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 they had met the requirement of fish in the Western province and that had earned the repute as suppliers of fresh fish since long. Fishermen said that hundreds of families for generations depended on 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 in 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.
It is sad that the authorities neglected the issues affecting the fisher folk and the situation was worsened after the tsunami disaster
A traditional fishermen of Dehiwala, Samel Wijekulasuriya (65) said the majority of the people in the area had been clever seafaring men, well conversant with the profession.
He said every fisherman had thorough knowledge of the nutritional value of different kinds of fish. He said young men took a keen interest in the industry and most of them had left school prematurely and taken to fishery which was a lucrative and thrilling occupation for them.
“However, it is sad that the authorities neglected the issues affecting the fisher folk and the situation was worsened after the tsunami disaster. The coastal belt from Dehiwla to Wellawatta Bridge had undergone sea erosion causing extensive damage to the land and houses. The fisher folk 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 auctions ground. This has left us to the mercy of the fish merchants who buy our fish on 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 face the risk of being victimised. Any relief granted by the government would be denied to us by the officials. Fisheries organisations staged protests on their demands and even obstructed the railway line several years ago but to no avail,” he said.
Another fisherman Somaratne Dedimuni (50) of Wedikanda said the fishermen who earned a large income to provide comfort to their families lost their livelihood and that they were now working as labourers in other areas to keep their head above the water.
“Several politicians who visited the area during the recent presidential election distributed fishing nets and fishing gear and promised to resolve the issues affecting us, but we have not yet heard anything from them as yet. The tsunami waves deepened the sea belt compelling us to give up offshore fishing. Now we depend on fish merchants who own multi-day fishing crafts. We have been reduced to the state of labourers working under wealthy fish merchants. Another serious problem facing us is the Kadawatta reef that resulted in several accidents. In the latest incident a boat hit Kadawatta and was wrecked. The fishermen on board had a narrow escape,” he said.
Member of the Dehiwala - Mount Lavinia Municipal Council and Secretary of the Mount Lavinia Fisheries Organisation Kumara Gomes said the fishermen had to risk their life when they launch boats at several location in the sea belt and returning ashore due to a huge rock at Kadawatta. He said several fishermen on their way back ashore drowned when the boats hit the rock and capsized.
“Our request to the Coast Conservation Department and the Fisheries Department is to break apart of the rocks and to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents have been ignored. We made continual representations on issues affecting the fisher folk to the Ministers of Fisheries of successive governments but to no avail. 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. Even the minimum facilities are not available to the fisher folk in the area. Fisher folk are facing hardship for want of water and sanitary facilities and even a tube well is not available for the fishermen to have a bath after returning from sea,” he said
He further said marine pollution in the sea belt and the beach had been going on unchecked due to haphazard dumping of garbage and the flow of sewage from hotels and that it prevented fish breeding. The fisher folk in the area requested the Ministry of Fisheries to construct a boat anchorage and a fish auction area and to break the rock at Kadawatta that caused several fatal accidents.
Several fishermen on their way back ashore drowned when the boats hit the rock and capsized