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L. Joseph
Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development
Maligawate, Colombo 10, Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean south east of India. It has a coastline some 1770km long and contains several bays and shallow inlets. Since the declaration of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 1978, Sri Lanka has sovereign rights over about 500 000km2 of the ocean. Fishing takes place all around the coast, but primarily within the continental shelf which has a width rarely extending beyond 40km and averaging 25km, with a total area of about 30 000km2. This is around 6% of the total area of the EEZ (Figure 1). To the north and northeast, the shelf widens to an extensive shallow bank where it forms the floor of the Gulf of Mannar including the Wadge Bank (4000nm2), Palk Bay, and Pedro Bank (1500nm2) before merging with the continental shelf of the Indian mainland. Fishing seasons are generally associated with two monsoons, the southwest monsoon from June to September and the northeast monsoon from November to March.

Figure 1

Sri Lanka territory and Exclusive Economic Zone (Survey Department of Sri Lanka, 1988)

Figure 1

Fisheries contribute over 2% to the Gross National Product and employ over 120 000 people in fishing and another 30 000 in related activities. Fish accounts for 65% of the animal protein consumed in the country. The fishing fleet consists of around 26 000 craft of which 44% are motorized.

During the last three decades, fisheries development in Sri Lanka has shown a drastic shift in the exploitation of the available fishery resources. Motorization of craft, introduction of synthetic fishing gear, establishment of the EEZ, export demand, the economy of the country and civil disturbances have influenced most aspects of this development. Prior to the last three decades, demersal fisheries were the major fishing activity, and fishing was primarily by gill nets of natural fibre, handlines and beach seines. At the same time, an industrial trawl fishery was developed on the Wadge Bank, which stopped with the establishment of the EEZ. Traditional pelagic fisheries were confined to small mesh gill netting for small pelagic fish (e.g. sardines) and pole-and-line for skipjack from outrigger canoes. Oceanic tuna longlining was also introduced in the 1960s, which did well in the early stages but subsequently stopped as a result of poor management. The motorization programme, which started after 1955, and the subsequent development of fibreglass boats, followed by the multi-day offshore boats, significantly increased the production of large pelagics in later years. During the last few years, the most important change in fishing effort has been the expansion of offshore fisheries.

Annual fish landings from the marine sector have increased from around 93 000t in 1972 to a peak of 185 000t in 1983 and then declined to about 165 000t in 1989. This decline is attributed to a reduction in fishing activities in the eastern and northern provinces due to civil disturbances. However, the increased production from the offshore during the last few years has pushed the total marine catch beyond 200 000t. The marine fish catch consists of approximately 80% pelagic and 20% demersal species. Sharks, of the large pelagic catches, are second only to tuna in terms of amount caught.


2.1 The resource

Sharks have traditionally contributed to the marine fish catch in Sri Lanka, but they were primarily the coastal and bottom living species with localized distribution. Subsequent development and expansion of the bottom trawl fisheries during the 1960s also significantly increased the production of the same kinds of sharks. Large-mesh gillnetting and some of the hook and line fisheries also caught small quantities of the coastal/inshore pelagic sharks. With the widespread introduction of synthetic gillnets in the late 1950s, large mesh driftnetting for large pelagic fish increased and expanded rapidly. In the case of Sri Lanka, they expanded well beyond the continental shelf into the oceanic waters and catches of large pelagic sharks have increased significantly since the 1970s. With the narrow and mostly uneven shelf impeding further growth in trawl fisheries and the very limited fisheries now conducted using bottom-set nets and bottom longlines, demersal sharks in the total shark catches have become insignificant in recent years, particularly in the face of increased landings of pelagic sharks from the rapidly developing and expanding drift gillnet cum drift longline fisheries in both the coastal and offshore sectors.

In a recent study by Amarasooriya and Dayaratne (1993), a total of 46 species of pelagic and demersal sharks were identified from commercial landings. These are listed in Table 1, with an indication of the fishery or fisheries from which each species was identified. The majority are pelagic sharks taken by the drift gillnet and drift longline fisheries. The two species of Gulper sharks taken in the deep water longline fishery have also been added to this list to make a total of 48 species. Earlier, Munro (1955) had recorded 22 shark species belonging to five families. Three species recorded by Monro, namely Atelomycterus marmoratus (Bennet 1830), Hemigaleus balfouri (Day 1878) and Chaenogaleus macrostoma (Bleeker 1852) were not recorded in the study by Amarasooriya and Dayaratne. Further, Amarasooriya and Dayaratne (1993) also contend that the two species described by Munro (1955) as Tawny nurse shark, Nebrius concolor (Ruppell 1837) and Rusty shark, Ginglymostoma ferrugineum (Lesson 1830) are synonyms of Tawny nurse shark, Nebrius ferrugeneus (Lesson 1830), as described in Compagno (1984).

Table 1
List of shark species identified from commercial fish landings in Sri Lanka
 FamilySpeciesCommon English nameDrift gillnetBottom longlineBottom set gillnetBeach seineBeach seineHand line
1.HexanchidaeHexanchus griseusCow shark     
2.SqualidaeCentroschyllium ornatumOrnate dogfish     
3.Centrophorus moluccensisGulper shark     
4.C. uyatoGulper shark     
5.Dalatias lichaKitefin shark     
6.EchinorhinidaeEchinorhinus brucusBramble shark     
7.HemiscylliidaeChiloscyllium griseumGrey bamboo shark     
8.C. indicumSlender bamboo shark     
9.GinglymostomatidaeNebrius ferrugineusTawny nurse shark     
10.StegostomatidaeStegostoma fasciatumZebra shark     
11.RhinodontidaeRhinodon typusWhale shark     
12.OdontasididaeOdontaspis noronhai*Bigeye sandtiger shark     
13.O. ferox*Small tooth sand tiger shark     
14.PseudocarchariidaePseudocarcharias kamoharaiCrocodile shark     
15.AlopidaeAlopias pelagicusPelagic thresher shark     
16.A. superciliosusBigeye thresher shark    
17.A. vulpinusThresher shark    
18.LaminidaeIsurus oxyrinchusShortfin mako shark    
19.I. paucusLongfin mako shark    
20.TriakidaeMustelus manazoStarspotted smooth hound shark    
21.M. mosisArabian smooth hound shark    
22.HemigaleidaeHemipristis elongatusSnaggletooth shark     
23.CarcharhinidaeCarcharinus altimusBignose shark    
24.C. albimarginatusSilvertrip shark    
25.C. amblyrhynchosGrey reef shark    
26.C. amboinensis*Pigeye shark     
27.C. brevipinnaSpinner shark   
28.C. falciformisSilky shark    
29.C. hemiodonPondicherry shark    
30.C. limbatusBlacktip shark    
31.C. longimanusOceanic whitetip shark    
32.C. maclotiHardnose shark     
33.C. melanopterusBlacktip reef shark    
34.C. plumbeus*Sandbar shark     
35.C. sorrahSpot-tail shark    
36.C. wheeleriBlacktail reef shark   
37.Galeocerdo cuvierTiger shark    
38.Lamiopsis temmincki*Broadfin shark     
39.Loxdon macrorhinusSliteye shark     
40.Negaprion brevirostris*Lemon shark     
41.Prionace glaucaBlue shark    
42.Triacnodon obesusWhitetip reef shark     
43.Rhizoprionodon acutusMilk shark    
44.Scolidon laticaudusSpadenose shark     
45.ShymidaeEusphyra blochiiWinghead shark     
46. Sphyrna lewiniScalloped hammerhad shark    
47. S. mokaraanGreat hammerhad shark    
48. S. zygaenaSmooth hammerhad shark     

* Only one specimen recorded.

De Silva (1988) identified 44 species of sharks belonging to five orders and fourteen families. Nine of these species, Notorhyncus cepedianus (Peron 1807), Chiloscyllium plagiosum (Bennet 1830), Eugompohdus taurus (Rafinesque 1818), Chaenogaleus macrostoma (Bleeker 1852), Hemigaleus microstoma (Bleeker 1852), Carcharhinus amblyrhynchoides (Whitely 1934), C. dussumieri (Valenciennes 1839), C. sealei (Pietschmann 1916) and Rhizoprionodon oligolinx (Springer 1964) were not recorded by Amarasooriya and Dayaratne (1993). Although the presence of the Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharius (Linnaeus 1758) was also mentioned by De Silva (1984), no further records have been made of this species in Sri Lankan waters. If those species recorded by Munro (1955) and De Silva (1985) which were not recorded by Amarasooriya and Dayaratne (1993) were added to the 46 species recorded by Amarasooriya and Dayaratne (1993), the total number of shark species recorded from Sri Lanka would be 60.

Historically, there has been a shift in the exploitation of sharks, from demersal to pelagic species, brought about by a shift towards using more pelagic fishing gear and methods in recent years. The only fishery that directly targets sharks is the bottom longline fishery for gulper shark. It is, however, a small fishery with an unknown, but low, production. The drift longline fishery is a supplementary fishery to the drift gillnet fishery and is almost always conducted in combination with the drift gillnet fishery. However, the development of an independent drift longline fishery directed exclusively for shark has occurred in recent years; driven by the lucrative export market for shark fins.

Although 40–60 species have been recorded from Sri Lanka, only about 12 species dominate the commercial catches. Species wise, silky shark may account for more than 50% of the shark landings by weight. It is abundant in coastal as well as offshore ranges. Oceanic whitetip and hammerhead sharks seem to be more abundant in the offshore. Blue shark, shortfin mako and the thresher sharks are more abundant in sub-surface waters. Sivasubramaniam (1992) has also observed that in the Indian Ocean tuna longline fishing conducted by Japan, blue, thresher and mako sharks were often caught by deeper hooks fishing at 175–200m depth.

2.2 Species composition of fishery

No information is available on the species composition of shark catches in the bottom-set gillnet fishery or bottom longline demersal fisheries. Species composition data of shark catches associated with large pelagic fisheries are also available only for recent years, reflecting the rather low management priority accorded to this group until recently.

Species composition of shark landings in the large pelagic fisheries during 1994 and 1995 are given in Table 2, separately for the coastal and offshore sectors. Drift gillnet targeting mainly tuna (with sharks as an important bycatch) and drift longlining targeting pelagic sharks are the major fisheries directed at pelagic resources. The species composition given in Table 2 is for the combined gillnet/longline fisheries. The two years data have been pooled in Table 3, to bring out possible differences in the distribution of species by oceanic range. Oceanic whitetip shark (C. longimanus)) and Hammerhead sharks seem to be more abundant in the offshore waters while Mako sharks seem to be more coastal in their distribution and abundance.

Species composition of sharks in exploratory tuna longline fishing conducted within the EEZ of Sri Lanka is given in Table 4. Three local boats (38–52ft LOA) were deployed during 1996/97 to conduct a two year exploratory fish resources survey within the EEZ of Sri Lanka under the “Fisheries Sector Development Project” financed by the Asian Development Bank. Each boat fished 60 bundles of tuna longlines (300 hooks, set at a fishing depth of 50–100m) and 30 panels of drift gillnet (1000×6”mesh). Table 4 also includes the species composition of sharks caught during drift gillnet operations of the three survey boats, which gives an indication of the relative vertical distribution of the various species. Blue, shortfin mako and thresher sharks seem to be more abundant in sub-surface waters. Amarasooriya (pers. comm.) reveal that Centrophorus moluccensis and C. uyato are the shark species taken in the deep water longline fishery, the former making up nearly 95% of the catch.

Table 2
Species composition of shark landings in Sri Lanka (percentage by weight)
SpeciesCoastal fisheryOffshore fishery
Silky shark61.271.359.456.4
Blue shark1.013.912.711.7
Oceanic whitetip shark0.
Other requiem sharks2.
Mako shark6.
Thresher shark15.
Hammerhead shark9.
Other sharks4.3-0.71.2

Source: Williams (1995), Dayaratne et al. (1996).

Table 3
Species composition of shark landings in Sri Lanka 1994/1995 (percentage by weight)
SpeciesCoastal fishingOffshore fisheryCombined
Silky shark70.257.960.9
Blue shark12.612.212.3
Oceanic whitetip shark0.18.36.3
Other requiem shark1.33.83.2
Mako shark10.05.66.7
Thresher shark3.84.84.6
Hammerhead shark1.56.55.3
Other sharks0.50.90.7
Total catch (kg)10 47232 67443 146

Adopted from Williams (1995), Dayaratne et al. (1996) and Amarasooriya (1996).

Table 4
Species composition of sharks in tuna longline and drift gillnet fisheries conducted within EEZ of Sri Lanka (percentage by weight and number)
SpeciesDrift gillnet fisheryTuna longline fishery
% weight% number% weight% number
Silky shark74.388.532.644.8
Blue shark11.22.246.331.4
Oceanic whitetip shark3.
Shortfin mako shark3.
Longfin mako shark0.
Thresher shark3.
Pelagic thresher shark--0.71.0
Big-eye thesher shark--0.40.4
Smooth hammerhead shark1.
Scalloped hammerhead shark1.

Source: NARA/ADB Fish Resources Survey (unpublished).

2.3 Distribution of fishery

The fishery for pelagic sharks extends well beyond the EEZ, particularly off the western and southern coasts. Offshore multiday boats operating from these areas undertake fishing trips lasting 10 to 15 days and venture well outside the EEZ waters. Some of the larger boats make only one trip a month. These boats mainly target pelagic sharks, using drift longlines. The coastal day boats fish mainly on the shelf. With the on-going civil war in the northeast, there has been very little trawling in Palk Bay/Gulf of Mannar areas since the early 1980s. As such, production of demersal sharks from these areas have been low during the last 15 years.

Bottom longline fishing for spiny shark (gulper shark) is the only fishery carried out in the deeper (150–300m) waters of the continental slope. Few coastal coastal boats are engaged in this fishery, off northwest (Kalpitiya) and southwest (Panadura-Beruwala) (Figure 2).

2.4 Associated species either as bycatch or discards

In the drift gillnet fishery conducted by the 3.5 GT coastal day boats and the larger offshore multiday boats, sharks make up 3–18% of the total catch. The target species in the fishery is tuna (Table 5). Shark catches make a much higher contribution, 12–52%, in the combined drift gillnet/drift longline fishery (Table 6). Other notable components of the catch include billfish and Spanish mackerel. Rainbow runner (Elagatis bipinnulata), dolphin fish (Coryphaena hippurus) and the manta ray (Mobula diabolus) also appear in the catches.

Table 5

Species composition of catches in the largemesh drift gillnet fishery (percentage by weight)
Yellowfin tuna39.538.318.836.717.74.623.414.9
Skipjack tuna29.129.09.847.832.367.535.250.1
Other tuna10.917.821.
Total tuna79.585.149.787.563.981.563.081.7
Spanish mackerel1.

(Adopted from Dayaratne, 1994).

2.5 Development and current status of means of prosecuting the fishery

2.5.1 The harvesting process

Sharks are landed in a number of fisheries, mostly as incidental catch. The following is a listing of fisheries landing sharks, in terms of the resource harvested and the contribution to the total shark catch.

Fishing methodResourceRelative contribution
Drift longline fisheryPelagic sharksSignificant
Drift gillnet fisheryPelagic sharksSignificant
Deepwater bottom longline fisheryDeepwater sharksInsignificant
Bottom-set gillnet fishery for skateDemersal sharksInsignificant
Bottom-set gillnet fisheryDemersal sharksUnknown (Insignificant ?)
Bottom-set longline fisheryDemersal sharksUnknown (Insignificant ?)
Beach seine fisheryDemersal sharksInsignificant

Figure 2

Map of Sri Lanka showing major fish landing centres

Figure 2
Table 6
Species composition in the drift gillnet/drift longline combination fishery (percentage by weight)
Yellowfin tuna16.34.513.817.23.97.717.23.69.2
Skipjack tuna30.528.158.530.038.656.230.440.154.1
Other tuna2.
Total tuna49.334.877.155.845.865.649.344.464.7
Spanish mackerel0.

(Adopted from Dayaratne 1994).

The drift longline fishery for sharks is an offshoot of the tuna longline fishery which was introduced to Sri Lankan fisheries in the late 1950s along with the introduction of the new 3.5 GT inboard engined craft. Each of these new boats was provided with 20 bundles of tuna longline. However, the high cost of bait and low catches of tuna has limited the popularity and expansion of tuna longlining. Instead, fishermen were forced to use cut pieces of tuna, dolphin, etc., as bait and began landing more and more sharks and the tuna longline fishery gradually transformed into a drift longline fishery for sharks. The use of this gear in combination with the drift gillnet became popular and well established after the introduction of the “Abu Dhabi” boats in the early 1980s.

Drift longline fishery for shark is usually conducted by the 3.5 GT coastal day boats and the offshore multi-day boats. While the coastal day boats use up to 200 hooks per operation, the offshore boats use 350–500 hooks per operation.

The main line is 5–6mm diameter and made of kurolon, polyethylene, polypropylene or polyamide. The use of kurolon has declined in recent years and more polyethylene and polypropylene lines are now being used. Branch lines are 4mm diameter and 7–17m in length, and the distance between two branch lines 15–27m so that each bundle consisting of five hooks would be 75–135m in length. With a buoy line of 3–10m length, the fishing depth of the lines range from 10 to 27m from the surface. When used in combination with a drift gillnet the shark longline is shot first, followed by the net.

Personal communications with fishermen revealed that off west coast of Negombo, about 15 multi-day boats of over 13m LOA are exclusively engaged in drift longline fishing for sharks. Most of these boats are reported to undertake fishing trips which last one to one and half months and, one boat is claimed to have spent 52 days on a single trip. About 1000 hooks (200 bundles) are used during fishing operations. With such extended trips, the fishery is primarily for the lucrative shark fin export trade. The fish brought on ice is of poor quality and often converted into dried fish.

Drift gillnet fishery is the most important fishery with a substantial bycatch of sharks. Drift nets made of cotton and hemp have been traditionally used in the inshore waters of Sri Lanka for over 100 years. The successful drift net fishing conducted by the 11 ton boats belonging to the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation in the late 1960s acted as a stimulus in popularizing this method among the 3.5GT class of boats (de Bruin 1970). Most of these boats have followed the larger 11 ton boats in fishing up to the fringes of the offshore, resulting in a sharp increase in production of tuna, the target species, as well as sharks. Sivasubramaniam (1970) has observed that the increased use of gillnets has been accompanied by a reduction in fishing effort exerted through other methods. For example, in the southwest, fishing for tuna using drift gillnets has increased from 5% during the early 1960s to over 60% during the early 1970s. There has been a decline in other fisheries during the same period; troll fishing from 66% to 22%, pole and line fishing from 18% to 4% and longline fishing from 11% to 7%. At present, gillnets account for 60% of the fishing effort in the coastal sector and 80% of the effort in the offshore (Joseph 1993).

The gillnets consist of a number of panels joined together to form a wall of netting suspended vertically in water. Each panel is 1000 meshes long and 120 meshes deep. In the case of the 150mm mesh net, the most popular in Sri Lanka, panels measure 83m in length (hanging ratio 0.55) and 12.6m in depth. The length of the float line may range from zero to 3m, implying that the effective fishing depth could be 12.6–15.6 from the surface.

A deep-water bottom longline fishery for spiny shark began in mid-1940s in response to the shortage of vitamin oil imports during the second World War (Maldeniya 1997) and had virtually ceased by late 1980s. It was revived in the early 1980s by a Japanese company that assisted fishermen to enter the fishery by providing fishing gear on very attractive terms and purchasing the liver oil from them. This revival, which began on the east coast, soon spread to the northwest and to the west and south west coast in later years. With the reduction in the squalene content of the oil (due to mixing with liver oil of other shark species) export opportunities have dwindled. The fishery is now restricted to a few pockets in the northwest (about twenty 3.5 GT day boats), west (5–6m FRP boats and 3.5 GT boats) and southwest where a few 3.5 GT boats conduct multiday fishing off Beruwala. The production of liver oil is mostly for the local market, particularly for poultry feed manufacture.

In the bottom-set gillnet fishery for skate, the targeted species are skates, bottom sharks, catfish, giant perch and large demersal finfishes. Nets of 360–460mm mesh are deployed in the inshore waters up to 10 miles from the shore, using traditional crafts (dugout canoes and log rafts) and FRP boats. Each net is usually made of 12 panels, each panel being 500 meshes long and 17–18 meshes deep. The gear is set for about two weeks with the fishermen making daily visits to retrieve the catch and mend damaged nets.

Large mesh bottom-set gillnets, targeting sharks, queen fish, trevally, etc., are operated from traditional crafts and FRP boats. Nets of 120–180mm mesh are set in the evenings or are left for 2–3 weeks at the fishing grounds. A standard net would consist of 12 panels; each panel being 1500 meshes long and 40–60 meshes deep.

The bottom-set longline fishery dates back over 70 years and is a year round fishery in the north and northwestern regions. In other areas, it is conducted during the non-monsoon seasons as a supplementary gear. Catches consist of groupers, snappers, breams, carangids, jacks, sharks and skates. The gear is operated at depths of 70–80m, 6–12 miles from the shore. Traditional crafts, FRP boats and the 3.5 GT coastal boats are used in this fishery. The main line is of 4mm kurolon and the 2m long monofilament branch lines are attached to the main line at one-metre intervals. In general, about 300–350 Kirby hooks of No. 6–8 are used per line. Species of sardines, squid, cuttlefish, flying fish, etc., are used as bait.

The beach seines are operated within 1–1.5km from shore and target a mixture of large pelagic and demersal species, e.g. anchovy, sardines, Indian mackerel, scad, wolf herring, ribbon fish, silver belly, carangids, small tuna species, skates, sharks, etc. It was the primary fishery before motorization of traditional crafts, introduction of synthetic nets and introduction of new motorized crafts in the country's fishing industry during the 1960's. Shark catches, mostly of Scoliodon species, are considered negligible.

2.5.2 Evolution of catch

Available information on the evolution of shark catches in Sri Lanka is presented in Tables 7 and 8. Shark catches from the coastal fishery are presented in Table 7 along with data on the total fish landings. The total marine fish catch separated into coastal and offshore components in order to keep the shark catches in the correct perspective. In the annual coastal sector fish production statistics published by the Department of Fisheries, catches of shark and skates are given separately until 1987. However, since 1987, shark and skate catches are given together. During the period 1977 to 1987, shark catches made up 47.6% of the combined shark/skate catch. This ratio was used to separate the combined shark/skate catch, available from 1988 onwards.

Table 7
Marine fish landings in Sri Lanka, including shark catches from coastal fishery (tonnes)
YearMarine fish catchShark (coastal fishery)
197391 3122 38593 697-
1974100 8052 230103 0357 093
1975114 863970115 8336 020
1976122 783548123 331-
1977125 386312125 6986 592
1978136 9002 949139 8497 728
1979148 8512 099150 9507 945
1980165 2642 148167 4128 406
1981175 0752 178177 2539 793
1982182 5321 078183 6106 639
1983184 049689184 7388 868
1984136 642823137 4656 177
1985140 2662 400142 6666 341
1986144 2613 400147 6616 521
1987149 2784 259153 5376 748
1988155 0994 425159 5246 966
1989157 4118 155165 5667 170
1990134 13211 666145 7987 265
1991159 15115 080174 2319 065
1992163 16822 000185 1688 714
1993169 90033 000202 9009 073
1994174 50037 500212 0007 965
1995157 50044 160201 6606 672
1996149 30057 000206 300 

Source: Statistical Unit, Dept. Fisheries & Aquatic Resources.

Shark catch as a component of the large pelagic fish catch is shown in Table 8. Sharks have made up approximately one third of the large pelagic catch in recent years. Production from the offshore fishery, conducted by multi-day boats, overtook production from the coastal fishery during the 1990s.

The diverse types of fishing crafts operating in Sri Lanka can be broadly categorized into the following:

  1. Inboard engined crafts - the coastal boats of 9m 3.5 GT class and the offshore boats of 90–17m LOA.

  2. 5.5m CRP (glass re-enforced plastic) flat bottom boats powered by outboard motors (8–20hp)

  3. Motorized traditional crafts such as dug out canoes and log rafts powered by outboard motors (8–20 hp)

  4. Non-motorized traditional crafts such as dug out canoes and log rafts

  5. Beach seine crafts that are large flat bottom craft exclusively used in setting beach seines.

Most of the above craft land sharks in varying proportions. The bulk of the shark catch is landed by the inboard crafts. With the development of the offshore multi-day fishing, the offshore boats now land more sharks than all the coastal boats. Data showing the development of the offshore fishing fleet, together with estimated fish production, including sharks, are given in Table 9.

Table 8
Shark catches by the coastal and offshore fisheries (tonnes)
YearTotal large Pelagic catchShark catch
198851 9196 9663 92710 893
198958 8117 1704 3145 024
199065 8057 2658 66515 930
199195 1739 06522 16831 233
199277 7518 71418 41527 159
199379 9439 07315 10624 179
199476 3627 9659 04717 012
199576 1126 67219 46226 134

Adopted from: Dayaratne and Maldeniya (1995) and Dayaratne et al. (1996)

Table 9
Offshore fishing fleet and catch (tonnes), including sharks
YearNo. of boatsFish productionShark production
1984401 156 
19851865 375 
198630211 353 
198741815 717 
198853420 0783 927
198965024 4404 314
199077531 0008 665
199190036 00022 168
19921 02541 00018 445
19931 15046 00015 106
19941 27554 7049 047
19951 63976 11219 462

Source: Joseph (1996).

A fleet of 80 gillnet cum longline boats (11m LOA) introduced through the North-West Coast Fishery Development Project funded by the Abu Dhabi Fund during the early 1980s is reported to have catalyzed the development of the offshore fishery in Sri Lanka (Joseph 1993). The success of the Abu Dhabi boats in offshore fishing led to the conversion of many coastal 3.5 GT day boats into offshore multi-day boats, and the construction of new 10–11m multi-day boats in the mid 1980s. Larger boats of 11.6–12.3m joined the offshore fishing fleet in later years. The industry has consolidated around this class of boat, displacing the previously dominant 9.0-10.3m class of boat. However, more and more larger boats are being introduced in recent years, with 10% of the boats which entered the fishery during 1992–1995 being over 12.3m (Table 10, from Joseph et al. 1995). The offshore fishing fleet was estimated at 650 in 1989 and just over 1700 in 1996, an increase of 1050 boats during the last seven years, at an average of 150 boats/yr.

Table 10
Composition of the offshore fishing fleet by year of construction and length
Year of constructionLength overall (LOA)TotalPercentage
1981 - 83--2------021.6
1984 - 8612------032.5
1987 - 8923------054.1
1990 - 924291--13528.7
1993 - 9526744--7763.1

Source : Joseph et al. (1995).

The 9.0m, 3.5 GT coastal boat was introduced in the early 1960s and was the backbone of the country's fishing fleet until the development and expansion of the offshore fishing fleet in the late 1980s. These boats are non-specialized with open decks and, despite many inherent limitations, have been used in diverse types of fisheries such as drift gillnetting, longlining, handlining, handlining, trolling, shrimp trawling, pole and line fishing, etc. The trend in the development of the 3.5 GT fleet, including fish production, is given in Table 11. Many of these boats have been converted to offshore boats by the provision of an insulated fish hold. With no new boats entering the fleet, the total fleet strength has declined, particularly during the 1990s.

Table 11

Trends in the development of 3.5 GT fishing fleet, including production (tonnes)
19772 408 
19793 10950 405
19823 34760 379
19832 86157 375
19842 78146 625
19852 72747 862
19862 76649 249
19872 65750 960
19892 602n.a.
19931 183n.a.
19951 357n.a.

Source: Atapattu (1989) Statistical Unit, Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources

The 5.4-7.4m GRP boats were introduced to the country's fishing industry in the late 1960s and are based on a slight V-bottom pleasure craft design. It has since then become the most popular fishing craft among the inshore fishermen of Sri Lanka. The overall length of the boat is 5.5 to 5.7m and has a beam of 1.75m. The draught is small - 0.3m - and the unlaiden displacement is 0.5t. The boat is powered by an outboard motor ranging from 8hp to 25hp. A wide range of fishing gears are used with these boats; including gillnets, longlines, troll lines, hand lines, bottom longlines, bottom-set nets, traps, scoop nets, etc., depending on the fishing season and the area. The number of GRP crafts in the coastal fisheries has increased from 2500 in 1978 to over 8300 in 1996 (Table 12).

Table 12

Trends in fishing fleet development - FRP crafts, motorized and non-motorized traditional crafts and beach seine craft
YearFRP BoatsMotorized traditional craftsNon-motorized tradional craftsBeach seine craft
19782 5312 49915 744--
19815 7383 05112 2591 465
19846 8823 03010 3151 196
19877 2303 31313 865--
19897 406----1 061
19958 2962 38013 848--
19968 3341 14213 880--

Source: Statistical Unit, Department Fisheries & Aquatic Resources.

Available information on trends in development of fishing fleets of motorized and non-motorized traditional crafts and the beach seine crafts is also given in Table 12. With the popularization of the GRP craft among the inshore fishermen, motorization of the traditional crafts has declined in recent years. Figures given for non-motorized traditional crafts are rather controversial in that they are suspected to include many crafts that are not engaged in fishing but rather service larger boats anchored offshore. Also, they may or may not include the beach seine crafts. The beach seine fishery has declined on account of the expansion of other coastal fisheries as well as due to the rapid development of the tourist industry and other coastal development activities that have encroached into the traditional beach seine operating areas. This is evident from the decreased number of units operating in recent years. This fishery is conducted during calm seasons and the loss of access to the east coast, due to the on-going civil unrest, has affected it more than others.

2.6 Markets

2.6.1 Introduction

Shark meat has always enjoyed a ready domestic market in Sri Lanka as there is high demand, both in fresh and sun dried form. With less waste than most other species, it is considered to give good value for money, particularly among the poor and the middle class. At the landing site, sharks are auctioned whole with the fins intact. Retail price of shark meat is just below that of prime fish such as tuna and billfish (Table 13).

The export trade in shark fins has developed rapidly during the last decade. The expanding and lucrative export market for shark fins has catalyzed the expansion of the multiday fishery, particularly the extended trips beyond the country's EEZ as well as the development of a drift longline fishery independent of the drift gillnet fishery.

Dried fins of silky shark, oceanic whitely and hammer head sharks, greater than 12” fin-base length fetch Rs.3000-4200/kg. The price paid in wet form is around Rs.1200-1300/kg. Large fins of species such as blue shark and the threshers fetch Rs.2800/kg in dried form and Rs. 600/kg in wet form. Medium size fins between 8” to 12” fin-base length fetch Rs.2100/kg (dry) and Rs.800/kg (wet). Smaller fins of less than 8” fin-base length are paid Rs.1500/kg (dry) and Rs.500/kg (wet). The quantity and value of shark fins exported since 1990 are given in Table 14. In addition, cleaned shark jaws and teeth are available for sale, mainly to tourists. However, no information is available on the quantities sold or the income generated through such sales. Unconfirmed reports suggest that prices for cleaned shark jaws range from Rs.500 to 3000.

Table 13

Price of shark meat compared with prices of selected fish varieties
Carangids (Large)107.20153.95140.34189.49117.23192.73
Spanish Mackerel180.80248.80173.12278.78216.38290.08

P = Producer price
R = Retail price
Source: Statistical Unit, Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources

Table 14

Quantity and value of shark fins exported from Sri Lanka
YearQuantity (tonnes)Value (Rs. million)

Source: Statistical Unit, Dept. of Fisheries & Aquatic Resoources.

2.6.2 Revenues from the fishery

Trends in the ex-vessel price or producer price of shark and the retail price in the domestic markets during recent years are given in Table 15 together with the landed value of the total shark catch in current prices and real terms. This information is collected weekly by the Statistical Unit of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and averaged to produce annual figures. Revenue from shark landings, from the domestic market, as well as from the export of shark fins, is given in Table 16 for the period 1990 to 1995. The revenue from the domestic market makes up only 1% of the total.

2.7 Economics of the fishery

There is virtually no published information on the economics of Sri Lanka's shark fisheries. In the case of the offshore fishery, where sharks from a major constituent of the catch, a recent analysis of the financial performance of offshore boats (Appendix 1) gave estimates for the IRR of about 11.8% which is indicative of an investment having a poor financial performance. Another recent study of the financial performance of offshore boats operating from Beruwala (a major fishery harbour located 35km south of Colombo) gave an estimate for the IRR of about 18% (Appendix 2). As the majority of boat owners pay no income tax, the Government does not generate direct income from the fisheries and there is also no taxes, or duties, on the export of shark fins.

Table 15

Trends in ex-vessel (producer) and market (retail) price of shark meat and value of landed catch
YearTotal catch (kg)Producer price (Rs)Retail price (Rs)Landed value (Rs)
Current priceReal terms
199015 93030.9334.37492 715492 715
199131 23336.0042.381 124 388966 037
199227 15940.0064.881 086 360840 028
199324 17944.2369.001 069 437747 857
199417 01263.0071.001 071 756526 181
199526 13459.6073.101 557 586808 325

Source: Statistical Unit, of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources.

Table 16

Estimated revenue from shark landings, 1990–1996 (Rs. million)
YearValue of catch (ex-vessel)Value of fins exportedTotal
Current pricePrice in real termsCurrent pricePrice in real termsCurrent pricePrice in real terms

Successive governments in Sri Lanka have provided formal credit to the fisheries sector through the Departement of Fisheries, commercial banks, co-operative banking system and development finance institutions. Institutional credit for fisheries activities in Sri Lanka started in late 1940s, mainly through the Departement of Fisheries. The two State Banks, Bank of Ceylon and the Peoples Bank, initiated lending to the sector through various credit schemes formulated by the Ministry of Fisheries from 1978 onwards. Up to mid-1994, the Bank of Ceylon had participated in 17 credit schemes and had granted 4686 loans totaling Rs. 192.7 million, with a recovery rate of 71%. The Peoples Bank had granted 2532 loans (7 credit schemes) totaling Rs. 131.4 million and achieved a recovery rate of 64% (de Silva 1995).

Fishing boat subsidies has become a familiar feature in fisheries development in Sri Lanka since 1970 when a producer subsidy of 50% was given at the point of issue of newly introduced 9m, 3.5 GT coastal day boats. A 35% subsidy was given to the fleet of thirty 11 GT boats introduced in the late 1970s under the first ADB Project. During the same period, a 35% subsidy was given to promote replacement of motorized traditional crafts (log rafts) by 5-7m FRP boats powered by outboard motors. This subsidy was increased to 50% for an unlimited number of this class of boats in the late 1980s. A 90% subsidy has been given since the 1980s for the introduction of small outrigger canoes of GRP construction. The beach seine crafts were given a smaller subsidy of 60% (Pietersz 1995).

During the early 1990s, subsidies were channelled mainly through cooperatives. While an approved member could get a 50% subsidy on the cost of a new offshore multi-day boat, engine and fishing gear, others were entitled to a maximum 35% subsidy. Since 1995, subsidies for offshore boats have been available as a lump sum rather than a percentage. The maximum subsidy now available for a new offshore boat is Rs.700 000 (about a third of the cost of a new 12.9m boat with a 45hp reconditioned engine and a set of 40 gillnets). Recent trends in the total amounts of subsidy given and the number of vessels benefiting are given in Table 17.

Table 17

Government subsidy and number of boats receiving subsidy, 1991–1996
 Total Government subsidy granted
(mainly for new boat construction - Rs. million)
Coastal sector3.004.4027.969.4065.2042.80
Offshore sector30.0039.6047.0465.6034.8037.60
 Number of boats receiving subsidy
Offshore multi-day50883184549
FRP boats501248480145212202
Traditional crafts101 447051021503

Source: Dept, Fisheries & Aquatic Resources.

A recent study on the south coast (Anon 1996) found no dearth in availability of fishermen. Young males of 12-18 years form 16% of the fisher folk population and their upward social mobility is hampered by a low level of general education. They take to fishing by tradition and are introduced to it at an early age. The development of the offshore fishery has also expanded work opportunities, attracting more young males to fishing.

2.8 The fisheries work-force

The number of fishermen in the marine sector has increased from 79 686 in 1921 to 98 444 in 1989 (Sivasubramanium 1995) and to nearly 120 000 in recent years, inclusive of those who are engaged in aquaculture (Atapattu 1995). In addition, some 30 000 people are reportedly employed in related and service activities such as fish trade, processing, boat building, fishing gear manufacture etc. Employment in fishing represents about 2% of total employment and about 4% of agriculture employment. Fishing is the sole source of income of 79% of the fishermen, the main source of income of some 15% of the fishermen and a secondary source of income of 6% of the fishermen (Joseph 1993).


Shark fisheries are not managed at present. The National Fisheries Development Plan, 1995–2000, provides the policy direction for marine fisheries management in general. The stated policies are: “promoting economic growth through the optimal production of fish to improve nutritional status of the population and increased foreign exchange earnings, reducing poverty by increasing gainful employment and income opportunities, particularly in the rural areas, and enhancing resource and environmental protection by improved resource management and conservation measures.

Fisheries in Sri Lanka are still conducted under an open access, common property environment and there is no active management in any sector. It is now proposed to embark on fisheries management. The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act No.2 of 1996 establishes the basic institutional framework required for fisheries management. The new Act lays emphasis on management of fisheries and sustainable development with due recognition of conservation measures. Some of the most important new provisions are (a) licensing of all major fishing operations, (b) declaration of areas for fisheries management and (c) conservation. All important fisheries are to be brought under a licensing scheme for the first time, effectively limiting entry to otherwise open access fisheries. About eleven new regulations have already being Gazetted under this Act - concerning registration of fishing boats, licensing of fisheries, registration of fishermen, fisheries in selected lagoons, export of live fish, fish landings, gear regulations for inland fisheries, regulations for aquaculture activities and furnishing information on fisheries and catches and handling and distribution of fish. The process of licensing and registration of fisheries, fishermen and boats began in 1997 and once completed will provide the basic data for effective fisheries management in the near future.

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