By H.M. Dharmapala and Kusal Chamath
Traditional fisher folk in the coastal belt from Mount Lavinia to Moratu-Modara are in a predicament due to a series of issues that hampered their profession. They said from time immemorial Dehiwela – Mount Lavinia beach had been famous for supplying fresh fish to people in the Colombo District and that for several generations they depended on the fisheries industry that flourished in the area. However, they expressed concern about the obstacles facing them that compelled them to abandon the trade. They said that their representations in this regard to successive governments for more than 40 years had fallen on deaf ears and that they had been compelled to give-up fishery and to make a living as manual labourers. They said that several fishermen were already working as helpers in construction sites.
A traditional fisherman of Dehiwela, Susiri Silva (55) said every man from the youngest to the oldest in the area was a clever seafaring man, well conversant with the profession. He said every fisherman had a thorough knowledge of the nutritional valve of different kinds of fish.
“However it is sad that the authorities neglected the issues affecting them, not to mention providing enhanced facilities. The coastal belt from Dehiwela to Wellawatta bridge had undergone sea erosion causing extensive damage to the land and hundreds of houses and the fishermen had lost a vast area of the land which had been used as a natural boat anchorage. We are facing hardship for want of a fish auction area. We have been left to the mercy of the fish merchants who buy our fish for a song in the beach. Shanty-dwellers use the beach to ease themselves for want of toilet facilities causing extensive environmental damage and preventing fishermen from using the beach for fish trade. If we give interviews to the media we would run the risk of being victimized. Any relief granted by the government would be denied to us by the officials. Fisheries’ organizations staged protests on their demands and even obstructed the railway line several years ago but to no avail, ” he said.
Another fisherman Siripala Sembapurumarachchi (46) of Ratmalana said many fishermen who earned a large income to provide comforts to their families lost their livelihood and that they were now working as labourers in other areas to keep their head above the water.
“After the tsunami disaster the sea off the beach has deepened and we had to give up off shore fishing with catamarans. Off shore fishing is not possible now and we are compelled to depend on fish merchants who own multi-day trawlers. We have been reduced to the state of labourers working under rich businessmen. Liquid waste from hotels and factories flow through sewers into the sea causing marine pollution that prevents fish breeding in the off shore sea belt. However, politicians hold meetings and promise to resolve the issues, but we have been left in the lurch. Another serious problem facing us is the Kadawatha reef that resulted in several accidents. In the latest incident a boat hit Kadawatha and was wrecked. The fishermen on board had a narrow escape,” he said.
Member of the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Municipal Council Neville Dabare said the fishermen had to risk their life when they launch boats at several locations in the sea belt and return ashore due to a huge rock at Kadawatha. He said several fishermen sailing ashore had drowned when their boats hit the rock.
“Our requests to the Coast Conservation Department and the Fisheries Department to break a part of the rock and to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents had been ignored. We made representations on issues affecting the fisher folk to the Ministers of Fisheries but to no avail. They always come out with the lame excuse that funds were not available and promise to implement a massive project with allocations for the next year. Several families were settled in Kaldemulla, Ratmalana and Badovita areas when their houses were destroyed during the tsunami disaster. If the remaining few families were provided housing in other areas, the beach could be well developed as a tourism zone. The buffer zone declared by the government in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster is another failure. Businessmen receiving political patronage have constructed buildings in the buffer zone,” he said.
Secretary of the Rural Development Committee and Member of the Municipal Council Kumara Gomes said even the minimum facilities were not available to the fisher folk in the area. He pointed out that they were facing hardship for want of water and toilet facilities, and that even a tube well was not available for the fishermen who return from sea to have a bath.
The fisher folk in the area requested the Fisheries Ministry to construct a boat anchorage and a fish auction area and to break the rock at Kadawatha that caused several fatal accidents.
Their representations in this regard to successive governments for more than 40 years had fallen on deaf ears and that they had been compelled to give-up fishery and to make a living as manual labourers