50% of Protein Derived from Fish


This is the first in a five-series articles based on a recent World Bank (WB) report on the Sri Lanka fishery sector.

While this, the first article gives a broad overview of the industry, the next focuses on the depletion of the tuna stock and the threat that this deleterious development is causing to the industry as a whole. Meanwhile, the third in these series of articles gives a brief overview of the potentialities of the coastal fishing industry, the fourth on the shrimp industry and the fifth and the last, the potentiality of the ornamental fish industry and the way forward for the industry as a whole.

 Nonetheless, a glaring omission in this WB report is that it overlooks the repercussions that Indian fisher poaching is causing to the local fishery industry as a whole. This WB report which was out in September 2021 (see below)doesn’t, ipso facto, take into account Sri Lanka declaring itself insolvent on 12 April 2022 and its impact on the fishery sector.

Sri Lankans derive about 50 per cent of their animal protein from fish which is about three times the global average,” the WB in a recent publication said.

The publication titled “Priorities for Sustainably Managing Sri Lanka’s Marine Fisheries, Coastal Aquaculture, and the Ecosystems that Support Them,” dated   September 2021, but released on the WB website only on 3 March2022, further said that fish also accounts for around 11 per cent of all protein consumption in Sri Lanka, which is significantly higher than the global averages of 17 per cent and seven per cent, respectively.

Sustainable management of locally consumed coastal fish, such as small pelagics, will ensure long-term provision of fish protein to the population and revenues to fishing communities, the WB said.

 Sri Lanka’s varied fisheries which comprise marine and inland fisheries and aquaculture contribute significantly to food security and livelihoods, but modestly to gross domestic product (GDP), it also said.

“At the same time, the sector’s contribution to GDP (direct, indirect and induced) and export revenues is however modest: In 2019 these were about 1.9 per cent and 1.5 per cent, respectively, the publication added.

 Year 2020 is discounted because of the havoc wreaked to this sector by the COVID-19 Pandemic.


Meanwhile, in 2019, Sri Lanka’s total catch in coastal and multiday fisheries was 415,490 metric tons (mts), the WB said.

However, in 2019, only about 29,000 mts or 5.5 per cent, of the national fish production was exported at differing levels of value added, generating US$ 299 million or 1.5 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total export revenues, the WB said.

Multiday fisheries, mainly yellowfin tuna (YFT), sailfish, bigeye tuna, swordfish, and marlin, constituted 70 per cent of export earnings, while high-value coastal species fisheries, including mollusks (squid and cuttlefish), crab, sea cucumber, chank and shells, lobster, and fish maws, contributed about 15 per cent, it said.

The WB further said that coastal and marine fisheries provide full- or part-time direct or indirect employment to some 0.9 million people and thus support the livelihoods of some 3.6 million Sri Lankans.

Marine Fishers

In 2019, of Sri Lanka’s 224,610 marine fishers, 38 per cent operated on the east coast, 25 per cent on the north coast, 19 per cent on the west coast, and 18 per cent on the south coast, the WB said. Yet marine fisheries production was highest on the south and west coasts, it said.

 Marine capture fisheries are well developed on the west and south coasts and less developed on the east and north coasts. For the north coast, it is due to the civil conflict that lasted from 1983 to 2009. The marine production reported from the four northern coastal districts (Mannar, Kilinochchi, Jaffna, and Mullaitivu) is harvested almost exclusively from coastal fisheries.

Ceylon Fisheries Corporation

Fish harvesting, processing, and trade are dominated by the private sector, although a State owned organization under the Fisheries Ministry has the statutory responsibility to guide and promote fisheries production and trade, namely the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation (CFC).

The private sector purchased, distributed, and retailed 99 per cent of all fish landed in Sri Lanka and produced by aquaculture and 98 per cent of coastal fish production in 2017, the most recent year for which data on CFC purchases are available, the WB said. CFC purchased only 3,771 mts (out of a total marine production of 449,440 mts), of which 82 per cent was bought either directly from landing centres or through Colombo’s wholesale market, the WB said.

 The absolute amount of trade by the corporation was already on a downward trend, from almost 5,000 mts in 2011 and 2012 and almost 4,000 mts in 2013 and 2014.  Fisheries Ministry officials point out a need to enhance the fish-handling practices, including those of the CFC, the WB said.


It also said that the COVID-19 pandemic caused fish harvest and exports to decline by as much as 20 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively, for marine capture fisheries in 2020, thereby negatively impacting the livelihoods of already vulnerable coastal fishing communities which have been experiencing decreasing catch per unit effort in recent decades and the impacts of extreme weather events.


In 2019, the fisheries sector employed nearly 300,000 fishers on a part- or full-time basis, of whom 9.4 percent were women. While these figures reflect formal employment rates, it is important to consider the way gender dynamics in Sri Lanka tend to direct women to informal roles that are not easily captured by the official data, the WB said.

 Women therefore contribute to fisheries livelihoods through a variety of tasks that directly and indirectly sustain fisher households. Assuming a 1:3 ratio for employment in upstream and downstream activities—including ancillary services to the fisheries industry (such as gear and equipment sales, boat, engine and net repair, ice) and trade, transport, and processing of fish—the total direct and indirect part- or full-time jobs in the sector may be about 0.9 million, the WB said.

Unexportable fish is consumed domestically and provides livelihoods to mostly female fish dryers and other processers, who ensure that no part of it goes to waste, the lower market prices that these fish fetch represent a loss for the economy, however, the WB warned.

Meanwhile, given the average household size of four in Sri Lanka, the sector thus supported the livelihoods of about 3.6 million people, or about 17 per cent of the population. Marine fisheries accounted for 75–80 per cent of these. The sector’s GDP contribution was 1.3 per cent, with indirect and induced impacts possibly representing another 0.6 per cent.

There is no secondary processing of dried fish (usually sailfish or seer fish), dried sprats, or Maldive fish (usually dried chunks of skipjack tuna). Upper-income urban consumers are likeliest the main consumers for frozen food fish and canned tuna products.

 Middle- and lower-income urban and rural consumers are likely to be the main consumers for canned mackerel products. While members of all income groups consume dried fish, lower-income urban and rural consumers are most likely the main consumers of smaller and lower-value dried fish and dried sprats, the WB said.


 All income levels in urban and rural areas consume Maldive fish. Notwithstanding, Finance Ministry and Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) officials have expressed significant concern regarding the sanitary and hygienic conditions prevailing in the value chains involving salted, dried, and Maldive fish. This has significant implications for public health.


Sri Lankan fisher folk, who are often of low socioeconomic status, are experiencing shrinking incomes, high vulnerability to external shocks, and limited alternative livelihood options, the WB said. Remote fishing communities face greater challenges regarding logistics and access to services, including the internet.

This results in lower rates of education and higher rates of poverty. Fisher folk are one of coastal Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable groups. Fishing communities rely mainly on increasingly meagre incomes from coastal capture fisheries, as declining catch per unit of effort leads to declining incomes.

They also encounter external shocks and stressors, including extreme or unpredictable weather, catch variability due to the unpredictable nature of fish behaviour, sudden loss or damage to craft and gear, health hazards, fluctuations of input and output prices, and policy changes with little buffer.

 To ameliorate the inherent risks in fishing, fisher folk often engage in supplemental activities, including rope making, mat weaving, net mending (as hired labour) for the multiday fishing industry, working in ornamental fisheries, gleaning and fish drying (by women), working as crew members in multiday crafts, agriculture, animal husbandry, and running boutiques.

Women and men play differentiated roles in the fishing sector, although geographical and ethnic variations exist. Fish harvesting is predominantly the responsibility of men, while women will engage in gleaning fish, prawns, crabs, clams, and mussels. On the other hand, postharvest activities, notably drying, are performed mainly by women.

 While Sri Lanka–specific information is not available, globally, on average 19 per cent of aquaculture farmers are women compared with 58 percent of processors. Howbeit, it is likely that a similar pattern exists in the Sri Lankan aquaculture sector.

The WB also said that in some cases and areas, it is culturally acceptable for women to trade fish harvested by their husbands; in others, it is not. Women also manage the household affairs while their husbands are away on extended fishing trips or seasonally migrate to other coastal areas.

Coastal Tourism

Coastal tourism has also provided new income opportunities, with fisher folk (especially younger fisher folk) leading boat trips among mangroves, fishing trips, coral-watching expeditions, and snorkelling, as well as offering homestays.

Still, for a variety of social development issues, youth in fishing communities often drop out of school without reaching the basic educational levels required to take up state or private sector employment, and thus become fishers.

Hoteliers vs. Fishers

Nonetheless, erosion of customary tenure rights to the beach and adjoining lands has emerged as a threat to small-scale fishers’ ability to access fishing grounds and thus secure their livelihoods, it said. This trend has resulted from growing interest by tourism and industrial enterprises with higher political and economic power in investing on coastal lands.

While the Coast Conservation Department, which has the mandate to manage the coastal zone has been providing “beach access roads,” sometimes tourism-related construction and fencing by hoteliers bar entry to the beaches.

Inability to access fishing grounds has put many a fisher livelihoods in jeopardy, exacerbating the impact of reduced beach area available for craft anchorage due to beach erosion and climate change. Stakeholder platforms within the framework of integrated coastal zone management are crucial in facilitating integrated decision-making where conflicts over fisher tenure rights can be negotiated and settled, the WB advised.

By Paneetha Ameresekere