper reports, fishermen in the Western Coast of Sri Lanka have been complaining about the reduction in fish stocks.  In a UCA News report, the President of the All Ceylon Fishermen’s Association has said that most of the fish breeding areas have already been affected and the fishing community was facing a bleak future. The fishermen have insisted that the government’s environmental impact assessment report on the Port City had not taken into account their concerns and had not talked to them prior to its documentation. 

The Supplementary Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) has been comprehensive on this subject.  Whilst saying that there will be no reduction in fishing grounds in the reclamation area, as this is not an ideal habitat for fish breeding due to already silted conditions; it also states that there is no well‐developed reef system and the seabed comprises mainly of extended sandy habitats in the sand dredging area of the Port City. 

Also, it is further stated that the marine environment of the reclamation area is not, nor ever was, a favourable area for spawning of commercially and ecologically important organisms, nor is the area in any migratory path of bigger fish like skipjack tuna or yellow fin tuna.

The study also stated that there are no sea grass meadows in the sea bottom of the reclamation area. Sea grass cover in the reclamation area is less than 5 percent according to the report. Sea grasses are considered ideal breeding places of marine fish, which are important to fisheries. However, fish need clear areas for breeding, and some sea grasses in this area are heavily silted.

Leaving aside what the Port City SEIA says, what Dr Koll reports is that according to available data, the tuna catch rates in the Indian Ocean have declined by 50-90 percent during the past five decades. He sites increased industrial fisheries as a major cause for such a huge decline. However, the reduced phytoplankton may add up as a potential stress factor in the recent decades, and exploiting a resource that may be in decline can tip it over to a point of no return. 



Missing the woods for the trees
Some of the environmentalists and pressure groups, such as NGOs who have been protesting against the Port City, seem to be missing the woods for the trees, as in fact, there is a dire necessity to look at mitigating factors for reduction in fish harvest on the west coast, there is a necessity to also look at this from a livelihood factor, where the youth of fisher families do not find the fishing profession attractive and prefer alternative employment.  Around the sand dredging area, the SIEA says that the total fishing population in the Negombo Fishing District (NFD) is 33,604 and only 9,249 of them are active fishermen.  The report also states that approximately 79.9 percent of these active fishermen are above the age of 40 and fishermen between the ages of 20 and 29 years are only a mere1.5 percent.

There are many reasons for it and primary amongst them is a lack of upward mobility and this is the reason why many of the youth in that area are finding ways to migrate to Australia and Italy, most of them using illegal methods and crossing the vast ocean in small crafts.

It is not that these people leave to forget the country and towns they came from, in fact most of them work very hard and send back money to their families to build homes. A good example of this would be if you travel to the Negombo area where hoardings are seen quoting land prices in euros.



Unsustainable factor
However, illegal migration has become an unsustainable factor for economic refugees, especially with the borders tightening after the recent Syrian issue.  The Government and the politicians need to find local solutions now or we would find ourselves in a situation where youth unrest would become an issue.  This is a matter which is worrying the business chambers in Sri Lanka.  CSR Lanka’s President Chandula Abeywickrema has been talking of finding alternate ways of skilling up the youth for them to meet future challenges.

According to the SEIA, 86.1 percent of students from fisher families come up to grade 11 but only 3.1 percent pass their ‘A’ levels, which makes it very clear from a statistical point of view that these failures are not going into higher education.  If so, and they are not getting into their traditional fishing business, where are they in the job market?

There is also an issue highlighted in a recent report written by Ranjan Gamini Jayawardena on a special page titled VisiDala in the Divaina newspaper. Hesays that the southern fishermen have difficulties in selling their catch in Colombo due to taxes being removed by the Government for fish imports.
Fishermen who have to-date staged many protests are reported to have said that due to the fast reducing prices of fish they are unable to even recover their investment in their fishing expeditions. One of their requests is for the government to bring in some regulation in the case of those importing fish to the country. 

According to the writer the Colombo traders do not want fish brought in from outer Colombo areas such as Mirissa due to container loads of fish being imported without any taxes being levied. Apart from this, according to the writer, the situation has worsened for the southern fishermen as they say that they are unable to get a decent catch due to a reduction in fish in their areas. 

One of the causes for this problem, as the Divaina writer highlights, is the use of illegal vessels and fishing techniques which cause the catch to be damaged and fish scales to float in the water, causing entire shoals of fish to move far away; adversely affecting fishermen using regular equipment. Another reason is transportation, which is still at a high cost. The fisher folks say the transportation costs remain high due to increase of costs in vehicle spare parts such as tires, tubes etc.

According to Ranjan Gamini Jayawardena, the fishermen who say that they are in dire need of a solution to their problem, question if the authorities are aware of these situations and what action they intend taking.



Trade related challenges
All in all it is evident that fishermen face severe challenges with regard to their profession and trade. The factors that impact them are many. The environment and global warming, over-fishing, cheaper tax-free fish imports, and local marketing issues, all seem to be increasing their burden day by day. 
The solution to the problem has to be addressed from various levels. While some of them could be handled by the government authorities with the change of policy, there is certainly another factor which needs to be looked at and that is how to manage youth employment in the western coastal areas if they are not going into this traditional form of employment.

For this, the Port City presents an ideal solution! Shouldn’t the authorities be looking at large-scale skills development to meet the high level of demand for the construction work of the megapolis? The Port City would be the first in this programme, and certainly will be a good starting point. Shouldn’t the NGOs be looking at what opportunity they can create with mega-projects such as this for the people they represent? This is the time to look for solutions and the main question would be, are they looking in the wrong places?


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