COLOMBO, 21 June 2007 (IRIN) - Two and a half years after the tsunami, and unprecedented assistance from donors to Sri Lanka's hard-hit fishing industry, some fishermen are still struggling to fully restore their livelihoods.
The government's Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), said that of the over 19,000 boats destroyed by the tsunami, 90 per cent had been replaced and fishermen were now catching 70 per cent of what they did prior to the tsunami.
"Everything was destroyed here - boats, nets, storage rooms," Hemal Nanayakkara, a fishermen in Hambantota District, told IRIN. "We've managed to get our boats and some of our fishing gear back and we're trying to do the best with what we've been given."
A host of international and local donors committed some US$97 million to restore the fishing industry, according to RADA.
Shortage of large boats
Despite the high recovery rate in the fishing industry, gaps remain. For example, by December 2006, less than 30 per cent of the 187 large-tonnage fishing craft had been replaced, according to RADA. The big ships are capable of multi-day fishing along the deep water shoals and accounted, pre-tsunami, for a third of the overall catch in Sri Lanka.
While there is a shortage of such large boats, some fishing authorities, and fishermen themselves, are concerned that too many smaller boats were distributed by well-meaning donors.
"We have found that in certain tsunami-affected areas, there is an excess of small fishing boats lying on the beaches when compared to the pre-tsunami period," a senior fisheries consultant for the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Leslie Joseph, told IRIN.
Donors causing overfishing?
RADA estimates that an excess of over 3,000 small craft were donated, and now too many such boats compete for shallow-water fish. "The over-supply of one-day boats has caused exploitation of fishing resources."
Fishermen throughout southern Sri Lanka are feeling the effects of such over-fishing, with earnings hit hard.
Kumar Sinnathambhi, a 14-year-old fisherman from Hambantota District, told IRIN he and his uncle sometimes earn as little as Rs. 2,000 (US$180) per month fishing in shallow waters with their paddle canoes.
"Some days we don't catch any fish at all," says Kumar, who dropped out of school and became a full-time fisherman at 12, after the tsunami killed his parents and destroyed his house. Kumar and his four-year-old brother share a small shack with their uncle, who has two children of his own. However, as the uncle can barely feed his immediate family, Kumar is the sole provider for his younger brother and himself. Making ends meet is an increasing challenge not just for the young fisherman but for his uncle as well.
Lured into fishing
Kumar is typical of many new fishermen in coastal Sri Lanka who were lured to the trade in the aftermath of the tsunami because of the easy availability of boats and other fishing resources. Now they are overcrowding the local fishing industry. "It's not difficult to get canoes here, particularly after the tsunami," said veteran fisherman Hemal Nanayakkara. "You see, there are still so many of them lying around, some not even being used."
A recent FAO survey (details below) has shown that less than half those in receipt of boats were not genuine fishermen or did not own a boat before the tsunami.
Nanayakkara also said that while donors readily provided boats, the same was not true for fishing gear. "It's been a bit harder to get the right type of nets," he said.
Getting fresh information on the post-tsunami fishing industry is difficult as no recent in-depth studies are available or being conducted, according to Joseph. But an FAO survey, Recovery Assessment in the Fisheries Sector, carried out one-year after the tsunami, found some gaps in the provision of nets and other fishing gear. Only 28 per cent of the required nets had been given to fishermen in need, according to the survey. In addition, 63 per cent of those boats that had been replaced or repaired post-tsunami had no fishing gear and with the 19 per cent of those that did, the owners found the gear inadequate.
RADA, however, in a November 2006 report, cites some progress, saying that 70 per cent of all nets needed had been distributed.
In addition to concerns about a surfeit of small boats, there have been complaints that some of the donated boats were not up to standard as they were manufactured too quickly. "A lot of the boats were of poor quality and had to be replaced," Joseph told IRIN. "Some of them could only be used for a few months." The FAO survey found that 18.9 percent of the new boats given to tsunami-affected fishermen were not seaworthy.
RADA and FAO have also received complaints that some fishermen had not received boats at all. "There have been some equity issues particular to this sector (fishing), for example, some genuine fishermen have not received boats," the RADA report stated.
The FAO survey found that only 46 per cent of the recipients island-wide were genuine fishermen. Of the 13,000 craft that had been distributed by early 2006, "over 7,100 boats are in the hands of those who did not own boats before the tsunami," the survey said.
FAO and other agencies said that while funding constraints increasingly exist, they continued to provide limited support to the redevelopment of the fishing industry. In FAO's case, the current focus is to bring the larger-tonnage fleet to its pre-tsunami level. "It is a very expensive proposition, however, with an engine alone costing Rs 1.5 million (US$136,000)."