One of the priceless endowments Nature has bestowed on Sri Lanka is its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. While it has made Sri Lanka an important trade hub in the region from times immemorial and provided Sri Lanka with a whole spectrum of possibilities and opened up grand vistas of opportunity, one of the best privileges the country is entitled to be its fisheries resource, the bounty of the Indian Ocean caught from all around the island.
Thus, Sri Lanka is blessed with ample fisheries resources from the Indian Ocean alone. The fisheries sector of Sri Lanka consists of three main subsectors, namely;
The fisheries sector plays a pivotal role in Sri Lanka's social and economic life. It’s a major industry with its own culture, tradition and vernacular and provides livelihood to a massive population who live along the littoral from all sides. If we pay attention to the numbers, these three subsectors employ around 250 000 active fishers and another 100 000 in support services. This workforce represents a population of some one million people.
Marine fish production contributes nearly 90% of the total fish catch, of which the coastal fish catch is 60% while the rest is from deep-sea fish catching. The territorial waters of Sri Lanka extend 22km (12nm) beyond the coastline of 1770km and cover an area of about 21,500sq. km. Apart from the territorial waters and a contiguous zone extending 24nm from the edge of territorial waters, Sri Lanka enjoys the rights to an UN-mandated 'exclusive economic zone' (EEZ) that extends outward 370km (200 nm) from our shores and covers an area of about 517,000sq. km., where we have the sovereign rights to resources in the water column, seabed and subsurface, along with the exclusive right to authorize, regulate and control scientific research within it.
Some fishers around the coastal areas of the country use small boats or fishing knots for catching fish. Fishing activities take place around the entire coast of the country, with landings made, at 12 fishery harbours, several large and small anchorages and as many as 700 village-level sites.
Stilt fishing is one of the most interesting traditional coastal fishing methods in Sri Lanka. It’s not so much valued for the economic output as for the unique tradition and techniques it entails and the tremendous interest the tourists take in it. The spectacle of fishermen deftly perched on the branched poles as they fish skilfully during dawn, noon and dusk, is perfect for a picture postcard. It’s a common sight along the southern coast in towns such as Koggala, Kathaluwa, and Ahangama.
Deep-sea fishing is also an important part of the marine fishing sector. The Western and Southern Coasts are accessible for deep sea fishing from November to April, whereas the South-Eastern Coast only in April, and the Eastern Coast from May to September.
The marine fishing fleet consists mainly of small- to medium-sized craft, owned and operated by private individuals. They include the following:
A rich variety of fish and other edible marine resources are caught through both coastal fishing and offshore and deep-sea fishing. The export catch profile chiefly includes the following:
Sri Lanka has ample inland waters despite its relatively small size of 65,610 km². The country has 103 perennial rivers, of which 23 river basins are larger than 500 km2. Of the total area of about 280 000ha of inland water bodies, 160 000ha are lakes and ponds, whilst the remainder (120 000ha) consists of lagoons and marshlands. The inland reservoirs and tanks usually carry water all year round (70 000ha) and other reservoirs and tanks (76 000ha) are seasonal.
Although indigenous species like Labeo heladiva and Olive barb (Puntius sarana) are found in inland fish catches, their commercial importance is quite low. The introduced fish species, such as tilapias (Oreochromis mossambicus and O. niloticus) dominate inland fish landings. Attempts have also been made to introduce Indian and Chinese carp species into the reservoirs.
Brackish-water resources are situated in the coastal belt in the form of estuaries, lagoons, or marshes. They amount to 120 000ha, of which some 80 000 ha are deep lagoons and estuaries. The rest are shallow lagoons, tidal flats, mangrove swamps, and saline marshes.
The brackish-water aquaculture in Sri Lanka is completely dominated by shrimp farming. The major species cultivated is Penaeus monodon. Thus, Sri Lanka today has a limited, but stable, shrimp production and growing aquaculture production of finfish. So far, the main focus has been to start on a small scale where fish farming is aimed at supporting the smaller local communities with income and food supply. Even if there is massive potential for farming brackish-water species such as Milkfish (Chanos chanos), Moonies (Monodactylus spp.), Seabass (Latus caicarfer), Grouper (Epinephelus spp.), Crab (Scylla serrata), Mussel (Perna spp.) and Oyster (Cassostrea spp.), the commercial-scale culture of these species is yet to develop.
One of the trial projects undertaken in aquaculture development is the use of sea cages. Motivated by the success of the trial projects, there's growing interest in the installation of bigger sea cages with circumference up to 60 meters in the northeast areas of the island. Sri Lanka is only 7 degrees north of the equator and thus our seas are relatively calmer and much less exposed to natural disasters (typhoons, storms, etc) unlike many other countries in Asia. The maximum wave height varies between 3.5 – 4.0 meters, and hence sea cage farming has great potential.
The traditional earthen pond farming of shrimp and finfish is slowly but steadily on the rise, and farmers are now following a strict coastal zone management plan regulating the time for stocking and harvesting in different farming regions. Stocking densities are steadily going up with systematic environmental monitoring and control. Besides that, a few international technology suppliers, including companies from Norway, have in recent years initiated and established larger commercial production units for Barramundi or Asian sea bass (locally referred to as Modha in Sri Lanka) and Tilapia in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).
At present, Sri Lanka is emerging as a target country for foreign investment in aquaculture. During the last decade, Sri Lanka has received investments from such countries as Norway, Scotland, Vietnam, Japan, the USA, and Canada. Investments are channelled into hatcheries, land-based on-growing systems, sea cages, and the development of infrastructure facilities such as roads, common inlet/outlet canals for water intake and release, sedimentation canals, ponds, electricity, etc.
This attests to the strong beliefs from the Government of Sri Lanka, investors and entrepreneurs that aquaculture in Sri Lanka has the potential to rake in substantial foreign exchange earnings and profits. Further, with the support of the Sri Lankan government, linkages have been established between the government, the breeders, the farm-zone managers, and the academic experts. This has enabled an open information and feedback exchange between the major stakeholders, and consequently, the formulation and implementation of a pragmatic policy regime and powerful action plans.
Several management tools have been introduced to regulate inland fisheries and aquaculture activities, including:
We have to bolster our value-chain in aquaculture including brood-stock/domestication, juvenile production, feed development/production, on-growing and marketing. Backed by our unique geographical location in South-East Asia, we can attain our goal to become a major player within the growing aquaculture industry in the region.
According to FAO, nearly 50% of seafood now originates from aquaculture while 90% of Sri Lanka's seafood is still wild-caught. This represents a massive business opportunity for international aquaculture technology suppliers, investors, and distributors. Aquaculture is now being transformed from a subsector into concentrated commodity production, aiming, with the aid of advanced technologies, at developing a sustainable industry in all water bodies - freshwater, brackish water and at sea.
The future potential for aquaculture in Sri Lanka is of course unique in Asia since we can bring down the wild-caught supply from 90% to 10% and aquaculture can bridge the gap. Thus, this is the perfect moment for Sri Lanka to start commercial business ventures on a bilateral level. Moreover, the L. vannamei high-yield prawn variety, also known as pacific white or white leg shrimp, was introduced to Sri Lanka in 2018 and is in higher demand globally. In the European Union, L. vannamei imports are around 85%, with the remaining volumes from the Black Tiger (P. monodon).
Traditionally, fish trading in Sri Lanka was channelled through importers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and agents. However, with improved logistics and the introduction of e-business into the fish trade the supply chain in Sri Lanka has become shorter and today a more direct relationship exists between fish and seafood exporters, processors, and retail supermarkets locally and globally.
Sri Lanka’s seafood product sector has emerged as a quality exporter of a wide variety of fish, with the most popular of them being tuna. Sri Lanka’s rich and relished seafood of different varieties are available through an extensive network of exporters.