Sri Lanka : Tsunami rehab

Helping Hands The Crafty Way

A project to rebuild fisheries livelihoods in post-tsunami Sri Lanka was implemented with a participatory approach to building fishing vessels

This article is by Erwin Rathnaweera ( and Jayantha Gunasekera ( of Practical Action South Asia

Being an island, Sri Lanka has, over many years, developed fishing, particularly marine fisheries, into an important industry along its coastline of 1,585 km, consisting of sandy beaches, extensive lagoons, estuaries, mangroves, coastal marshes and dunes. In 2003, coastal fisheries contributed almost two per cent to Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product. The sector directly employs 300,000 fishermen, and altogether, has provided direct and indirect employment to one million people in the country.

The fishing industry earns foreign exchange for the country. In 2003, it contributed US$100 mn by exporting fish products such as tuna, shrimp, lobster and ornamental fish. Fish accounts for 65 per cent of the total animal protein consumed in Sri Lanka.

Prior to the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the total fish landings in the country were 280,000 tonnes, of which 90 per cent were consumed domestically, and the rest, exported. However, to meet the increasing domestic fish consumption, 70,000 tonnes of dried and canned fish were imported into the country in 2004.

Statistics show that the largest contribution to fish production comes from the coastal marine fishery (inshore fishery), which is, in fact, a small-scale fishery, whereas the contribution of the offshore fishery (mainly targeting large pelagics) is low (see Table 1).

The small-scale sector accounts for nearly 65 per cent of the total fish production. Twelve fishing harbours and 700 fish-landing centres operate along the coast. Brackishwater aquaculture, mainly for shrimps, contributed 2,400 tonnes in 2004.

The coastal fishing fleet has increased in size since 1984 (see Table 2). The number of fibreglass reinforced plastic (FRP) boats rose from 6,882 in 1984 to 11,559 in 2004, while motorized traditional and beach-seine craft decreased. The offshore fishing fleet has shown the greatest expansion during this period.

Civil strife

Marine fish production increased from 57,457 tonnes in 1960 to 167,412 tonnes in 1980. Civil strife disrupted fishing in the north and east of the country, reducing production to 145,798 tonnes in 1990. The increase in fish production in recent years can be attributed to the rapid development of the offshore fishery, which mainly flourished in the south and west, resulting in 259,680 tonnes and 274,760 tonnes in 2000 and 2002, respectively.

The tsunami of 26 December 2004 had a particularly devastating impact on Sri Lanka, which was one of the worst affected areas in the Indian Ocean region. More people died in Sri Lanka as a result of the tsunami than anywhere else, apart from Indonesia. The tsunami caused severe damage to coastal communities in 12 of the 14 coastal districts in the country. Loss of lives and infrastructure hit the fishing sector hard, especially as the ten most affected districts account for over 81 per cent of the country’s total marine fish landings. Also, over half the national fish resources are found in the southern and northeastern coastal areas, the ones worst hit by the tsunami.

Damages to the fisheries sector can be mainly categorized thus:

Fishing communities: A total of 4,870 persons were reported dead, while 136 were reported missing. The number of houses of fishers and their families destroyed and damaged has been enumerated as 16,434 and 13,329, respectively.

Fishing vessels: The tsunami rendered around 73 per cent, or close to three-fourths, of the 32,000-strong fishing fleet unseaworthy and totally destroyed about 54 per cent. The cost of repairing and replacing fishing craft and gear has been estimated at US$57 mn.

Harbours and anchorages: Around 10 fisheries harbours, 37 anchorages and 200 fish-landing sites and associated facilities, fishery co-operative buildings and vehicles were extensively damaged. Additionally, marine structures, including breakwater rock boulders, fuel tanks, pumps and distributor systems, slipways and boat repair yards, were damaged. The estimated cost for repair of damage to these facilities is US$65 mn.

Coastal environment, including

Aquaculture: Since the tsunami waves, on average, penetrated 0.5 km inshore, large tracts of the main agricultural areas were affected. The shoreline was severely disrupted, eroded and covered with debris. Sand and sediment washed from land and deposited in the nearshore area have affected the reef lagoons. In low-lying areas and along creeks and inlets, the waves penetrated up to 2 km from the shoreline. Among the coastal habitats important for fisheries productivity, coral reefs and mangroves seem to have suffered at varying levels as a result of the tsunami. Coral formations, which are habitats and breeding grounds for some fish species, were damaged by debris. Although it can be assumed that the tsunami destroyed breeding and nursery habitats of species such as parrotfish (Scaridae), snappers (Lutjanidae) and sweet-lips (Haemulidae), detailed coral reef damage assessments will be necessary.

Sri Lanka’s coastal fishery has a multi-gear and multi-species nature. The fishing vessels include diverse types of traditional and large-scale fishing craft such as the small theppam and kattumaram, wooden dugout or fibreglass canoes (oru), fibreglass day-boats with outboard and inboard engines, and multiday boats with inboard engines.

In addition, cast nets and beach seines are used near the shore. Other types of fishing gear include drift-nets, pole-and-line (for tuna), trammel nets, handlines, longline, purse-seines and push-nets.

Considering this wide variety, the task of replacing lost gear is a complex one that inevitably requires the participation of, and dialogue with, the affected fisher communities. One project that attempted to do so was undertaken by Practical Action, (formerly, ITDG) South Asia. It implemented a participatory approach to rebuilding fishing vessels post-tsunami, encouraging the participation of the fisher communities and district fisheries extension office (DFEO) at all stagesfrom beneficiary selection to the completion of the construction of the fishing vessels. The basic aim was to ensure the production of fishing vessels suitable for the local conditions of fish-landing sites.

The participatory approach to building fishing vessels was divided into three steps: (i) selection of beneficiary; (ii) identification of the type of fishing vessel required; and (iii) construction and handing over of the fishing vessel.

To begin with, a list of potential beneficiaries was obtained from the DFEO. This was cross-checked with all the stakeholders in the community, not just the craft owner, but also the full-time and part-time fishworkers (men and women), full- and part-time fishers (men and women), fish processors and so on. Officials like fisheries inspectors, and heads of societies and co-operatives participated in the beneficiary selection meeting too.

Open public meetings were announced through posters and notices. The final beneficiary list, based on a consensus, was submitted through the Fisheries Inspector to the DFEO for approval. Upon receipt of approval, the next stage of identification of the type of fishing vessel required was done. The fisher community was encouraged to come up with the specifications of the required fishing craft. It was noteworthy that the participation of the fisher community was very high in providing information pertaining to the design of the fishing vessel, even, in some cases, drawing the designs on paper.

One successful method employed to identify the craft required was to mobilize the fisher community to collect the damaged parts of the fishing crafts and reassemble them into a dummy of the vessel they had in the pre-tsunami period. This, as well as getting the fisherfolk to draw the designs, were enthusiastically embraced by the community and encouraged the active participation of the fisherfolk in the task of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Once the formal design was approved by the Marine Engineer of the DFEO, the construction process began with training on fibreglass boatbuilding techniques. Usually, it takes about two-and-a-half to three weeks to build a mould for the fishing craft. After that is completed, the actual building begins. All through the construction period, the community members are encouraged to contribute in kind, in terms of food and refreshments for those building the craft.

Once completed, the fishing vessels are registered under the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (MFAR) through the relevant DFEO. After registration, the vessels are handed over to the selected fisherfolk.

Certain lessons can be drawn from the experience. Evidently, the choice of fishing craft is of paramount importance to fisherfolk. Any design should be based on a thorough analysis of the fishermen’s needs, likes and dislikes, which, in turn, reflect the local sea and climatic conditions, the geographical location of a fish-landing site and the type of fishing techniques traditionally practised. The participatory approach to building and repairing fishing craft leads to the production of seaworthy, fishermen-preferred, location-specific fishing craft. This is especially true in a situation where there are no standards for rebuilding in the context of a disaster. Providing unsuitable or unseaworthy fishing craft can lead to a loss of confidence in fishermen to return to the sea for fishing.

On the matter of beneficiary selection, involving all the stakeholders in the community is of considerable importance, because a fisher community is highly stratified, both horizontally (in terms of type of craft owned) and vertically (in terms of nature of employment, whether full-time or part-time, workers, processors or traders and so on).

Giving fishing craft to non-beneficiaries creates an imbalance in the existing structure of power and traditional fishing rights within fisher communities, leading to social conflicts as well as pressure on fish resources.

Social tensions

‘Conflict sensitivity’ in terms of recognizing and understanding the social tensions prevalent between different ethnic groups and fishers (those using illegal and environmentally harmful fishing gear, for instance), needs to be in place before implementing participatory exercises with fisher communities. Lack of such sensitivity can worsen existing conflicts or generate new ones.

Participatory exercises such as the one elaborated here can pave the way for other team-based activities. In Sri Lanka’s specific case, community participation in fisheries management, as envisaged in the Fisheries Aquatic Resources Act No.02, 1996, has not had much success due to community and ethnic biases, and social and political pressures. Non-participatory approaches have weakened community-based fisheries management initiatives.