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Redesigning Sri Lanka's fishing fleet
Emphasis on higher income and safety
Colombo, Sri Lanka – It is not often that a naval architect has the opportunity to redesign an entire country's fishing fleet. That was the challenge facing Stefano Thermes when FAO sent him here to map a strategy for the renewal of the island nation's fishing industry.

Mr Thermes has focused not only on getting the fishers fishing again but also on a longer-term approach to improve coastal communities' incomes and improve safety standards.

"Before the tsunami, Sri Lanka's boat-building programme was at its lowest ebb," the architect tells a workshop of experts from the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. "With a few exceptions, there was a general lack of technical ability on the drawing board, few records of what modifications had been made on which boats, and many vessels that were built without official approval or seaworthiness checks."

In Sri Lanka, the aftermath of the tragedy spawned frenetic boat-building.

"After the tsunami we had an emergency situation. International donations were available. There was sudden pressure on the industry. New boatyards were created," the architect adds.

Sri Lanka now enjoys an array of boatyard assets, he explains. "There is increased demand, there is a very good cash flow, a lot of NGOs want to contribute in a very good way … fibreglass technology is well accepted by fishers and the ministry."

A senior ministry official at the workshop concurs with the architect, adding only that "a fisherman is poor, he cannot afford all the ideas that we come up with. Some ideas are not so expensive, like having scuppers on the boats."

In a local boatyard, boat designers such as Wimal Wimalasiri are spearheading the new approach. His company started building 40-foot trawlers to replenish the tsunami-hit fleets.

"This is a completely new design, making reference to FAO guidelines for internal construction," Mr Wimalasiri says, gesturing at a sturdy vessel taking shape. "In the past boatbuilders here didn’t have much theoretical knowledge," he explains. "They got their experience from their forefathers."

Longer-range vessels

FAO's strategy is to dissuade the new boat builders and NGOs from constructing too many of the old one-day boats, usually 9.5 metre or three-and-a-half tonnes, so called because of their short range and therefore short time spent at sea.

Sri Lanka needs to build more multiday boats, which can stay at sea as long as six weeks as they search for lucrative species like tuna as far away as Malaysia or Somalia. The boats will be a source of employment for Sri Lankans.

Mr Thermes has promoted multiday boats at 16 out of 18 of Sri Lanka's biggest boatyards, and reports that the yards are now building 200 of them, while not replacing all the one-day boats that were destroyed.

One of his main concerns is to convince boatbuilders to adopt FAO safety guidelines for the design and construction of small fishing vessels. One example of dangerous practice is the overloading of vessels with on-deck water and fuel tanks, which causes boats to capsize by raising the centre of gravity. Unless fishers' knowledge of safety at sea improves, their craft will remain uninsurable, he points out.

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FAO/P. Singh

A boat-engine repair shop in Sri Lanka.

FAO/P. Singh

Italian Naval architect Stefano Thermes is redesigning Sri Lanka's tsunami-ravaged fishing fleet.

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Emphasis on higher income and safety
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