Plenty of fish but no catch as Sri Lanka’s economic crisis bites
The skies and seas off the coast of Sri Lanka are crystal blue, but a deepening economic crisis has kept fishermen moored at the port of Negombo, running out of fuel and unable to bring in catches from the daytime.
The nearby waters teem with fist-sized prawns and mackerel that are normally found in the island nation’s staple seafood curries.
But the crisis has left coastal communities running out of fuel to send their ships out to sea, and the repercussions are reverberating on dinner tables across the country.
“If we queue at five in the morning, we will have fuel at three in the afternoon on good days,” Arulanandan, a veteran member of Negombo’s close-knit fishing community, told AFP. .
“But for some, even that is not possible, because by the time they get to the end of the queue, the jet fuel is gone.”
Around the local estuary, idle crew members bask in the sun on deck or lean against the tracks of floating trawlers in the water, puffing on cigarettes as they listlessly await news of a cargo of fresh diesel.
Their ships are equipped to go deep into international waters for weeks, but shortages have prevented most from setting sail.
Other fishermen work closer to land, on smaller kerosene-powered motorboats like the one in Arulanandan, but locals say three out of four such boats are not working on any given day.
Adversity has ripple effects – if a crew specializing in catching bait runs out of fuel, then other boats lucky enough to stock up on kerosene are also forced to stay ashore.
“When I can’t bring money home, my children ask me, ‘Why don’t you feed me?'” says Arulanandan.
“But they don’t understand the issues we’re going through.”
– ‘What is everyone going to do?’ –
An hour’s drive south, on the outskirts of the capital Colombo, is the country’s largest fish market, a bustling open-air warehouse that usually serves as a hub for wholesale buyers from across the country.
The consequences of Sri Lanka’s dwindling catch are being keenly felt here, with far less seafood making its way to vendors and far fewer customers passing through.
“Buyers come from afar, and because of the shortage of diesel and petrol, they didn’t show up,” said Mohammed Asneer, a young shrimp seller.
“Our sales have gone down and our expenses have gone up.”
Asneer gets exasperated while lamenting his predicament and says he would take any opportunity to go abroad.
“I don’t want to be in this country anymore,” he told AFP.
“We work at the fish market and we can’t even afford to buy a kilo of fish. So what will the others do?”
– “Everything is expensive” –
The Sri Lankan government admits that the current economic crisis is the worst the country has seen since independence from Britain in 1948.
Inflation is galloping. The cost of diesel – when fuel is available – has nearly doubled in a matter of months, and official figures show the average price of food jumped 25% in January.
“Now everything is expensive – for us it’s very difficult to do business,” says KW Shiromi, owner of seafood restaurant Mama’s Place in the bucolic southern coastal town of Weligama.
By the side of the road, a handful of foreign tourists select a fish for Shiromi’s brother to scale and gut before sending it to the kitchen to be sautéed in chilli and spices.
As a few happy customers watch the waves hit their tables, Shiromi tells AFP that the rising cost of her fishing has forced her to raise prices.
“If the government does something to improve things, then everyone will be happy,” she said.
“Otherwise everyone in Sri Lanka will suffer.”