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Shrimp farming could mean an end to fishermen's livelihoods

March of modernity's fatal threat to Sri Lankan mangroves

A traditional fisherman in Negombo Lagoon A traditional fisherman in Negombo Lagoon
  • ucanews.com reporter, Negombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • March 14, 2013
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Alexander Canicius Pererahas has relied on mangrove forests to feed his family for decades, but as Sri Lanka struggles to modernize and develop, he sees his way of life and that of thousands of other traditional fishermen at a crossroads.

“Livelihoods of local fishermen are at serious risk because of an obvious deterioration in their catches,” said Perera, 45, a father of two and a traditional fisherman from Negombo, 40km north of Colombo.

“This has been due to a rapid decline in mangrove ecosystems as a result of factors such as the growth in the number of shrimp farms,” the mangrove activist said.

Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow in coastal saline habitats. They have dense root systems that act as a barrier against floods and waves and can retain sludge and sediment. At least 20 varieties, or 37 percent of what are called the world’s true mangroves, can be found in Sri Lanka.

They make a perfect habitat for marine life and have provided a source of living for small fishermen who do not have the means to fish out at sea in trawlers or mechanized boats for generations.

“Mangroves are an ideal breeding ground for fish, prawns and crabs. However, politicians and businessmen who lack any interest in conservation are destroying mangrove forests for profit,” Perera said.

More than 50,000 people from villages dotted along Negombo Lagoon make a living from mangrove forests and are under threat, he warned.

They are not alone; fishermen across the country are feeling the effects of disappearing mangroves as more and more shrimp farms take their place.

“In Puttalam district, in the northwest of the country, 3,000 hectares of mangrove were turned into industrial shrimp farms. Two-thirds of the 28,000 fishermen working in the area lost their livelihoods," said Sanjeewa Chamikara, a well known environmentalist and director of the Environmental Conservation Trust.

“At least 80 percent of the country’s mangrove cover has been destroyed for shrimp farms and other development activities,” he said.

Shrimp exports are one of Sri Lanka’s major foreign exchange earners, and account for up to 50 percent of the country’s total aquaculture exports.

Shrimp farm owners say they provide stable employment and make a vital contribution to the country’s economy.

"There are nearly 183 farms in our area covering 340 hectares and providing jobs for over 1,000 people. We can generate a total profit of over US$12,246 each harvest from one hectare," said W Peter Fernando, a shrimp farmer from Chilaw, 80 km North West of Colombo.

Despite the bumper revenues shrimp farmers can generate, the government admits the loss of mangrove forests is worrying.

According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, mangrove cover in Sri Lanka has almost halved from 11,500 hectares to 6,000 hectares since 1994.

It says it has adopted measures to protect mangrove areas in national parks and nature reserves. But environmentalists say the government needs to do more, since only 40 percent of Sri Lanka’s mangrove forests are protected.

DT Rupasigha, an area engineer from the Coastal Conservation Department, agrees, adding that protection laws need to be tougher against developers and shrimp farmers who encroach in protected areas.

“Laws are not rigid enough, but whenever we get a complaint we take legal action against the culprits. Recently, we handed over one such person to a court and he was only fined 10,000 rupees [US$79]" Rupasigha said.

The fishermen, however, are the ones who lose out most, says Christopher Dariju, chairman of a Negombo Lagoon committee.

“There are no places to replant mangroves. If our lagoons become marine deserts, fishermen will die, as they know of nothing else to do.”

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