Sri Lanka fishermen facing difficult time in financial squall

Anton Fernando counts his tuna and other fish sales on a dock in Negombo, Sri Lanka, after three weeks at sea, where the country’s financial crisis has darkened already gloomy waters.
Fernando and his four-man crew aren’t looking good among the twelve gently bobbing trawlers. From their arduous journey, each receives 40,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($130).

“This will not be enough to support their home expenditures,” Fernando, 44, said reporters as he held up a notebook with numbers scribbled on it. “We realise this isn’t enough to cover energy and water costs, college fees, and food even before we go home.”

As COVID-19, mishandled government finances, and ill-timed tax cuts bleed diminishing foreign reserves, the island nation of 22 million people off the southern tip of India is facing its biggest financial crisis since independence in 1948.

The central bank announced last week that repayment on some of its foreign debt will be suspended pending a reorganisation.

Protesters throng the streets of Colombo, the commercial metropolis, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s removal as residents grapple with increasing costs, protracted power outages, and shortages of medicine, fuel, and other necessities.

Fishermen in Negombo are fighting to remain afloat.

Fishing accounts for only 1.3 percent of the economy in this Southeast Asian country, yet it employs one-tenth of the population and feeds many more. Tuna, swordfish, crabs, lobsters, and prawns are exported to a dozen nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and Japan, accounting for 8% of the island’s agricultural exports.

Emailed inquiries for comment on measures made to support the fishing industry were not immediately answered by Sri Lanka’s fisheries and finance ministries.

Some fisherman claim to have reduced their food intake, while others claim to have stopped repaying loans. Those who talked to the media all stated that they are continuously scrounging for fuel for their boats and residences.

Workers in Negombo, a small fishing village 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Colombo, retrieve fish from docked boats, weigh them, and load them onto a few refrigerated trucks.

Fernando’s colourful St. Anne 2 trawler requires at least 1,000 litres of diesel (260 gallons) and several hundred pounds of ice for each trip.

“We’ll have to wait hours in line for petrol, and even then, we’re not sure if we’ll get enough. Everything we require has gone up in price, including ice, bait, and nets “he stated “As a result of the gasoline shortage, several boats have ceased sailing out to sea.”

Two small-boat fisherman said they steal gasoline from friends’ and neighbours’ motorcycles because gas outlets won’t fill their jerry cans.

This month, Finance Minister Ali Sabry informed the media that the government’s first goal was to restore basic services like petroleum. He stated that some of the aid sought by the government from lenders such as the International Monetary Fund would go to the country’s economically vulnerable people.

“Fishermen don’t know how they’ll get gasoline or deal with high food prices,” Herman Kumara, the head of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, which represents 9,000 fishermen, said. “All they care about is living today.”

He predicted “a life-or-death situation here over the next three to six months” because of the crisis, which has grounded at least half of the area’s trawler fleet.

Mary Dilani said she earns 1,500 rupees a day drying fish at a nearby beach, while her husband G.K. Chaminda earns 2,000 rupees. G.K. Chaminda borrowed 100,000 rupees three years ago for a tiny rowing boat and is now struggling to repay the loan.

“We can’t afford cooking gas anymore,” she said in their cramped, two-room house in Negombo’s Sea Street neighbourhood, where they live with their two daughters and granddaughter beside a plastic-strewn beach. “I converted to a kerosene stove, but we can’t always find kerosene.”

The family’s main concern is raising 4,000 rupees for textbooks for a daughter who is ready to begin a new school year.

“Life has gotten quite difficult,” Dilani remarked.

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