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The Corona Pandemic and SSF in Sri Lanka

By Oscar Amarasinghe [PhD]

President, Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries[SLFSSF]

The Corona pandemic has had varying effects on the small scale fishing community, depending on
the seasonality, availability of supporting services (fuel, ice supply and marketing), alternative
livelihood opportunities and state regulations.

The different coastal provinces of the country are affected differently due to Covid-19 pandemic
and it is proposed to discuss the impacts by fishing area.

Southern Province

Lean season for fishing in the province prevails from October to April and fishers go back to the sea
after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year which falls on the 14th of April. Gill netting, which is the
common gear used by small coastal crafts, cannot be laid during this lean season when the sea is
calm because fish could easily detect the nets and avoid them. Although fishers using FRP boats are
engaged in long lining during the lean season, fishing by this techniques remains quite ‘poor’ at
present. Only those using artisanal fishing crafts and gear: the non-mechanized traditional craft and,
the hook and line do fishing during this period but the market surplus produced by such craft-gear
combinations is quite low.

Sri Lanka also imposes a lobster-ban during the months of February, September and October and
thus lobster fishers who were just recovering from the lobster-ban were also hard hit by the Covid-
19 pandemic. While fishing is allowed, the marketing channels are seriously disrupted. Fish
merchants, too appear to have avoided beach assembling of fish to avoid contamination with the
virus and to keep a social distance. Besides, fish selling has become a problem under the condition
of curfews in all districts of the country, the usual retail outlets have been closed and retail sellers
have to obtain curfew passes to resort to roadside selling, which too has become problematic
because only those live by the road have access to such roadside sellers during curfew periods.
Those staying in remote areas are hardly served. Another related issue is the low fish demand
because people have no purchasing power; the daily paid and the self-employed having no source
of income. Thus marketing was disrupted both due to lack of supply and demand.

Fishers in the South used to migrate to areas further south, such as Kirinda and Amaduwa, especially
targeting lobster resources. During migration, fishers from diverse areas live in fishing camps (away
from home) and social distance among them remains quite small. With the increasing number of
Covid virus-contaminated cases in the country, Sri Lankans have become seriously concerned about
maintaining a fair social distance to prevent infection. Thus the number fishers migrating to the
usual migratory fishing villages has drastically decreased.

Alternative livelihoods

Fishers, who are generally affected by seasonality, resort to diverse non-fishing activities to
smoothen consumption in a context of inter-temporal fluctuation of fishing income; short term
(daily, weekly, etc.) and long term (seasonal). Coir industry (from coconut husks), net mending (hired

labour) for multi-day fishing industry, ornamental fisheries, fish drying (by women), working as crew
workers in multiday crafts, agriculture, animal husbandry, tourism activities (as guides, providing
home stay facilities, fishing tours in lagoons), running boutiques, etc. are some of the activities
fishers are engaged in, often to earn supplementary incomes and to smoothen inter-temporal
income fluctuations, which is more important in small scale fisheries affected by seasonality. The
most important feature of these activities is that they do not display yield risk covariance; incomes
from different activities undertaken by a particular fisher do not rise and fall together, thus providing
the fisher with income smoothing (consumption smoothing) capacity. Unfortunately, the Covid-19
pandemic has hit these activities quite hard, threatening their ability to generate supplementary
incomes. For example, coastal tourism, which has provided ample opportunities for the coastal
fishing communities to earn supplementary incomes, is one activity that is hardly hit by the
pandemic. Almost all tourist hotels have ceased to function. Fishers who used to work in multiday
crafts are unable to travel to harbours (where these crafts are anchored) because of the curfew.
Those who used to work in such harbor premises for net mending, avoid engagement in this activity
because they are done in groups. This is also true with some women folk who used to engage in fish
drying at harbours, which is done in groups. Even those women who are engaged in fish drying as a
household activity, are unable to do so because they have to do fish drying outside their houses (fish
drying sites on the beach or rod sides).

Eastern Province

The month of March falls within the fishing season of the Eastern province (from March to October).
Fishers are allowed to fish and fishing is generally practiced. However, the total fleet is not engaged
in fishing due to various limitations. For example, only about 500 FRP boats (small mechanized crafts
with outboard motor) out of a fleet of 2,000 crafts fish today in Trincomalee, while about 400 crafts
out of a fleet of 1,100 FRP boats fish in Batticaloa. The major limitations are the closure of fish
equipment stores (nets, hooks, spare parts, etc.) and limitations in securing the required quantity of
fuel for the engines and ice for preservation due to restricted movements of people under the
country-wide curfew imposed. The usual capital flow from merchants to fishers, to secure their fuel
requirement has stopped and the fishers are unable to continue fishing operations when catches
are low or zero. Fishers complain that very limited number of merchants are present on the landing
sites to buy fish, which is due to a number of reasons. First, the retail stalls are closed and people do
not go out to purchase fish. Thus the small scale fish traders (ex. bicycle traders and those who buy
in small quantities) do not operate in large numbers. Second, the large scale fish assemblers, who
send the their supplies to distant wholesale markets confront the risk of not being able to obtain a
reasonable price for their supplies if a sufficient number of buyers (retailers) are not present in
wholesale markets. Moreover, inter-district travel is prohibited and they have to obtain special
police permission to travel to distant markets. Above all, country’s demand for fish has definitely
fallen due to a serious drop in the purchasing power of the consumers.

Beach seining is also practiced in the eastern province during these months, but fishers appear to
avoid beach seining because a larger number of fishers (around 40 by the time the cod end is pulled
ashore) are present on the beach, which is considered to be quite risky and against the advice of the
health authorities. Only a few beach seines appear to be under operation.

An issue that has barred fishers from going to the sea, is the recent decision of the Ministry of
Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to amend the regulations for the use of purse seines. It is proposed

that only a mesh size of 1 ½ inches should be used for purse seines, instead of the present size
allowed (3/8 inches). Until the amendment comes into effect, licenses for purse seining are not
issued, which has also prevented fishers from their engagement in purse seining. This is another
factor that has led to low incomes earned by fishers in the Eastern Province.

Northern Province.

Fishing season starts around April and lasts until August. Of the 4,200 small boats in the district (FRP
boats with outboard motor) only about 40-50% are in operation. Daily fish landings have dropped
to 50,000 MT from 160,000 MT. As in the case of all other districts, the major issue is selling of the
catches because the number fish merchants present in landing sites has been drastically reduced.
The authorities have also restricted issuance of passes for a larger number of fish merchants to avoid
large gatherings at the fish market. Moreover, due to the fact that inter-district travel is prohibited,
transport of fish to other districts, such as Mulativu in the east and Kilinochchi in the west of Jaffna
district (to which areas, the Jaffna fish catches were usually sent) is very much curtailed (unless a
curfew pass is obtained, which involves a laborious procedure). Therefore, fish prices have come
down drastically. For example, crab prices have come down from Rs. 1,200/kg to Rs. 500/kg

Jaffna fishers appear to suffer from the problem of obtaining curfew passes for daily fishing trips,
because passes are offered in rotation: fishing permits (curfew passes) are offered to particular
groups of fishers on particular days only. Moreover, the fishers are also confronted with certain
restrictions forcefully employed by security forces, preventing them going to the sea. Like in other
places, fishing equipment stores and fuel pumping stations are all closed, making fishing further

The issue of curfew passes for FRP boats is again subject to more restrictions when such passes are
requested to engage in long line fishing, which is the usual practice during the lean season (Jaffna is
experiencing the end of this lean season). The Sri Lanka Navy appears to have imposed restrictions
on the number of crew members allowed per FRP boat as 2, where as a 3 member crew is required
to engage in long lining by FRP day boat. Probably this restriction has been imposed to prevent larger
social gatherings.

As alternative livelihoods, some fishers were engaged in cattle and goat farming, and this might have
helped them to smoothen fluctuations in daily fishing incomes. However, the fact that sale of animal
products has also been badly affected, fishers have lost their sources of supplementary incomes
worsening their situation and threatening livelihoods.

Lagoon fishing appears to be less affected and fishing continues because lagoon fishers do not need
curfew passes to fish in the lagoon. Yet, here too, the fishers are confronted with the problem of
selling the catches because most of the markets are closed (ex. Jaffna lagoon fish market). Although
a large number of small scale fish merchants are engaged in buying fish from lagoon fishers, only a
limited number of passes are issued to them to buy fish.

Western Province

Negombo’s coastal fleet is comprised of more than 2800 crafts, of which only about 15-20% are in
operation today. One reasons is that the Western province is also experiencing a lean fishing season

liked the south; the fishing season starts after new year in mid April. Whatever fish that is landed
are often sold around the area by the few fish merchants present at landing sites. Fish prices have
drastically come down, and Seer fish (Spanish Mackerel) is sold at 1/3 of its price.

While long lining with FRP boats is generally practiced for fear of Corona Infection fishers appear to
avoid going to landing centers. This has probably been caused by the incidence of a Corona-death
in the area (Poruthota, on the coast) and an infected case from Munnakkaraya, again on the coast.
Thus, fishers have decided to keep a social distance as a precaution against possible Covid-19
infection at the cost of income shortfalls.

Although, fish drying is widely practiced in Negombo both on a small scale and as small industries,
they too have been seriously affected by lack of fish and the disruption of channels of marketing and
distribution. Both direct incomes and supplementary incomes have fallen. Women in Negombo
were actively involved in fish marketing and their functions have been diminished to a significant
extent because of the continued curfews. Moreover, women were involved in diverse income
generating activities such as making sweets, various food items, sewing, etc. and such activities have
been seriously affected because of the closure of hotels, restaurants, roadside food stalls,
minimizing the role of supplementary incomes in adding to their wellbeing.

Into the future:

1. Livelihoods

It is obvious that fisheries livelihoods are seriously affected by low or zero fishing incomes
and supplementary incomes. Fishers, fisher women and children are all affected. It is to be
noted that, with irregular and uncertain incomes, foresight and planning are not encouraged
among marine fishermen. Due to his daily "production cycle", the fisherman must save in much
smaller increments than the agriculturist who can set aside large amounts of money at a given
point of time. Therefore, most of the durable consumption goods possessed by fishers have
generally been purchased on installment basis, where they pay monthly instalments that also
includes an interest on the deal. Under the present situation, obviously the fishers are unable
to pay such instalments in time. This is also true with loans burrowed from both, formal and
informal sources. The interests and principal payments are all getting accumulated. The
government requested from all banks and leasing companies towards the end of March 2020,
not to deduct loans from individuals and small and medium business enterprises for 6 months.
Although the government banks have yielded to this request positively, not all organizations
have openly agreed. Of course this will not be relevant to the private moneylender.

The major issue after the settlement of the pandemic and when fishers start to engage in fishing
would be to pay back loans: interests, loan installments and other financial commitments, that
have got accumulated.

2. Ecosystem

One of the serious issues that has threatened the coastal ecosystem has been the pervasive
use of destructive (environmentally unfriendly gear) in the country. The most extensively
used in the country are the monofilament nets, dynamite, bottom trawls, stake nets,

unregulated brush piles (cut mangrove braches used to aggregate fish) and bottom set gill
nets. Reports from the north indicate a significant rise in the use of destructive gear after
the cessation of the civil war. One of the arguments for the extensive use of such gear has
been “poverty of fishers, who tend to earn quick incomes when for lack of alternatives in
meeting family subsistence needs.

If the above is true, one might expect a rise in the use of destructive gear once fishing begins
after the cessation of the Covid-19 pandemic, because the fishers having suffered
tremendously under the present situation might want to earn quick incomes to recover from
income and hardships, moral and social shocks, and pay back loans.

3. Community organizations

Fisheries cooperatives, as principal community organizations have played a crucial role in

hedging fishers against various risk and uncertainties. On the demand side, due to their poor
access to formal credit and insurance, fishers have willingly borrowed from fisheries
cooperatives by offering group guarantees. Today, the cooperatives are refraining from
charging interest and principals from the member-borrowers who are suffering from zero or
low fishing incomes. The question is whether the cooperatives would be able to continue
with their lending functions in the absence of non-repayment of previous loans by the

Obviously, cooperatives will be forced to write off interest payments due from members,
which might have serious negative impacts on the continuation of the lending schemes.

Resolving issues emerging from Covid-19 pandemic in the SSF sector

1. Let fishers fish

Today, fishers are not able to engage in their usual fishing activities because of the limitations
imposed on their movement and the absence of diverse fishery-support services. They all
have to obtain a permit (a curfew pass) to fish. They have to go through several channels to
obtain this pass: from Assistant Director of Fisheries through Grama Niladhari through
Divisional Secretary to the Police. The procedure takes time and even the pass has to be
regularly obtained afresh (re-applying after a couple of days). Such conditions will have to be
relaxed so that fishers could obtain the required permit without much pain and time loss.
One must think of allowing fisheries cooperatives to obtain a group license for their members
providing a craft-crew list to the authorities.

2. Let merchants buy and sell fish

Merchants find it difficult to obtain curfew passes (or fish buying and distribution passes)
because only a limited number of merchants are allowed to purchase fish from a certain
landing center. Moreover, transportation of fish is also under control and inter-district
movement of vehicles are strictly controlled. Methods of buying fish without allowing for
large scale gathering will have to be worked out to ensure fish buying at landing sites. As we

have noted, fish prices have come down, not due to over-supply, but due to lack of sufficient
number of buyers and bad retail selling (fish not reaching the consumer). Thus, there is an
urgent need to ensure good distribution of fish in the consuming centers. It might be possible
to adopt an e-marketing service using mobile phones to streamline fish marketing and to
avoid un-necessary gathering of merchants.

3. Ask government to intervene in buying fish and fish products

If the presence of private merchants buying fish is inadequate or too risky, the government
can buy fish (the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation [CFC] which has responsibility for fish
marketing) and distribute through their retail centers and operating mobile sales centers by
hiring fish transport vehicles. However, when the CFC purchases fish, they don’t pay spot
cash, and payments take a few days. This is unacceptable to fishers.

4. Help the hardly hit families

After identifying the coastal fishing families hardly hit by the current pandemic, with the help
of the Assistant Directors of Fisheries and Grama Niladhari’s of the respective area (the local
government officer at the ground level), they should be provided with free rations (a food
basket), in the short run, to help them to meet their basic minimum subsistence needs

5. Plan for rule enforcement in the future

As a means of controlling any future use of destructive fishing techniques, the Monitoring,
Control and Surveillance activities of the Department of Fisheries will have to be
strengthened, with the assistance from Sri Lanka Navy, Coast Guard, etc. It is necessary to
strictly enforce laws and prosecute the law breakers.

6. Assist fisheries cooperatives

Given the important role played by fisheries cooperatives in providing the fishers with
livelihood capitals, more importantly, the financial capital, they should be helped by
providing them with a certain amount of financial capital to continue with their lending
activities. It is quite important for cooperatives to continue not only as the principal source
of credit to fishers, but to provide the fishers with the required insurance: in the absence of
private insurance markets for fisheries (due to informational problems). In this case, credit
(especially instant loans) provided by cooperatives act as an insurance substitute, which
justifies why cooperatives should be provided with financial capital.

Cooperatives could even be helped to undertake fish marketing functions. Fishers are the
members of cooperatives and this allows fishers to sell their own fish. However, to undertake
such functions the cooperatives will have to higher freezer vans and other distribution
vehicles. However, this will drastically reduce the number of merchants present at landing

Persons contacted:
1. Assistant Director of Fisheries, Batticaloa, Mr. Rukshan C. Croos, (Eastern Province)
2. Assistant Director of Fisheries, Trincomalee, Mr. W. A. R. Senaratne (Eastern Province)
3. Assistant Director of Fisheries, Jaffna, Mr. J. Suthagaran (Northern Province)
4. Assistant Director of Fisheries, Negombo, Mr. M. M. W. R. Bandara (Western Province)
5. Mr. Jayathilaka, Fisher Leader, & member Provincial Council, Rekawa, Southern Sri Lanka
6. Mr. H. M. Ranjith ( Chairman, Fisheries Cooperative Society, Godawaya, Hambantota)
7. Mr. Herman Kumara, Convenor, National Fisheries Solidarity, Negombo

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