Multiple shocks of Covid-19 and the tragedy of fisheries | Daily News

Multiple shocks of Covid-19 and the tragedy of fisheries

COVID-19 second wave has crippled the fisheries sector, affecting especially the small scale fisheries.
COVID-19 second wave has crippled the fisheries sector, affecting especially the small scale fisheries.

Part 1

During the past eight months, fishing has been hit appallingly by the coronavirus. During the first wave of the epidemic, the issues were low prices, low production and incomes due to curfews, lockdowns, etc., while during the second wave, they were the increased risk of spread of the disease, reduced fish consumption, low demand and falling incomes.

These incessant multiple shocks have crippled the fisheries sector, torturing especially the small scale fisheries. On top of the alarmingly high rate of spread of the virus, curfews and lockdowns, the recently surfaced issues such as congestion in markets, imprudence of diverse actors in abiding by health guidelines, incapacity of government facilities in handling fish surpluses, myths about fish being a carrier of the covid-19 virus and the failure of authorities in exonerating this myth, have all contributed sturdily to this tragedy.

Since the first case of Covid-19 was reported on March 11, 2020, the Corona pandemic has had varying effects on the small scale fishing community, depending on the seasonality, availability of supporting services (fuel, ice supply and marketing), alternative livelihood opportunities and state regulations. A World Bank study reported a sizeable fall in fish production from 50-65 % by the end of the first week of 7th April, compared to the corresponding figure in 2019. The pandemic affected all links in the fish value chain, dismantling almost all of them; fish landings, marketing, distribution, processing, etc. Closure of retail outlets, the limited number of merchants present at landing sites to buy fish, inadequate number of transport vehicles available, lack of effective demand etc. were the demand side issues, while curfews and lock downs, avoidance of social gatherings and poor Fishing (Low fishing effort), were the supply side issues affecting the SSF sector dreadfully.

Negative impact

Price decline meant initially wastage of fish, and unfortunately fish could not be even sent for dry fish making because small dry fish industries were closed and even the prospect of household drying was grim because of the curfews (travel to drying areas) and lack of buyers as well.

Sri Lanka’s fish exports were hit by a merciless blow, when all international trade links were shattered in April 2020. Tons of fish caught by multiday crafts remained unsold and, offshore and deep sea fisheries and, even the export oriented ornamental fisheries industry, were literally padlocked. All crew workers of these boats became jobless and were confronted with intense livelihood crises.

Fishing is characterized by extremely high income fluctuations and fishers have historically being engaged in diverse non-fishing activities to smoothen consumption in a context of inter-temporal fluctuations of fishing incomes. Coir industry, net mending, ornamental fisheries, fish drying (by women), working as crew workers in multiday crafts, agriculture, animal husbandry, tourism activities (as guides, providing home stay facilities, fishing tours in lagoons), running boutiques, etc. are some of the activities fishers and their families have undertaken to earn supplementary incomes and to smoothen income fluctuations. It is quite evident that, Covid-19 has made most of these activities defunct, threatening the wellbeing of the fishing community because the major sources of income (fishing), supplementary sources of income and assistance were not available to them.

The sector recovered slowly by June but at a slow pace. There was no fishing for a long time due the breakdown of the fish supply chain, and no incomes were forthcoming from alternative livelihoods. Yet, debts were getting accumulated and recovery required more loans for replacement and repair of crafts and gear. However, by the end of June, the sector had recovered to a fair extent, in respect of production and prices.

Information from Assistant Directors of fisheries from all over the country revealed that by end of June 2020, the reported fish landings and prices were the same as landings reported for 2019 for the same. While it is true that fishing had recommenced, the fishers were still repaying their accumulated debts and their sources of alternative livelihoods were yet to regain their strength. Regrettably, this story of painful recovery did not last long, because the second wave of the coronavirus hit the country with a ravaging force in October 2020.

The Peliyagoda cluster

The emergence of the new Covid-19 cluster originating from the Peliyagoda wholesale fish market was a catastrophe, because it came at a time when the new strain of the Coronavirus SARS B142 was razing though every corner of the country at an alarmingly high speed with a heavy virus load. Frighteningly high numbers of Covid cases found in the Peliyagoda cluster prompted immediate closure of the market to contain the spread of the virus. Several major fishing harbours and a number of fish markets and retail stalls in the country were subject to temporary closure. The Peliyagoda market, which is the only National Wholesale Fish market in Sri Lanka, has about 154 wholesale fish stalls and 15 retail stalls and about 350,000 kg of fish reach the market daily, which, on an annual basis, is about 25% of the 527,060 tons of fish produced in the country.

Within the market premises, there is very close interaction among the buyers and sellers who number around 3,000 during a particular day. Similar to the large number of sellers bringing fish from all over the country, the buyers (or retailers) too come from every corner of the country, providing the environment for the operation of a near-perfect competitive market. All these agents squeeze through each other in making their deals. Their presence within a limited space, the short time period during which the transactions take place, the need for the transactors coming from distant areas to return home immediately, etc. cause a heavy rush during the morning hours.

During the rush, people generally tend to forget to strictly adhere to guidelines issued by health authorities. Rapid dissemination of the virus could also emerge from the poor sanitary conditions that exist inside the market premises, improper handling of fish by the sellers and, more importantly the habit of sharing, food, tea and cigarettes among themselves. Apart from such direct person-to-person contacts, droplets of saliva from the mouth of persons are likely to land on the fish and on the persons nearby quite easily due to their close proximity. It is said that SARS B142 with its heavy virus load can spread billons of virus particles to others through a solitary sneeze. Thus, a sick person can easily infect others and who in turn may take the infection to other areas when they return with fish or money, and the spread could continue into unmanageable proportions.

The impact of the pandemic on people’s life is becoming horrendous. The closure of the Peliyagoda fish market with a large number of fish traders being diagnosed as CoViD-19 positive and the resulting panic created among the public, have disrupted the fish supply chain. A fleet of multiday boats loaded with fish were waiting for landing when harbours were closed. For example, more than 300,000 kg of fish were still in the fish holds of the 90 multiday boats awaiting landing at the Beruwala harbor at the time of the closure of the harbour.

It is a misfortune, that the Ceylon Fisheries Cooperation (CFC), which is the state marketing agency, has no capacity of handling such huge quantities of fish. Having no other alternative, most of the fishers have given their harvest for dried fish and Maldive fish production at very low prices. About 50,000 kg of fish which remained at the Peliyagoda market at the time of its closure, were sent to fish meal industry; a very woeful story indeed.

Owing probably to a misconception that the Corona virus could be transmitted via fish, many fish consumers of the country have refrained from consuming fish, putting fishers out of the frying pan into the fire. Today the small scale fishers grieve that their fish is being rejected by consumers, although they are not landed in large harbours, which are known to be the springs that diffuse the virus.

The prices have come down tremendously and fishing has become a net cost to the fishers. These fishers form the poor among fishing communities and they have been hit strongly by multiple shocks; first by the CoViD-19 and the health risk and, now by the livelihood threat. Fish from small scale fisheries land in small landing sites (thotupola) and they are sold in nearby villages and urban areas. Such fish reach Peliyagoda only when there are gluts of fish. Along with the fish caught by offshore boats, the present situation needs to be redressed by taking immediate measures through government intervention to exploit all accessible private cold room facilities for storage, sending excess fish to dried fish making or, to the fish meal industry if the fish is already in a state of decomposition.

Moreover, as the fishers are turning to the dried fish and Maldive fish as an alternative sources of demand for their catches under the present circumstances, it would be of paramount importance to assist these industries with financial support. Moreover, there are a large number of multi-day vessels currently at sea that are due to return ashore with their catches in the coming days. Those fishers will face serious issues with neither buyers nor sufficient storage facilities for their fish stocks. This necessitates immediate action to restore the fish supply chain.

(To be continued)