How the Chinese are destroying Sri Lankan fishing community

How the Chinese are destroying Sri Lankan fishing community

The beautiful island nation Sri Lanka, also known as ‘the pearl of the Indian ocean’, has been going through its toughest economic crisis since its independence in 1948. Another victim of the vicious ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, Sri Lanka has seen significant growth in Chinese influence in the recent past.

While the entire world witnessed the tragedies of Hambantota port and Colombo port city projects, not much has been said about the exploitation of marine species and resources in Sri Lanka by the Chinese. A report published by South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) titled ‘The baneful existence of Chinese sea cucumber farms in Sri Lanka’ attempts to quantify the damage caused to the environment and local communities by the presence of Chinese sea cucumber farms.

Considered a delicacy in China, sea cucumbers are often served during banquets and dinners. In addition, sea cucumbers are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to cure impotence, joint pain, etc., enhance sports performance and are known to have anti-fatigue effects. All these factors have made sea cucumbers one of the most expensive seafood items that already have a huge market available for business. The demand for sea cucumber has been on the rise which has led to the construction of massive farms along the Lankan coastline.

The Ministry of Fisheries leased out sea land plots ranging between one to ten acres on the seashore. The largest fish breeding sites are located near shallow coastal lands due to favorable marine environment including sunlight and sea plants. While all these factors make Sri Lanka a suitable place for sea cucumber farming, large-scale production could prove to be catastrophic. These areas are usually surrounded by thick electric fences keeping in line with the pen culture method.

About 4000 sea cucumbers can be bred at one time in one acre of area. In a sea cucumber hatchery, the baby animals are nursed for up to four months before they are sold to commercial farms run by locals. These babies then take at least ten months to mature and ready for export. According to the report, in 2020 alone, Sri Lanka exported about 326 tons of sea urchins with China being the biggest buyer. But the story began in 2015 when the Sri Lankan government issued a gazette notification on sea cucumber farming and proposed an area of 10,000 acres for the same. In 2016, a sea leech hatchery was established by a Chinese joint venture company ‘Gui Lan (Pvt) Ltd’ on the northern peninsula to facilitate the export of sea cucumbers and urchins to China. The company was registered as a private limited liability company with a registered address in Negombo with two Chinese and a Sri Lankan being named as directors in April 2016.

In June 2022, welcoming Chinese investment in the country, the Sri Lankan cabinet approved a proposal for a large-scale commercial sea leech and sea cucumber farming project spanning 5,000 acres in the districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Batticaloa in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The government also plans to set up an export village in an area spanning 100 acres.

As per the report, the approximate price range for Sri Lankan Sea Cucumber is between US$ 30.39 and US$ 54.69 per kilogram or between US$ 13.78 and US$ 24.81 per pound (lb) in 2022. In 2017, a kilo of sea cucumber was priced at US$21.64 and in 2019 the price went up to $30.39 per kilo.

In India, though illegal, a kilo of sea cucumbers can fetch about Rs 50,000 and some fishermen could even earn Rs. 2 lakhs in a single day. This highly-priced delicacy is helping Sri Lanka bring in the much-needed foreign currency to combat the ongoing economic crisis in the country but not without a cost.

While the Sri Lankan government is busy counting the money, the local fishermen communities have been suffering because of the prevalent socio-economic and environmental issues. The report sheds light on the illegal operations of the Gui Lan joint venture, which has failed to secure a permit from the National Aquaculture Development Authority of Sri Lanka (NAQDA) for its new nursery in Kowtharimunai in Pooneryin. This new nursery is located only a few kilometers away from the company’s Ariyalai hatchery in Jaffna. According to the report, the establishment of this new nursery has led to acres of sea-land being fenced off for sea cucumber harvesting, shutting
out the traditional fishermen who harvest prawns for a living. The large nets on the shallow
waters of the sea prevent the breeding of fish, crabs, and prawns, posing a serious threat to longterm sustainability of the region. It was also found that out of 90 sea cucumber farms in the Jaffna
DS alone, and only 48 have permits. This makes most of the sea cucumber farms illegal in the
The laid-back attitude of the authorities resulted in no proper action has been taken yet. About
3,200 small-scale fishing families have been seriously affected by the creation of sea leech farms,
losing their livelihoods during an ongoing economic crisis in the country. A group of fishermen
has also started a hunger strike near the Kiranchi fishing harbor because the roads leading to
their boats for fishing activities has been blocked due to the permission of a group of fishermen
to set up sea leech cultivation boxes. The fishermen point out that if out of 100 fishermen even
just 10 set up a sea leech farm, the livelihood of the remaining 90 who catch shrimp, prawns and
other fishes is put at stake. Out of the 17,000 fishing families living in the Northern Province, less
than 1000 have been selected to work in these farms, leaving the remaining 16,000 Dhiwara
families at risk of losing their livelihood and falling into the streets. This has led to continuous
protests demanding the closure of the illegal sea leech farms in Punagari, Kirawan and Ilavankuda
Not only the local communities but also the marine biodiversity has been seriously impacted by
the operation of these farms. The report states that at the hatchery, high levels of electricity, fuel
and water are required during the feeding stage to maintain the culturing water temperature
and oxygen status for juvenile sea cucumbers, which has a significant environmental impact. In
addition, high levels of fossil fuel emissions from energy use, large amounts of nitrogen and
phosphorus discharged in wastewater, and a low utilization rate of post-production waste
contribute to pollution in the farm area. Moreover, the lights aimed at the sea urchin production
farms across the lagoon are switched on in the evening which affects the movement of fish and
prawns toward the shore. These organisms live near the coast or move towards the sea
depending on the salinity of the waters. Chinese companies like Gui Lan have constructed several
sea cucumber farms with electric fences along the seashore, restricting the movement of other
aquatic species towards the coast during monsoon season. The operation of such farms without
proper planning and study has raised many obvious problems, especially in the sea areas where
shrimps, crabs and squids breed naturally.
This malevolent practice could pose a serious threat to the long-term sustainability of the region.

Sea cucumbers help detoxify contaminants in the soil and other environments and help in nutrient cycling and redistribution of sediments, making them excelling bioremediators. Moreover, they help increase seawater alkalinity, which creates buffers against ocean acidification, supporting the survival of coral reefs. In order to run a sea cucumber farm, wild sea cucumbers are caught from the sea and placed in the farms and hatcheries. This creates an ecological imbalance in the ocean, which leads to polluted and murkier waters in the areas where sea cucumber population has declined.

The report provides a great insight into the lesser-known back channel economic interest of China in Indian Ocean and the littoral states. Given the tremendous threat sea cucumber farms pose as highlighted in the report, the Sri Lankan government must take quick action to solve the problem and work to improve the living condition of the fishing community through the right technology and clean investments from local entrepreneurs. Handing over the coastline to Chinese domination will only bring disaster to humans as well as the marine environment.

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