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Friday January 21st, 2022
Economy

Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen switch to China-backed sea cucumber boom

ECONOMYNEXT – Over 600 fishermen in Sri Lanka’s former northern war zone have switched to sea cucumber farming, a booming trade, in the coastal belt of Jaffna and Kilinochchi where a Chinese firm started a hatchery five years ago.

China’s joint venture Gui Lan hatchery in Jaffna’s coastal village of Ariyalai was started when many northern fishermen were finding it harder to catch large fish which is blamed on outlawed bottom trawling employed by Indian vessels.

The fishermen were given one-month-old small sea cucumbers from the hatchery, which were grown in their usual fishing spots in the sea.

N Dhivakaran, president of Jaffna District Sea Cucumber Association, told EconomyNext that over 600 fishermen have now started sea cucumber farming after they saw the potential for a steady income in the new venture.

“There are investors for sea cucumber farming. Now the fisheries ministry also promotes sea cucumber farming through incentives,” said Dhivakaran.

Dhivakaran maintains a 10-acre farm near the Gui Lan hatchery in Ariyalai. He now sells between 2,000 and 3,000 sea cucumbers a month, earning between 60,000 and 90,000 rupees in revenue.

“We sell a sea cucumber once it reaches 300 grams in weight,” he said. “I started the farm with 40,000 small sea cucumbers and now the hatchery’s production is not enough. So I try to get additional sea cucumbers from other sea areas.”

A 300 gram sea cucumber is sold for around 400 rupees to local agents who export them to countries like Singapore and Hong Kong.

“We do not have the proper certification process to export them directly to China. Our sea cucumbers go through that certification process in Singapore and Hong Kong before they are exported to China. So we are losing some foreign exchange because we do not have the certification process.”

Chinese project

China had been long awaiting an entry into Sri Lanka’s former northern war zone to strengthen its foothold in Sri Lanka, analysts and government officials have said.

Gui Lan Hatchery was its first project in the North, a project that’s being touted as assistance to revive the livelihoods of northern fishermen. Some legislators in the North, however, have raised concern over growing Chinese presence in the former war zones where India has historically had held more sway given in strong cultural and religious ties.

But fishermen now appreciate the Chinese move mainly because of a lingering Indian bottom trawling issue that has hit their livelihoods hard.

“We have provided over 170,000 small sea cucumbers to fishermen in both Jaffna and Kilinochchi district,” Sri Ganeshan, the officer in charge at the Gui Lan hatchery told EconomyNext.

“There is a huge demand now and many people are waiting to register companies and start sea cucumber farming. The Chinese have been educating us on the technology to produce sea cucumbers and it has been helping a lot of people now.”

Sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy in the Far East, with a majority of consumers in markets like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan and Malaysia. In China, high quality specimens can occasionally fetch over 3,000 US dollars per kilogram after being cooked.

Demand for sea cucumber in the international market is growing even though it is only now being popularized among the Sri Lankan community. The price of one kilogram of sea cucumber in the international market garners a value of Rs 20,000 to 30,000.

Gui Lan is the first hatchery in Sri Lanka to mass-produce high value sandfish sea cucumber for commercial farming. Most sandfish sea cucumbers are depleting due to overexploitation, and hatchery bred juveniles are given to farmers to grow in their respective farms.

These factors have boosted the drive to grow more sea cucumbers and people like Dhivakaran want to expand their farming because of the return.

“I am going to start breeding sea cucumbers separately from next month,” he said. (Jaffna/Jan.03/2022)

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