On Friday, October 21st, protests in Kalpitiya reached a boiling point as violence broke out. Villagers from the Thalawila and Kandakuliya fishing communities gathered in force and created a blockade at Kurinjampitiya Junction, just a few kilometers south of Kalpitiya town. The blockade started yesterday (20/10/16) morning as a peaceful sit down protest.
The fishing communities are protesting against illegal ‘laila’ and ‘suroku’ fishing practices that take place in Kalpitiya waters. They say that over the past five years they have noticed a significant drop in the fish population and now the situation at sea is becoming dire.
The protesters consisting of women and children gathered after a fisherman was allegedly threatened out at sea by a laila group consisting of 10 boats. They told him to get out of their fishing area or they would attack him. People sat peacefully throughout the day and night chanting slogans and stating they will not leave until this situation is resolved. No traffic was allowed to pass and vehicles were lined up on either side of the blockade. Only ambulances, school vehicles and an air force truck were allowed to pass. One navy truck tried to pass but the group forced them to turn around.
This (21st) morning a large group of 200 or more people who were allegedly laila fishermen and laila supporters came to the blockade to face down the village protest. It is said that the supposed laila group attacked the protesters, consequently igniting a large scale fight. The attacking group soon fled back to Kalpitiya town. In their retreat the protestors burned one lorry and three motorbikes belonging to alleged laila fishermen.
It is said that the advancing “laila group” moved freely past the Kalpitiya Navy camp, police station and courthouse. Police were on site but were able to do little to stop the violence. Ambulances were seen rushing off from the scene of the fight.
Allegedly the retreating group went on to burn fishing boats in the Kalpitiya area. By this point it is said that Kalpitiya Navy forces took action against the laila group after receiving orders from higher command. By about 1:30 pm the police force had grown and was now equipped with riot gear, but still were positioned behind the front line of the protesters. By 3pm a few STF trucks had arrived and were stopped a couple kilometers away from the scene, but troops had not been deployed.
These illegal fishing methods involve the use of weighted nets on reefs and schools of fish. Divers are deployed from around 6 to 10 boats with a large net, the divers position the net around coral reefs and schools of fish and the boatmen then lift the nets to the surface. This method takes only 45 minutes or more and can catch fish in the thousands. When this method is used on a reef it destroys coral. Many of the fish caught are not edible as they are small reef fish, the kind tourists come to see by snorkeling and diving. In recent years as fishermen say the illegal groups and adapted their method to catch schools of tuna. When going after large schools of tuna, dolphins are often trapped and killed in the process.
Much of this illegal and destructive fishing activity takes place within the Bar Reef marine sanctuary, which is one of Sri Lanka’s few Marine National Parks. Locals often call the Navy to stop this activity but action is never taken.
“I can say first hand as a diver and conservationist living in Kalpitiya that several times I have spotted laila groups fishing in open sight within the Bar Reef sanctuary. I myself have called the Navy to act but no action was taken. Fishermen say local Navy personnel and some other government officials are supporting laila fishing,” said Keira Perera.
On the 18th of October fishing communities from the whole Kalpitiya peninsula had headed down to Colombo in ten or more buses to stage a protest. The protesters marched from Vihara Maha Devi Park to the Presidential Secretariat office where they were met by a police blockade. The group handed over a letter to the government pleading them to uphold the laws of the country and stop illegal fishing. The government stated they will give an official response by the 25th of October.
Many fishermen say they feel hopeless and abandoned by their government. They say the Navy has the power to stop this illegal practice immediately but do not. Fishermen and members of the tourist scuba diving community and dolphin watching community have said they have seen major negatives effects on the once vibrant marine ecosystem Kalpitiya is known to boast. If this illegal practice is allowed to continue it will not only hurt the fishermen but will ruin tourism in the area.