As an island nation sitting abreast of the 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 consumed annually per person.
Fish markets ring the 1770 km of coastline with each serving its corresponding province: from Negombo in the West to Mirissa in the South, to Kallady in Batticaloa in the East and Passaiyoor at the mouth of Palk Bay in the North. The markets are hectic affairs. Boats unload their catch at day break with coolies, armed with long iron hooks, hauling the fish off 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 are in strong demand while the bigger catches, including prized Yellowfin tuna, can go for up to several thousand rupees depending on the grade.
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 often in various states of dismemberment. Fish markets are not for the squeamish. As most species are sold whole, fish carvers are on hand eager to slice and dice and separate the guts for a few rupees. The refuse is cast to the side to feed the local population of brown dogs while scrawny cats fight off crows and seabirds for whatever remains.
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 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 and fish sellers.
This plastic is fast depleting fish resources. In the last fisheries stock survey, carried out from 1978 to 1980, it was estimated that fish resources at the seabed level were likely between 250,000 and 350,000 tonnes. In contrast, recent surveys showed a plummeting of the fish stock to around 53,000 tonnes. “The drivers are overfishing, micro-plastic contamination and unauthorised fishing,” according to Prabath Javasinghe, co-cruise leader and senior scientist with NARA. “Besides affecting fish exports, this also means Sri Lankans may soon not have the benefit of their main source of protein.”
The survey of Sri Lanka’s territorial waters confirms what other reports have shown regarding the amount of plastics in the water, that within 3 decades they will outweigh fish. A sea change in the way refuse is collected and mindfulness of the ecological damage caused by plastics and fishing debris will need to occur to ensure that the fishermen of Mirissa and other ports dotted around the Island nation continue to haul in uncontaminated seafood for decades to come.