Tsunami fishermen struggle to cope

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Early morning in the heart of the southern Sri Lankan town of Galle, it’s business as usual in the main fish market.

Fish sellers call out to prospective customers to take a close look at the fresh catch laid out on stone blocks – lobster, jumbo prawns, kingfish and tuna.

It’s busy, noisy and far removed from the scene in December 2004, when the entire market was buried under a pile of rubble. But not everyone is happy and not everything normal.

“Business is not good at all,” says Jayanta Gamage, a fish seller. He explains that although the market has been rebuilt, the infrastructure supporting the industry is only slowly coming back to shape.

“Many fishermen who used to supply fish to us from further down the coast simply sell their stock on the highway, because they are unable to get it across to us in time,” he says.

There are relatively fewer refrigerated trucks which transport the fish along the coast to the lucrative markets in Galle and Colombo.

As for the wholesalers and middlemen who form the crucial link between supplier and buyer – many of them are still to get back on their feet after the tsunami.

Rebuilding Trade

A drive further down the supply chain, to the fishing village of Weligama, illustrates the problem.

SH Ranjith, 40, has been a fisherman since he was 15. Owner of a fleet of boats, he lost six of them in the tsunami.

“It took me two months to get a boat back to sea,” Mr Ranjith, who lost his mother in the tsunami, says.

It took him considerably longer to repair and rebuild the remaining two boats that he owned.

“I got some help from NGOs and the government who supplied me some nets and the engines for the boats,” he says.

“The rest of it was financed by my life savings and money I borrowed.”

He shades his eyes against the early morning sun as one of his boats, Sea Princess, comes in.

The 10 man crew quickly unload the cargo – small prawns and sprats. But there is no lucrative tuna to supply to the restaurants and hotels in Galle and beyond.

Little Help

“Many of us have begun selling directly to consumers instead of going through middlemen,” Mr Ranjith says.

The catch is not valuable enough and highly perishable.

So many of the fishermen sell the fish along the highway, where cars pull up to conduct the trade.

“We lost 10 million rupees ($98,000) worth of boats and other material,” says KA Lakshman, 41, a member of the local fishing union which has 250 members.

“The government aid of 5,000 rupees ($49) a month obviously was never going to be enough,” he adds.

Government officials acknowledge that the effort to organise the industry and rebuild it has been disorganised but point out that their priority lay in housing the victims.

“It’s only now that we have managed to look at livelihood programmes,” says MGS Dhammasena, the district tsunami rehabilitation coordinator.

Mr Dhammasena and other government officials also point out that the tsunami had left the entire administrative machinery in disarray.

“Many of us also lost family or our homes and possessions,” he said.

“Of course it’s going to take time to get things going.”

Poor catch

Close to the beach, at a small two room building which functions as a club for the fishermen, the day’s catch is poured onto the floor and auctioned.

Wholesalers sift through the fish, putting some aside and rejecting the rest as anxious fishermen watch their every move.

An argument breaks out as a large percentage of the catch is rejected.

“It’s not good enough,” says S De Silva, who makes the run along the coast every morning.

Bitter fishermen throw up their hands in despair and conspiracy theories abound.

“It’s just not been the same after the tsunami,” says Chandana, a fisherman.

“The catch is different – the sea is not the same. The difference in water level means that we only get small fish.”

Others offer a more logical explanation.