FAO organises cleanup campaign to clear Negombo lagoon of dangerous wrecks

Friday, 10 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Text and pix by Harsha Udayakantha Peiris

Safety for fishers in Sri Lanka’s Negombo lagoon will soon be improved following an operation to remove hazardous sunken fishing boats, supported by Regional Fisheries Livelihood Programme (RFLP) implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

The details were revealed at the beach cleanup campaign organised by FAO at the Kudapaduwa, Negombo Beach Park on 7 June 2011 in commemoration of ‘World Environment Day, upon the theme ‘Forests: Nature at Your Service’ and the World Ocean Day this year.

Planting of trees in the Beach Park premises was also conducted prior to the cleanup. More than 150 school students from the Negombo South International School participated in the campaign.

The Negombo lagoon, situated 40 km north of Colombo, is a shallow basin estuary. Fishing is a major economic activity with the lagoon, providing livelihoods for over 3,000 fishers living in the 35 fishing villages which surround its shores.

Eight water ways help maintain water circulation in the lagoon. However, sunken boats block a number, impeding water circulation and creating hazards for fishing boats using the waterways.

A total of 22 sunken boats have been located in the lagoon, some submerged to the bottom, others partly protruding from the surface. These include old and un-serviceable boats abandoned by their owners as well as boats confiscated by courts and lying unattended for a long time, which eventually found their way to the lagoon bottom. In addition, there exist boats damaged and sunk due to the tsunami in 2004 and offshore boats anchored in the lagoon that were damaged and sunk due to a fire in late 2005.

The removal of the sunken fishing boats has long been a major request of local fishers with the Negombo Lagoon Fisheries Management Authority (NLFMA) at the forefront of efforts to solve the problem.

With the Negombo Lagoon forming part of its area of operations, RFLP has supported the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development (MFARD) as well as the Negombo Lagoon Fisheries Management Authority (NLFMA) in their efforts to solve the problem.

“More than 500 boats that engage in daily fishing activities are currently disturbed by the situation. At present, all approach channels are heavily blocked and not a single boat is at ease to survive the risk and danger of the damaged, destroyed and sunken ships in the lagoon. The matter was initially produced at the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development by the Negombo Lagoon Fisheries Management Authority and was later discussed at the District Development Council. The estimate reached at the discussions, to remove these hazards was Rs.5 million. The Ministry agreed upon providing Rs.2.5 million while the remaining would be funded by the RFLP of FAO. The funds will be utilised through the Gampaha District Secretary and via the Negombo Divisional Secretary,” said Leslie Joseph, Consultant of Fisheries for RFLP.

Jose Parajua, RFLP Regional Programme Manager, says that the team is working to strengthen co-management mechanisms for the lagoon. “This is an excellent example of an initiative planned and implemented jointly by the authorities and local fishers. The removal of these wrecks will also help improve safety for fishers, which is another major priority for the RFLP.”

Nine boats have been retrieved from the lagoon bottom so far. The most prominent aspect of the retrieval operation is that the NLFMA has devised a novel, but a traditional way of hauling the boats off the lagoon bottom, without resorting to the use of modern heavy machinery of any kind which could damage and disturb the fish habitats within the lagoon. During the retrieval operation, coconut tree trunks are fixed into the lagoon bottom surrounding the sunken boats. Divers then loosen the boats from the lagoon bottom by removing mud and soil. Water inside the boats is pumped out and inflatable rubber belts are secured under the boat, extending out to chain blocks. The boat is lifted and brought to the surface using the chain blocks, whereupon it is tied to a boat and towed to the edge of the lagoon and then pulled ashore manually. It takes two to three days to retrieve one boat and nearly five days for boats that are severely damaged.

Disposal of the sunken boats from the vicinity of the lagoon will be undertaken once all the 22 boats are removed. The Negombo Municipal Council has allocated a garbage dump for the disposal of retrieved boats which would be cannibalised first before taken to the dump site. The process also takes care of destroying the fibreglass structures with no damage to the environment at all. The whole process has been scheduled to be accomplished by the end of June this year.

A request by the youth association on island number two in the lagoon to obtain the cannibalised fibreglass structures of the boats to be removed from the lagoon to build a safety wall to halt sea erosion in the only playground for the community on the island will also be facilitated during the process. Commenting on the ongoing process to remove the wrecks from the lagoon, the fishers in the area say that the authorities should also look into the illegal land fillings that take place at present at the lagoon. Landing of garbage and other debris have severely polluted the lagoon water and the surroundings, threatening life, flora and fauna in and around the lagoon.