Photo courtesy of CNA

Although the current financial crisis has had a broad impact on life and livelihoods in Sri Lanka, the effects are felt by different social groups in varying and unequal ways. When a range of lives and livelihoods in a region are dependent on a particular economic activity, the inequitable impact within that space is amplified. It can also show how communities themselves strive for resilience amid crisis.

The fisheries industry is such a livelihood. It is a keystone within certain local and regional economies due to the way it is central and interwoven with economic activities across different scales. According to the Ministry of Fisheries, marine fisheries support over 185,000 households and 2.7 million fishing and related households.

A study that concluded in June 2022 in Negombo observed how the marine and lagoon ecosystems associated with the town supported fishing practices, which are diverse in scale and type. Larger multiday boat operators, artisanal fishers using mechanised and non-mechanised crafts occupy these waters. A selection of other livelihoods associated with the fisheries can be observed when boats return to their landing sites. These include activities such as releasing fish from the nets, pushing boats into the sea and pulling them on to the shore and labour for other activities. Fishers highlighted that some people who provide these services are retired fishers or people who are homeless and/or have no other form of livelihood.

Other livelihoods that depend on the fisheries include boat manufacturers and small to large scale retailers of fishing gear, ice manufacturers, dried fish producers, fish vendors, and vendors selling goods (such as polythene bags used by fish vendors) and food for fishers. A senior scientist from the Socio-Economic and Marketing Research Division of National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) confirmed that approximately 15 livelihoods are either directly or indirectly dependent on the fisheries industry in Negombo. Therefore, the fisheries sector is not only a cornerstone in the livelihoods at a regional scale in Negombo but also a determinant of resilience and vulnerability of a wider group of people.

The livelihoods of the fishers of the region faced several crises driven by state interventions to curb waves of COVID, the sinking of the Xpress Pearl and the financial crisis. Fishers who took part in the study were mostly members from a Rural Fishers’ Society (RFS) and a Fishers’ Cooperative Society (FCS). While each of these crises had an impact on the demand for fish, the financial crisis has been particularly hard due to the scarcity and the rising price of kerosene and LPG gas (the former is used for both cooking and running their outboard motors) and lubricant, price inflation of gear (including the manufacture of boats) and decline in demand due to the rising market price of fish.

Considering that a fisher using nets would require about 40 litres of fuel and a fisher using active gear such as pole and line could use as much as double that amount in a day, the uncertainties related to the availability of kerosene has been particularly devastating.

Even though multiday boats use diesel, they also require provisions such as drinking water, LPG gas for cooking and ice for storage along with food provisions, all of which have become more expensive. Almost all of the participants of the study described coping mechanisms that are used by the fishers in order to overcome these hard times. These strategies include, reducing consumption and switching to cheaper sources of protein, and selling/pawning assets.

Some participants of the study that included fisheries inspectors and the wives of fishers mentioned that coping strategies also included switching to alternative livelihoods within the fisheries sector itself. Some fishers sold their fishing gear and joined the crew of larger boats while others switched to alternative forms of fishing such as using nets close to the shore of the lagoon. However, labour for their nets is also hard to come by due to many people leaving this fishing community.

The scarcity of fuel limits their ability to help other fishers who are stranded at sea because the fishers rely on each other’s capabilities to deploy their boats in case one of them needs help. Due to the lack of fuel, they are more risk averse.

While the government has provided compensation and welfare to help people tide over these crises, there have been instances where people have not received such forms of support. However, to improve long term resilience of this industry and the people it supports (especially those who are most vulnerable), the ability of the fishers to resist and recover from these shocks or to adapt to their effects needs to be improve. But it is expected that the state’s capacities to extend financial assistance would be limited and the potential that exists within the capacities of the communities themselves would need to be seriously considered.

Although the state played a role in establishing the structure of the rural fisher societies in order to establish an organisational structure that it engages with in a top down manner, the fishers have relationships with one another that are structured in a more complex manner, which is more dynamic than what the state’s imposed structure would suggest. Speaking to the staff at the Department of Fisheries, this complexity is known to the state institution and they do make efforts to engage with it as best as possible. Other community based organisations and the church based affiliations add different dimensions to this institutional matrix. As a result, the picture that emerges from the field is that of a complex assemblage of state and community level institutions and individuals with different capacities engaging with one another out of which a degree of resilience had emerged, which until now has allowed different forms of fishery practices to exist with one another over generations, including both traditional non-mechanised forms.

 Perhaps rather than expecting these communities to cope with scarcity, there might be avenues to be explored with the communities themselves that could help facilitate a holistic and systemic approach towards overcoming shocks and stresses. Unfortunately, this would require state mechanisms to be uncharacteristically flexible and exploratory in its approach. Even if there might be no alternative to obtaining required amounts of fuel at an affordable price, allowing communities to meaningfully participate during times of crisis such as this could help state mechanisms to understand how best to assist communities to adapt and transform, if not resist, the impacts of these crises.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of CEPA.