Sri Lanka’s fishing and tourism sectors are drowning in yet another crisis
COLOMBO – Fishermen and women on the west coast of Sri Lanka, who have been battered by the pandemic and lockdowns for more than a year now, can no longer hope for the bountiful catches the annual rainy season promises. Their customers, said Aruna Roshantha, president of the All Ceylon Fisher Folk Trade Union, are too afraid to eat seafood.
The fear stems from a disaster that began to unfold on May 20, when a ship loaded with 1,486 containers and 25 tonnes of nitric acid caught fire some 18 km northwest of Colombo. The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl also carried other hazardous chemicals and materials, including nurdles, pre-production granules used to make plastic products.
Now dead fish, sea turtles and dolphins are washing up, and photographs of grizzly bears are making the rounds on social media.
People are “scared,” Roshantha said. “So even though we catch fish, ‘there is no one to buy fish.’
Sri Lanka’s tourist attractions and exporters – two other sectors that have been hit hard by the pandemic – are also feeling the repercussions. The area is a popular destination among local and foreign tourists who come here to feast on fresh jumbo shrimp, crab, lobster, tuna, and seer. Singaporeans could also be touched as the stars of Sri Lankan seafood in the city’s famous fresh crab dish.
Roshantha said the disaster could not have come at a worse time – at the onset of the rainy season, which creates conditions that allow fishermen and women to make bigger draws. “During this particular period,” he said, “fishermen can earn between 5,000 and 100,000 rupees ($ 25 to 500) a day”.
As compensation, Roshantha continued, “the government is offering us 5,000 rupees a month, which is an insult to us. We want something justifiable from the government.”
More than 10,000 fishermen and women from Colombo to Negombo, north of the capital, lost their income due to the oil spill. Others, Roshantha said, were forced to sell a kilogram of fish for around 200 Sri Lankan rupees ($ 1), up from around 650 rupees before the disaster.
Niroshan Selvarajah, who runs JJ Fresh Maalu, a fish stall, said there was little demand for fish and sales had fallen by around 45%. “Nobody wants to buy,” he said. “They are afraid.”
Dilan Fernando, president of the Seafood Exporters Association of Sri Lanka, said some shipments have been canceled since the disaster, although some of those buyers have withdrawn their cancellations after being assured of their safety.
Several other buyers from Europe and Israel have advised Sri Lankan companies not to export seafood until the government provides the required safety clearance.
According to Fernando, pre-COVID seafood exports contributed an estimated $ 350 million per year to the economy. In 2020, the figure has risen to $ 300 million. “The government must immediately step in and issue a statement saying the fish is safe for consumption,” he said. “But for that to happen, they have to do the necessary tests first.”
The fishing industry produced 429,150 tonnes of fish last year, up from 506,070 tonnes before the 2019 pandemic, according to the National Aquaculture Development Authority. It contributes around 2.7% of the country’s GDP, providing direct and indirect jobs to more than 500,000 people.
The disaster is also expected to impact tourism. West Coast hoteliers fear this will prevent them from recovering from COVID when more tourists are allowed to re-enter the country. Kimberley Adams, manager of Camelot Beach Hotel Negombo, said the spill of granules and chemicals will negatively impact Negombo beach.
“I watch the beach almost every other day,” she said, “and there are piles of plastic pellets and piles of burnt pellets strewn all over the place. On the very first day the beach was pretty much a white range “due to all the plastic.
Negombo Beach is known for its amber sand.
Adams believes the impact on hotels on the west coast of Sri Lanka will come mainly from hesitation among international travelers. “I think the locals will understand the situation better,” she said, adding that “international travelers… come specifically for our beaches, and the last thing they will want to see is a beach full of plastic.”
Sri Lanka’s tourism receipts in 2020 plunged to $ 957 million, a drop of more than 73% from $ 3.6 billion the year before, according to a report by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. The drop in the number of tourists has also been dramatic – 507,704 arrived in 2020, or about a quarter of the 1.9 million who turned up in 2019.
From January to May of this year, Sri Lanka only received 15,000 arrivals.
Sanath Ukwate, president of the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, is not ready to sound the alarm. He noted that other destinations have emerged from similar disasters, pointing out that the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius last August fell victim to an oil spill.
“Sure, they had a temporary setback,” he said, “but it was cleaned up. Even here the armed forces are doing a brilliant job of cleaning up beaches. I’m sure when it does again peak season it will be back to normal. “
Sailors and other troops began the cleanup mission on May 27.
Others affected by the spill are not so optimistic. Angry environmentalists and fishermen took to the Supreme Court last week to file a lawsuit against the government and the shipping company for failing to prevent what they say is the “worst maritime disaster” ever in Sri Lanka.
The petitioners are also demanding to know who authorized the vessel to enter Sri Lankan waters amid reports that Qatar and India had refused the vessel after learning of a chemical leak. They seek an order directing the Attorney General to prosecute all state officials who have willfully breached their legal and regulatory obligations; 13 were cited as respondents, including Minister of Ports and Marine Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Minister of State Nalaka Godahewa and Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera.
In addition, they are asking for compensation from the shipowner and his local agents for environmental damage to marine and coastal ecosystems as well as compensation for fishermen who lost their livelihoods due to the disaster.
Roshantha says that when the government receives compensation from the shipping company, two-thirds must be distributed to the fishing community affected by the disaster.