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FEATURE STORYMarch 2, 2022

Towards Improved Livelihoods and Higher Revenues From Sustainable Fisheries in Sri Lanka

The World Bank

Fish make up about 50% of Sri Lankans’ animal protein intake, a ratio 3 times the global average. 

World Bank


  • Fish make up about 50% of Sri Lankans’ animal protein intake, a ratio three times the global average. The fisheries sector also supports close to one million fishers, workers, and their families.
  • An important part of the fish stocks that Sri Lankan fishers harvest are degraded, and catches are declining.
  • When managed in an environmentally, socially, and financially sustainable manner, coastal aquaculture holds significant promise for increased export earnings and skilled jobs.

Sri Lanka has 1,620 kilometers of coastline and exclusive rights to fish, drill and conduct other economic activities in a 517,000-square-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the Indian Ocean. However, this does not mean that there are limitless fish resources waiting to be harvested. In fact, an important portion of the fisheries harvested by more than 50,000 Sri Lankan fishing vessels are already overfished and require rebuilding. Catches are declining; so, increasing the boat and gear capacity would only lead to more degradation.

Supporting sustainable fisheries

Take the case of the Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna, a significant contributor to Sri Lanka’s export revenues. However, yellowfin tuna is overfished so harvest cannot be increased. The recovery of the yellowfin tuna will require concerted action by all the countries that harvest it, and Sri Lanka can and should exercise leadership to make this happen. Data-based and participatory fishery management plans are key to maintain the health of coastal fish stocks.

Improved management offers opportunities for increasing revenues from capture fisheries and create skilled jobs, while complying with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission yellowfin tuna rebuilding plan, which calls for reduced catch. “This approach is also in line with the World Bank’s green, resilient, and inclusive development framework for recovery from the ill effects of the COVID 19 pandemic.” says Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Country Director for Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Currently, about half of the tuna catch is spoiled even before making it to shore due to lack of proper refrigeration on most of Sri Lanka’s nearly 5,000 “multiday” boats that commonly spend 5 weeks at sea.  As a result, only a small fraction of tuna landings meets export-quality standards. Reducing spoilage could significantly increase export revenues. This could be achieved through a combination of fleet modernization improved handling of fish, and enhanced logistical arrangements to reduce time spent at sea, without increasing the overall catch.

The World Bank

The fisheries sector in Sri Lanka supports close to one million fishers, workers, and their families.

Nadeera Rajapakse

Upgrading harbor facilities to meet sanitary standards would also help. Construction, refitting and servicing of vessels would create skilled jobs. There may also be possibilities to diversify harvest beyond yellowfin tuna to healthy fish stocks and increase value addition along the value chain.  

Sri Lanka’s recent experience with the blue swimming crab is a good example of how active community engagement in assessing and managing the available stock can improve fishing practices, stock status and market recognition. It is also critical to conserve and in some cases restore coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and reefs. These ecosystems have been degraded by development and urbanization as well as extreme weather events and climate change.

A way forward for aquaculture

“The growing demand for seafood offers an important opportunity for Sri Lanka to sustainably expand its aquaculture sector, in turn increasing employment, revenues for the private sector, and tax income for the state. This is a good example for green, resilient, and inclusive development.” says Christophe Crepin, Practice Manager for Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy at the World Bank.

In the 1990s, uncontrolled development and the spread of shrimp disease left behind degraded coastal ecosystems and abandoned shrimp farms. The shrimp aquaculture sector has since rebounded and currently, shrimp farms in the northwest generate about 7 percent of fisheries export earnings. But there is significant scope to diversify into other high-value species such as sea bass, mud crab, sea cucumber, seaweed, and milkfish.

The ecosystem approach to aquaculture – a strategy for the integration of aquaculture within the wider ecosystem such that it promotes sustainable development, equity, and resilience of interlinked social and ecological systems - can sustainably intensify production while reducing environmental impacts. Adopting international best practices for wastewater management, biosecurity, and feeding efficiency will reduce financial and environmental risks and improve total cash flow and product quality. This could open up more lucrative markets for Sri Lanka’s aquaculture products.

Reducing the impact on livelihoods

Sustainable management of fisheries may require reducing total catch, affecting the livelihoods of fishers and processors. To alleviate such impacts, a comprehensive and multi-faceted set of solutions is needed, including training in skills for employment in other sectors, job matching programs, and financial support for livelihood diversification within the fisheries value chain, especially for the younger generations. A pension program and other social supports for vulnerable people should also be considered.  

Tackling gender aspects

Women and men play different roles in the fishing sector, although geographical and ethnic variations exist. Fish harvesting is predominantly done by men, and while less than 10% of fishers are women they engage in ‘gleaning’- or catching seafood that live near the coast such as fish, prawns, crabs, clams, and mussels. Post-harvest activities, notably drying, are also mainly performed by women. Women also often fill important roles in household financial decisions, and attend fisheries meetings while men are away. Women must therefore be included in fisheries management planning activities. “Measures aimed at enhancing value-added and quality along the value chain, or supporting alternative livelihoods, must be designed with different cultural roles of men and women in mind, to ensure the inclusion of women. For example, work hours need to account for the duties women have to do in the home.”  says Chiyo Kanda, World Bank Country Manager for Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Sustainable and resilient growth of Sri Lanka’s fisheries sector depends on clear and consistent regulatory parameters, new knowledge and an ecosystem approach that addresses environmental and social challenges.

A World Bank report prepared in close cooperation with the Ministry of Fisheries Priorities for Sustainably Managing Sri Lanka’s Marine Fisheries, Coastal Aquaculture, and the Ecosystems that Support Them provides concrete recommendations for policies and investments to sustainably improve revenues and livelihoods in fishing communities.

The report will be formally launched on March 3, 2022 at a joint event with the Government of Sri Lanka, which will include a discussion on the potential partnership between Sri Lanka and the World Bank to implement these recommendations. 


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