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Fisheries thriving in North-East after 20 years

by Elmo Leonard

Sri Lanka's East Coast fishermen are having a field day, backed by the Navy's permissive attitude on fishing and a ceasefire with the LTTE, in force for over 18 months.

During 20 years of civil strife, the fishing industry saw little progress. The government restricted fishing and fishing hours while the LTTE destroyed fishing villages and boats.

Before the conflict, Northern and Eastern waters accounted for around two-thirds of the island's fish catch.

Seer fish, which sold at Rs 300 per kilo wholesale in Trincomalee three months ago, now sells at Rs 150 per kilo at the nearby Cod Bay fisheries harbour. Prices have dropped as there are more fishing boats in the seas around Trincomalee, including those of migratory fishermen. They catch a greater variety of fish, Assistant Director of Fisheries in Trincomalee, Mohamed Sheriffdeen Thajudeen said.

Trincomalee now has 40 multiday fishing craft of 32 to 40 feet length, 1200 fibreglass boats with outboard motors and 1500 traditional fishing craft. Migrant fishermen from Negombo and Chilaw and the South account for around 250 multiday fishing craft around the waters of Trincomalee. Multiday craft originating from the north of Trincomalee to Jaffna also operate here, Thajudeen said.

Due to the fragile nature of the ceasefire and the strategic importance of the Trincomalee harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world, night fishing is not allowed along the 20-mile stretch from Nilaweli to Pulmoddai.

Lorries ply from Trincomalee and other fishing hubs such as Batticaloa and Ampara to Colombo and other urban centres with frozen fish.

The catch includes tuna, ship jack, mackerel, balaya, para, seer fish, salaya, hurulla and rockfish. The larger types of fish are caught by multiday craft and the smaller varieties by traditional craft.

Fishermen on the opposite North-Western side of the island are not content, largely due to poaching by Indian fishermen. Fisheries Inspector, Department of Fisheries, Mannar, Joseph Paul Julian said: "These pirates come in large 32 foot trawlers and destroy everything in the way". Before the war Northern Sri Lankan waters provided 40 per cent of the fish which came to Colombo's wholesale fish market.

Wild-caught shrimp from these waters yielded multimillion dollar exports to sophisticated Japanese, US and European markets. The Palk Straits provided lobsters, crabs and other high-demand and lesser known species in plenty. Former Director, Monitoring and Planning, Ministry of Fisheries and Ocean Resources Hugh Fernando said that this area abounds with silver bellies, herrings, sardines, mackerel, cuttlefish, beach cucumber (Beach-de-mer) which fetch over $50 per kilo and sell well in the Far East, and even large conch shells. Sri Lanka's renowned oyster fisheries have long been dormant around the pearl banks in this region.

Fisheries officials in the Jaffna district said the industry is picking up, following 20 years of hibernation. Although Sri Lanka has over 1,900 multiday fishing craft, not a single one is owned by Jaffna fishermen. Most Jaffna fishermen's boats have been financed by NGOs. Jaffna District Fisheries Inspector Kandiah Dharmalingam said that the Jaffna district has 154 fishing craft of 28 to 32 feet length, 3.2 tonnes; 999, 17.5 foot fibreglass mechanised boats with outboard engines and 250 non-mechanised boats.

Jaffna also has 76 traditional craft fitted with outboard engines and 2,093 non-mechanised traditional craft. Fishermen in Jaffna must surrender their passes at security checkpoints before going to sea. They cannot enter the beach at night.

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