Coastal Fishery Responsible for 57% of Marine Catch


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

While the first article gave a broad overview of the industry and the second focused on the depletion of the tuna stock and the threat that this deleterious development is causing to the industry as a whole, this 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, as a result, take into account Sri Lanka declaring itself insolvent on 12 April 2022 and its impact on the fishery sector, neither does it touch on the current fuel crisis besetting the fishery sector.

Despite comprising only 11 per cent of Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), “coastal fisheries” provided 57 per cent of the marine catch and 47 per cent of all production, 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 March 2022 further said that while coastal fisheries make up 57 per cent of all marine capture landings in Sri Lanka, they are also critical to food security and meeting the high domestic demand for fish.

Coastal fisheries of Sri Lanka is defined as fishery extending up to 25 miles from Sri Lanka’s coast, i.e. fishing activities taking place on the continental shelf and a little beyond. The majority of existing marine fisheries in the island are almost entirely coastal and confined largely to small boat operations.

The decline in the coastal fish stocks seen today is largely explained by several decades of increased harvests, a fishing effort that had seen a 411 per cent sector expansion over the last 58 years. In addition, many coastal ecosystems show signs of stress and degradation from habitat destruction and pollution, which could be contributing to the decline of some stocks in some areas, the WB cautioned.

The precarious state of the coastal fisheries precludes any harvest increase for import substitution in the short run, it warned.

“In fact, national catches fall short of the domestic demand and must be complemented by imports. Importantly, most of these stocks are being harvested at or just above the maximum sustainable yield level, as indicated by decreasing catch per unit effort and associated earnings by fishers,” the WB said.


In 2019, some 96,000 MTS of fish were imported at USD 218 million to meet domestic demand. Most imported fish and fish products were sourced from coastal fish species (dried sprats of sardines, sardinellas, canned fish of mackerels).

 Most were dried or canned; frozen (‘fresh’) fish made up only about a fifth of the imports in quantity and value. Imported mackerels are canned in Sri Lanka.

Year 2020 is discounted because of the havoc wrought on the fishery industry by the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Meanwhile, coastal fisheries encompass more than 30 species of bony fish, sharks and rays, prawns, and crabs (crustaceans), squid, cuttlefish and chank (conch/mollusks), and sea cucumber belonging to 26 families. The species are typically subdivided into pelagic (surface), demersal (bottom) and brackish water (estuaries and lagoons) species, it said.

Many species are seasonally abundant. Coastal fishers switch between harvesting different species, using different gear throughout the year, depending on relative local abundance and the condition of the sea (that is, southwest and northeast monsoons or between monsoon seasons), the WB said.


Coastal fisheries opportunities include higher export revenues and more secure jobs being made possible through access to higher-value market segments enabled by the eco-labelling of sustainably managed exportable species, that these could include such species as lobster, squid, cuttlefish, wild-caught shrimp, and mud crab, the WB said.

Consequently, exportable coastal species hold promise for higher export revenues and more secure jobs through access to higher-value market segments enabled by sustainable management and eco-labelling. This applies in particular to lobster, cuttlefish, wild-caught shrimp, mud crab and sea cucumber, it said.

Stock Rebuilding

Lobster, crab, sea cucumber, and mollusks already made up about 19 per cent of fishery sector export revenues in 2019. Howbeit, these stocks are likely degraded. For example, the lobster stock assessment for the Hambantota fishery indicates that it is significantly overfished and in need of rebuilding, the WB said. However, stock rebuilding could occur within just a few years with stronger enforcement of existing size limits complemented by additional measures such as closed seasons or zones, it said.

Blue Swimming Crab

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka’s recent experience with the blue swimming crab (BSC) is a good example of how active community engagement in management planning and implementation can result in demonstrable improvements in fishing practices, stock status and market recognition.

This has enabled Sri Lanka’s BSC fishery to access a high-value segment of the North American market during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic despite trade restrictions and reductions in overall demand for seafood in North America.

One lesson learned from this experience and the analysis of the lobster fishery is that the use of ‘data-poor length-based stock assessment methods’ can provide a reliable science-based estimation of stock status swiftly and at relatively little cost, enabling government and fishers to modify management measures in a timely manner, the WB said.

Meanwhile in 2018, the BSC fisheries in Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar became the first fisheries in Sri Lanka and the only BSC fisheries in South and Southeast Asia to be eco-recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch programme.

The eco-recommendation has enabled one processor to access premier markets for “sustainably sourced seafood” in North America.

Sri Lanka’s experience with the BSC exemplifies how active community engagement in management planning and implementation can result in demonstrable improvements in fishing practices, stock status, and market recognition. This experience offers important practical lessons for the management of other fisheries.


In related developments, demand for numerous coastal fisheries is very high, creating a reliable market for small-scale fishers around the entire island, the WB said. Fish is a highly sought-after commodity in Sri Lanka, and the plethora of vendors, subagents, district agents, and agents in Colombo ensures a healthy competition for purchasing and prices in all but the country’s most remote anchorages and landing centres.

While prices may be somewhat suppressed by purchasing power, the high local demand for both fresh and dry fish ensures that post-harvest losses in terms of quantity (that is, discarded fish) from the marine fisheries is virtually zero, it said.

Lower-value coastal species unpopular with fresh fish consumers (queen fish, anchovies, sardines, small rays, triggerfish, catfish, mullet, and lagoon prawns) are salted and dried to meet strong demand for “dry fish,” mainly from low-income groups.

Even the carcasses and entrails (the head, backbone, tail, guts, and bones) of yellowfin tuna (YFT) and sailfish, caught by multiday fisheries and processed by seafood exporters, have value, it said. The meat is extracted and salted for dry fish; the heads, guts, bones, and tail are processed for fish meal.

Brackish water fisheries contribute comparatively little to overall coastal fisheries production. The main species caught are sold for dry fish production—except for prawns and crabs, which are consumed fresh or processed for export. Brackish water fisheries are locally important for creating livelihood opportunities for small-scale fishers and providing nutrition to poor rural consumers, the WB said.

(File pix)

By Paneetha Ameresekere