Mirissa: Tuna Town
As an island nation sitting abreast of the rich pickings of the warm Indian ocean, it’s not hard to imagine the importance of fishing to Sri Lanka’s national economy. While tourism, combined with the legacy of its plantation economy (think tea, rubber, cinnamon), and post-colonial industries (basically textiles and food processing) are the driving force of its GDP, fisheries constitute an important export while also fulfilling the protein needs of locals: over 31 kgs. Are fish are consumed annually, per person.
Fish markets ring the 1770 km of coastline from Negombo in the West to Kallady in Batticaloa in the East. The markets are hectic affairs and Mirissa aka Tuna Town, in the South is no exception. Boats unload their catch at day break with coolies, armed with long iron hooks, hauling the fish from the bellies of the boats on the concrete of the fish market to display on black plastic tarps for customers to peruse. Selections are either sold by weight or auctioned off. Silver and blue striped skipjack tuna and Spanish mackerel constitute the main stay and are always in strong demand while the bigger catches, including prized Yellowfin tuna, can go for up to several thousand rupees depending on the grade.
Fish markets are not for the squeamish
White styrofoam boxes provide makeshift ice boxes containing an assortment of small fish and crustaceans. Sharks, prized for their fins, and various rays (certain parts having medicinal properties) are openly on display in all their bloody glory. Fish markets are not for the squeamish. And one needs to be careful where one steps as fish guts under foot don’t provide a lot of traction. As most species are sold whole, fish carvers are on hand eager to slice and dice and disembowel your purchase for a few rupees. The refuse is often cast to the side to feed the local population of ‘brownies’ (feral dogs) while scrawny cats will later fight off crows and seabirds for whatever falls between the cracks.
An environmental disaster in the making?
With around 250, 000 employed in the industry, the importance of the bountiful waters of the Indian Ocean is obvious. Yet, the fishing industry is under threat. A report carried out by the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) and supported by Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (IMR) has shown that the fishing waters are polluted with a wide variety of various plastics. Micro-plastics, carried to sea from rivers within Sri Lanka pose a threat to fish stocks as do the discarded fishing gear, polystyrene, and plastic packaging used by the fishermen. Experts fear for the future of Sri Lanka’s fish resources and claim the main drivers are overfishing, micro-plastic contamination and unauthorised fishing. It may well be that within 30 years plastics in the deep sea will outnumber fish. This doesn’t bode well for an economy already on its knees and highly dependent on the Indian Ocean.