KILINOCHCHI, SRI LANKA — An old, tiny temple stands just a few feet from the waves of the Kiranchi beach. A tattered banner flutters in the wind. Maduthi Pathinathan, 71, his son, Pathinathan George Julian, and a few other men sit under the shade of a portia tree on this beach in northern Sri Lanka, reminiscing about the time before sea cucumber farms took over their land.
Looking at the sea, Julian remembers when he played on this beach and when his parents freely and happily fished, leaving their home every morning to reach the sea around 4 a.m. Today, sea cucumber farms float all around. The village is divided, with those who own the sea cucumber farms on one side and those against them on the other. In the sea, designated areas have been fenced off for sea cucumber farms, in the name of some of Julian’s friends, brother and village men. These fences prevent fishermen from accessing the adjoining area, stopping them from the only livelihood they have had and known for generations. Julian says the sea that once belonged to him and his parents is now gone.
As this island nation reels from a deep economic crisis, the result of a crushing debt load, a drop in remittances and the collapse of the tourism trade — one of its biggest foreign currency earners — the government is promoting the development of sea cucumber farms as part of a major effort to generate foreign exchange. On June 20 last year, the Cabinet approved a proposal for a large-scale commercial sea cucumber project spread across 5,000 acres in the Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Batticaloa districts in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka. The aim, it said, was to earn foreign exchange and enhance the livelihood of fishing communities.
But as more sea plots are allocated to these farms, local fishermen like Pathinathan and Julian say these farms are taking away their livelihood, and as a result, the business of fishing has dropped so much that community members must purchase fish, an essential ingredient of a typical Sri Lankan meal. This has forced many fishermen from affected districts to protest. Julian, 27, has been at the forefront of those protesting the spread of sea cucumber farms in Kiranchi, a village in northern Kilinochchi district. Their 149-day-long protest was called off in May, but the struggle, Julian says, is still going on — only now, it’s a legal fight. “Only the form of struggle has changed,” he says. Following the protest, a case was filed against the father-son duo and another person by an officer from the Ministry of Fisheries. As they appear in court one date after the other, Julian says the fight is on. The next hearing is in September. Officials at the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources did not comment on the case, despite repeated attempts.
Leathery outside and tender inside, sea cucumbers are an expensive delicacy in many Asian countries, including China. There, according to data quoted in a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Marine Science, the prices of sea cucumbers vary signiﬁcantly — from less than 30 United States dollars per kilogram for dried, cheaper species of lower quality, to more than 450 dollars per kilogram for high-value species of excellent quality. However, the community here does not consume them.
Besides the fact that these sea cucumber farms are catering to exports only, local fishermen are concerned about many issues associated with these farms. “Seawater does not circulate due to the setting up of sea cucumber farms. Now the sea water is cloudy. Not only that, because of the high amount of light that is present in the sea cucumber farms, fish do not come to the area,” Julian says.
Vetrichelvi Chandrakala, GPJ Sri Lanka
Annalingam Annarasa, secretary of Jaffna district’s Cooperatives Union Federation Limited, an organization that facilitates and sets procedures for fishermen, claims that Jaffna and Kilinochchi have the largest number of farms in the north, with over 500 farms in the coastal area of Kilinochchi and 600 farms in the coastal area of Jaffna. He says that no office yet has a definitive number, as many farms have been set up without permission. “Sea cucumber farms are not only affecting fishermen, but it also affects all the people who eat fish,” he says. Supporting the fishermen’s protest, Annalingam says 100 workers suffer so 10 bosses can survive.
Whether as fish curry, fish stew or fish fry, fish accounts for 50% of Sri Lankan people’s animal protein intake. This is more than three times the world average, according to the World Bank. “Fish has raised us. Food without fish does not go down the throat. If you eat fish, you will feel like you have eaten it,” Julian says, adding that not long ago, the Kiranchi village fished so much that the fishermen here used to export fish. “But now they bring fish on bicycles from the Pallikuda shore [in a neighboring fishing village, 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) away] and sell them here for people to cook and eat.”
Taking away fish from the Sri Lankan meal is beyond imagination for many. Piriyanthan Dilukshana, 30, a resident of Iranaimadu who was born and brought up in Kiranchi, says, “The feeling of yearning to eat fish is like a thirst. I feel disgusted when I think I live on the seashore but cannot eat fish. Eating meat does not compensate for that feeling.” How can someone “who lived with fish and sea in Kiranchi now live without it,” she says.
On the other side of this divided village are people like Seeniar Navarathinam. “The decrease in the number of fish is not only at Kiranchi sea. There has been no fishing in the past two years. That is why we started sea cucumber farms,” he says. He has been working as the president of the Kiranchi Fishermen’s Association since 2021 and says that he will improve the livelihood of fishermen by increasing the number of sea cucumber farms.
Vetrichelvi Chandrakala, GPJ Sri Lanka
While Pathinathan and Julian gaze out, Navarathinam stands in the sea and mends his nets.
The fishermen worry not just about their own future but the future of their sea too. “The farms that were made in the beginning are abandoned, and the nets still lie in the sea. This is the job of littering the sea,” Julian says.
Nirooparaj Balachandran, north regional assistant of the National Aquaculture Development Authority of Sri Lanka, a body that issues permits for sea cucumber farms after the Ministry of Fisheries’ approval, says it was between September 2021 and December 2022 that 70% of these farms were set up. He says that the fuel shortage that occurred at that time was the reason for the rapid emergence of seafood farms. Balachandran says it is a fact that human activity and the stray lights dotted in the farms have affected the natural process through which fish come to the shore. But about the environmental impact of these farms, he says, “These farms are temporary structures. If it is found that there is actually an impact, that too can be handled as needed.”
Some young fishermen have sold their equipment and are heading abroad in search of employment, leaving the sea behind. But Julian says his father raised seven children and educated them well here. “This sea has enriched us,” he says. “Leaving his place of business is a bigger decision for Dad than for us. He will not sleep. This is all he talks about.”