Fishermen near the fishing boat, the Energy Behind the Fishing Industry of Sri Lanka
Fishermen, the Energy Behind the Fishing Industry of Sri Lanka

The charming island of Sri Lanka is a country with ample natural resources. And yes, the blue ocean that surrounds this land is indeed one such treasure, and many Sri Lankans make their living out of it. Accordingly, the fishing industry in Sri Lanka, which is based on catching, preparing, and selling fish or fish products for commercial purposes is one of the main sectors that have a strong bond with these blue waves.

As you already know, the fishing industry is a large and well-established industry in many countries all over the world because there’s a high demand for fish and seafood products for human consumption. Among the countries where fishing is the main industry, Sri Lanka is a highlight.

This small island in the Indian ocean has a territorial sea of 21 500 km², a coastline of 1340 km, and many inland water bodies. Therefore, the fishing industry in Sri Lanka happens on a large scale and plays an important role in the country’s economic sector.

Keep reading to know many interesting facts about the fishing industry in Sri Lanka.

How Important is the Fishing Industry to Sri Lanka?

As a key industry in Sri Lanka, there are several reasons why the fishing industry is important to the country.

First, it was a sector with a good contribution to the GDP of the country. About 2 000 000 people out of the population of the country engage in the fishing industry as their livelihood. As a crucial source of income for Sri Lanka, the government has identified it as a promising industry in the country. During the past few decades, there wasn’t that much space for the development of fishing as an industry due to the three-decade-long war, overexploitation, lack of technology, lack of coastal security, global pandemic, and many other reasons. However, as the country is abundant in resources, it is still a great pillar of the country’s economy.

On the other hand, the fishing industry also makes a great contribution to Sri Lanka’s food supply. In Sri Lanka, meat consumption is comparatively low for religious and economic reasons. Hence, the fishing industry provides over 60% of the animal protein required for the country’s population. There has always been a good demand for fish and seafood in the Sri Lankan market.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka also has the capacity to export the excess harvest of the fishing industry. This simply means that the aquatic resources of the country help to meet the demands of both national and international markets. As the main livelihood of the people in the coastal areas of the country, there’s a whole culture woven around the industry. As such, the fishing industry is important to the country in many aspects.

History of Sri Lanka’s Fishing Industry

In the past, deep-sea fishing was not that popular in Sri Lanka. One of the main reasons for this was the lack of options to preserve the caught fish. However, people from the coastal areas used to catch fish and consume it during the day. According to history, seafood dishes were quite a luxury back then.

However, inland fishing was popular around the freshwater bodies of the country. In fact, there are plenty of rivers, streams, and lakes in Sri Lanka. People who lived close to these areas engaged in inland fishing as their livelihood. However, it was not a part of their daily diet.

People used specific techniques for fishing in the past. The most popular method was angling. They used small boats to travel in the water and spent hours angling. Another popular method was using a net. This was a famous method in the coastal areas, where a group of people used large nets to catch small fish in the sea and drag them to the shore. Then, there was a fruit called ‘madana’ that people used to put into lakes. This fruit can intoxicate the fish which makes it easier to catch them. In small lakes, people emptied the lake to catch fish. And some fishermen even used sharp objects to catch fish in the shallow waters.

However, the fishermen use some of these ancient methods in the present as well. Yet, most of those methods are not suitable for today, since fishing is now an industry which operates in large scale in Sri Lanka.

Present Status of the Fishing Industry

At the present, the fishing industry is more widespread, especially on the continental shelf including coral reefs and rock reefs, and in the offshore deep sea. Almost all the harvest of the fishing on the continental shelf is especially for local consumption. In such areas, fishermen use fishing rods, nets, and hand nets for fishing. Apart from that, stilt fishing is a unique fishing method that is very popular in southern Sri Lanka. Besides, unlike in the past, today people have large boats to travel in the ocean. So, fishermen can travel to the deep sea and stay in the sea for a long time. Sometimes, fishermen stay in the ocean for weeks. From these boats, they can catch large fish that are mainly provided for hotels and restaurants. The excess is used for exporting. Besides, they catch fish that are used to prepare other fish products as well.

Today, the fishermen have access to modern technology that makes their job easier. In Sri Lanka too, there are such devices that are used in the fishing industry. For instance, the echo sounder helps the fishermen to locate the fish in the deep sea. Then, there are sonars in boats to check whether there are any coral reefs or rock reefs that can harm the boats. It is also used to measure the depth of the ocean. Furthermore, fishermen now use radio technology to be connected with the land while traveling in the ocean far away. It also helps to maintain the connection between the fishing boats as well. Radio technology has been very helpful in avoiding possible dangers amidst the ocean.

So, with all these things, it can be noted that the fishing industry of Sri Lanka has modernized with time.

Stilt Fishing

Stilt fishing is a very unique and traditional method of fishing used in Sri Lanka. Fishermen mostly use it in the shallow waters off the southern coast of the country. The tsunami disaster that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 had a major impact on stilt fishing. However, it has again emerged as the main method of fishing in southern Sri Lanka.

Stilt fishermen are common in areas like Koggala, Kathaluwa, Ahangama and near Madu river. Even though it is hard to get a large harvest out of stilt fishing, many fishermen still engage in stilt fishing as their livelihood. It has also gotten tourist attention. It is such a beautiful sight to see the stilt fishermen as silhouette figures at the sunset and the sunrise with the breathtaking ocean views. However, stilt fishing can seem easy but it is actually a really difficult method.

A lot of practice and balance are essential for stilt fishermen. In stilt fishing, a pole is embedded in the ocean floor and a crossbar is fixed to that vertical pole which acts as the seat for the fishermen. This crossbar needs to be fixed quite higher from the ocean bed as the shadow can drive away from the fish. The fishermen have to stay in this difficult position for hours at a stretch under the scorching sun. They use a fishing rod to catch the fish and collect the fish into a bag tied to the pole.

If you like to see these stilt fishermen, the best is to pay a visit to Mirissa beach, Hikkaduwa beach, or Unawatuna beach. You can also try stilt fishing in these places with the help of fishermen. Then, you will be able to understand how difficult of a job they are doing.

Fishing Villages in Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka is surrounded by the Indian ocean. Hence, there are many fishing villages along the coastline of the country. There are seasons for fishing in the country according to the climate. This season usually lasts for six months. The fishing villages get really active during these months. There are ‘Maalu Waadi’ in these villages which are like temporary homes for groups of fishermen. There is usually a fish market in these coastal villages as well. People can buy fresh seafood right out of the sea from these markets. In the major fishing villages, there are also harbors where the fishermen park their motorboats. The small boats are usually kept on the beach.

Negombo is one such famous fishing village in Sri Lanka. The coastal town is situated on the west coast of Sri Lanka. It is also situated in a short distance away from the Katunayake Bandaranaike international airport. However, Negombo is a significant spot for the fishing industry of the country as the biggest open-air fishing village and markets are situated there. There is also a traditional fishing village known as Lellama situated in Negombo. The majority of the population of Negombo depends on fishing and related industries as their livelihood. If you are looking forward to getting a glimpse of the fishing industry in Sri Lanka and buying some fresh seafood, you should pay a visit to Negombo.

However, there are small-scale fishing villages all around the country. You can get to know about them as you travel around the coastal villages.

Fishing Village Tours in Sri Lanka

The gorgeous coastline around Sri Lanka is popular as a tourist hotspot. In fact, many tourists go straight to the beaches from the airport. However, if you are someone who likes to explore the culture and the society related to the fishing industry, you will love taking a tour of a fishing village.

As you may have realized, the lifestyle and culture surrounding the fishing industry in Sri Lanka are different from the other parts of the country and it is also very interesting. On a fishing village tour, you will be able to see the unique methods used by the Sri Lankan fishermen. It is also a good way to understand the hardships of their livelihoods. Some fishermen even offer boat tours in their fishing boats. While you are in the coastal areas, it will be easy to find a fishing village nearby. And we assure you that exploring one of them will be an unforgettable experience for sure!

Also, don’t forget to pay a visit to a local fishing market during your tour. There is a totally different vibe in these markets and it is the best place to buy the freshest seafood. The fishermen are in a daily struggle to earn money and you will be impressed with their dedication and hard work. However, don’t forget to be respectful and friendly during your tour to a fishing village to get the best out of the experience.

The Lifestyle of Sri Lankan Fishermen

Simply, there is a unique culture related to the people who engage in the fishing industry in Sri Lanka. And yes, it is woven around the hardships that the fishermen and their families face as they involve in this career. There are instances where even the lives of the fishermen are in danger while engaging in this job.

Anyhow, fishermen go out to sea early in the morning or in the evening. It depends on the type of fish they are to catch out on the sea. During their journey in the ocean, they fix fishing hooks at various locations and they collect the fish caught in these hooks on their way back. There’s always hustle when the fishing boat returns to the shore. Groups of fishermen gather to pull the nets filled with fish to the shore and this process can take about an hour. They try to catch a large amount of harvest from one trip.

Many people, especially workers from the nearby hotels and restaurants come to the shore when the boats return to buy fresh seafood. Some fishermen sell the harvest on their own in the local market. Then some work for a ‘boss’ who acts as a mediator between the fishermen and the market. They collect the fish from the fishermen and transport it to different locations in the country.

However, the ocean is an unpredictable place. Hence, fishing is considered a dangerous job. Therefore, only men engage in the fishing industry. Females take care of the house and help the men to sell fish, mend nets, and prepare for their fishing trips. However, since the fishermen engage in hard labor they only have a little time to spend with their families. Hence, this lifestyle is interesting yet very difficult.

The Important Authorities that Assist the Fishing Industry in Sri Lanka

The Indian satellites used in the Meteorological Department can predict heavy rains, and storms beforehand. Accordingly, this information is delivered to the fishermen with radio technological devices. This helps them to prepare for the upcoming disaster. On the other hand, information on the temperature of the ocean water, wind speed, tidal waves, and directions are also important in finding the locations of fish. For this also, information collected from the satellites can be used. As such, the fishermen always stay alert to the news of the Sri Lanka Meteorological department to get the necessary information.

Apart from that, the Ministry of Fisheries also plays a major role in the fishing industry as it is the main government authority that takes care of this industry. In fact, this ministry manages the use of fisheries and aquatic resources in the country, and gives the necessary advice and assistance to the fishery communities, for the present and future generations’ benefit.

Sri Lanka Export Development Board is another important authority that contributes to the growth of the fishing industry since the fishery exports are a major aspect with regard. They act as a trading hub, build connections between suppliers and buyers, and further provide services by providing necessary information regarding the legal background, exhibitions, summits, and trade practices.

What Fish is Caught in Sri Lanka?

If you have ever visited a local fish market in Sri Lanka, you may have seen many different kinds of fish for sale. In fact, there are more than a hundred different species of commercial fish around the ocean in Sri Lanka. However, in the Sri Lankan fishing industry, the following marine faunas are the most demanded.

  • Mackerel sharks
  • Threshers
  • Requiem sharks
  • Hammerhead sharks
  • Guitarfish
  • Stingrays, rays
  • Numbfish
  • Scombrid fish
  • Jacks
  • Allies

Then, there are also species of crustaceans such as crabs, squids, lobsters, prawns, and sea cucumbers. These marine faunas are larger in size and rich in proteins. Their taste is also better due to the high salinity of seawater.

The inland fishing industry is also popular in the country. There are about 95 different species of freshwater fauna in Sri Lanka. Among them, 53 species are endemic to the country. And only a few species are used for human consumption. Freshwater fish are very different from marine fauna. They are smaller in size and they don’t have a salty taste, unlike the marine fish due to the low salinity. The high osmotic pressure makes them very different from the marine fish. However, freshwater fish are also popular in the local market.

Export Sector of the Fishing Industry in Sri Lanka

Over the years, Sri Lanka has gained a reputation as an exporter of quality seafood. The local fishermen distribute the harvest to the local market and export the excess to the global market. There is a great demand for Sri Lankan seafood due to its freshness, high quality, and a wide variety.

Both traditional knowledge and modern technology help the fishermen to produce high-quality harvests for the global market. Sri Lanka exports most of its marine products to countries like Japan, China, the USA, and Singapore. It is also gaining attention from many other countries in Asia and Europe as well. The authorities extend the support towards the necessary areas as the local fishing industry has great potential in the global market. As a result, some fishermen completely focus on collecting harvest targeting only the international market.

One main reason why Sri Lankan fisheries have grabbed the attention of the international market is the availability of different varieties of fish. There are different varieties of seafood from Sri Lanka that are famous for exporting. Some of them are as follows.

  • Lobsters
  • Crabs
  • Shark fin
  • Cuttlefish
  • Squid
  • Value-added shrimps
  • Tuna
  • Sashimi quality tuna

Then, there’s a well-established market for Sri Lankan tuna in countries like the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. Fishermen are also more interested in the global market now as it is easy to gain a good income. Besides, the exports sector in the fishing industry has opened many job opportunities among the local fishing community. With this development, the fishing industry has become a great contribution to Sri Lanka’s economy.

Sri Lankan Seafood Cuisine

With the abundance of these different varieties of seafood, Sri Lankan cuisine has created many iconic seafood dishes. They are delicious and enriched with the best spices and ingredients in the world. Hence, authentic Sri Lankan food is very popular around the world. Anyway, if you are a seafood lover, then Sri Lanka should be on your bucket list already. So, you may have to book a ticket to Sri Lanka right away if you love to taste an authentic Sri Lankan seafood dish. Simply, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that Sri Lankan seafood is second to none!

Here are some such delicious and very popular seafood dishes in Sri Lanka!

  • The first on the list should be ‘Ambul Thiyal’. It is the favorite seafood dish for many Sri Lankans. This unique dish from southern Sri Lanka is a combination of simmering fish and a blend of spices.
  • Then devilled seafood dishes are also much loved in the country. Especially dishes like devilled prawns, chilli devilled fish, and devilled shrimps are always the star in a Sri Lankan meal.
  • Then, crab curry and prawn curry are a must-try as the spices and the ingredients make a real difference in the Sri Lankan style.
  • Furthermore, fried seafood dishes like fried cuttlefish, crispy fried shrimp, and crispy fried prawns are best to go along with a vegetable salad.

So, likewise, there’s a wide variety of Sri Lankan seafood dishes that you should never miss when you visit Sri Lanka since they are sure to enthrall you with their amusing flavors.

The Bottom Line

Sri Lanka is a small island but it is also a place where you can see totally different and unique things at every corner. The fishing industry in Sri Lanka is one such industry that is unique and different. There are many social, cultural, and economic aspects that go along with this industry. Besides, it is a primary source of income for the majority of the population of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka. Hence, there is indeed a considerable impact on Sri Lanka’s economy from the fishing industry. However, visiting a fishing village, and a local fishing market is sure to enhance the delight of your Sri Lankan tour. So, never miss this wonderful opportunity, while you are exploring this splendid island. Happy and safe traveling!