“We have to queue for hours to get fuel and even then we don’t know if we will have enough. Ice, bait, nets, everything we need has gone up in price,” says Sri Lankan fisherman
NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka — After three weeks at sea, Anton Fernando tallies up his sales of tuna and other fish at a wharf in Negombo, a fishing town in Sri Lanka, where the country’s financial crisis is clouding already troubled waters.
The math doesn’t look good for Fernando and his crew of four among the dozen gently floating trawlers. Each takes home 40,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($130) from their grueling expedition.
“It won’t be enough to cover their household expenses,” Fernando, 44, told Reuters, holding up a notebook scribbled with numbers. “Even before we go home, we know it’s not enough to cover electricity and water bills, school fees and food.”
The island nation of 22 million people off the southern tip of India is grappling with its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948, as COVID-19, poor public finance management and cuts ill-timed taxes sap declining foreign exchange reserves.
Last week, the central bank announced that it was suspending repayment of part of its external debt pending restructuring.
In the commercial capital Colombo, protesters take to the streets to demand the ousting of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as people face soaring prices, prolonged power cuts and shortages of medicine, fuel and other items .
In Negombo, the fisherman struggles to stay afloat.
Fishing accounts for just 1.3% of the Southeast Asian nation’s economy, but it employs a tenth of its population and helps feed many more. The island exports tuna, swordfish, crabs, lobsters and prawns to a dozen countries, including the United States, Britain, China and Japan, accounting for 8% of its agricultural exports .
Sri Lanka’s fisheries and finance ministries did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment on measures being taken to help the fishing industry.
Some fishermen say they have reduced their food, others have stopped repaying their loans. Everyone who spoke to Reuters said they were constantly looking for fuel for their boats and homes.
“The focus is on living today”
In Negombo, a tight-knit fishing community 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Colombo, workers pull fish from moored boats, weigh them and pile them into a handful of refrigerated trucks.
Each trip of Fernando’s colorful trawler St. Anne 2 requires at least 1,000 liters (260 gallons) of diesel and several hundred kilograms of ice.
“We have to queue for hours to get fuel and even then we don’t know if we will have enough. Ice, bait, nets, everything we need has gone up in price,” he said. “Many boats have completely stopped going out to sea because of the fuel problem.”
Two fishermen with small boats said they were siphoning gasoline off motorcycles from friends and neighbors because petrol stations refused to fill their jerry cans.
Finance Minister Ali Sabry told Reuters this month that the government’s first priority was to restore essentials such as fuel. He said some of the aid the government is seeking from lenders like the International Monetary Fund would go to economically vulnerable people in the country.
“Fishermen don’t know how they will get fuel or how they will deal with high food costs,” said Herman Kumara, head of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement which represents some 9,000 fishermen. “Their only goal is to live today.”
The crisis has grounded at least half of the region’s trawler fleet, he said, predicting “a life-or-death situation here over the next three to six months”.
Mary Dilani said she earns 1,500 rupees a day drying fish on a nearby beach, while her husband GK Chaminda, who borrowed 100,000 rupees three years ago for a small rowing boat and now has struggling to repay the loan, earns 2,000 rupees.
“We can’t afford to buy cooking gas anymore,” she said in their small two-room house near a plastic-strewn beach in the Sea Street neighborhood of Negombo, where they live with their two daughters and granddaughter. “I switched to a kerosene stove but sometimes we can’t find kerosene.”
The family’s biggest concern is finding 4,000 rupees for the schoolbooks of a girl who is about to start the new school year.
“Life has become very hard,” Dilani said. – Rappler.com
$1 = 313.2800 Sri Lankan rupees