This is not the first time that their livelihoods are being disrupted or destroyed. From the nearly three decade-long civil war until 2009, to the invasive Indian trawlers that reigned their seas soon after, to conflicts with locals operating powerful mechanised boats, to migrant fisherfolk competing for their catch — Sri Lanka’s northern fisherfolk have seen it all. After struggling through the post-war decade, to cope with the aftermath of the devastating war, and against the Indian trawlers’ destructive fishing in Sri Lanka’s waters — which prompted Sri Lanka to introduce tougher laws — things were just beginning to look up. And then the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit them.
On March 10, Sri Lanka reported its first local case of COVID-19, when a tour guide tested positive. Ten days later the government imposed a nationwide curfew, forbidding travel from one district to another. As of Saturday evening, Sri Lanka had reported 824 cases, 240 recoveries and nine deaths.
Despite the stringent curfew, the Sri Lankan government allowed fisherfolk to continue fishing. “We were very relieved they never stopped us from going to sea,” said Annalingam Annarasa, a fisher leader in Kayts island, off Jaffna peninsula. “But even that didn’t eventually help us,” he said. COVID-19 not only pulled the shutters down on all major markets they relied on to sell their fish, but also severely affected exports and domestic pricing.
Sea food exports fetched Sri Lanka over $250 million in the last few years and ensured a steady demand for fish production in the north. With the adverse impact on the export market, where northern fisherfolk usually sold their expensive fish varieties, crab and exotic prawns, fisherfolk are having to sell their catch for a fourth or a fifth of the actual price in the domestic market.
“Normally, crab would go for about LKR 1,000-1,200 per kg in the export trade market, but now we are selling it for LKR 200 locally. Prawn sold for LKR 1,850 is now being sold for LKR 850. Our fishermen have no incentive to get into the deep sea because with this sort of pricing, we can’t even recover the cost incurred on fuel for our boats,” explained Mr. Annarasa, who heads the Federation of Fisher Cooperative Societies for Jaffna district.
The losses are severe. On an average a fisherman who earlier sold 15 kg of fish for LKR 1,000 per kg, would make a profit of about LKR 8,000 a day. But now, the same fish is being sold for some LKR 5,000, resulting in losses day after day. Further, middlemen buying fish to be sold in other parts of the country made more money than the fishermen, according to small-scale fishers in Jaffna.
“A tricky balance between lives and livelihoods.” That is how Mullaitivu-based fisher leader Thirugnanatheepan Anthony Alfred described the current challenge. “We can’t expect everything to go on as usual, these are very peculiar circumstances,” he said.
While the main markets are shut, some fisher cooperative societies have taken permission from local authorities to auction their catch at a common venue. “Of course, we strictly enforce health safety measures like physical distancing. We don’t allow people to crowd around the stall. These are tough times and we have to find ways to sustain our livelihood in whatever way possible,” said K. Rajachandran, a fisher leader in Karainagar, Jaffna. The district reported seven cases.
The impact of COVID-19 might have been less severe, had the fisheries sector been given some attention in the post-war years, according to Mr. Annarasa. “All governments make promises, but nothing gets done. If different governments had invested in the fisheries sector, helping us modernise fishing, we could have increased production over the years and secured livelihoods.”
Not all fisherfolk qualify for government assistance or loans, he added. “If you ask me, I will say fisherfolk are like daily wage labourers now. We earn something to eat and survive that day. That is all. We can’t think much about the future.”
Some are also questioning Sri Lanka’s fisheries policy that has been oriented more towards exports, based on low-volume, high-margin catches by the fishermen, of crab or costly fish that most locals can’t afford. Fisher leaders also point to the irony of the island nation importing seafood, worth nearly $200 million in 2018, for local consumption.
“Whether it is UN agencies or our local authorities, their projects are all oriented towards exports. Now, our own food has become a question mark,” a leader said.