Erina Iwami, Valerie Tan, Rei Anno, and Riad Houry are second-year MA students who recently visited Sri Lanka's Negombo Lagoon as part of the International Development Practicum.

The wetland ecosystem in the northern part of Negombo Lagoon supports a wide range of economic and human activities. The area is an important fishery center in Sri Lanka, and home to about 2,000-5,000 small-scale fishers who derive their income from the lagoon and the associated coastal fishery. The estuary also serves as a shrimp nursery and a nutrient source for the coastal sea. The region under study is one of the most urbanized lagoon areas in Sri Lanka, and is located near a range of activities including industrial zones, hospitals, and government housing projects, all of which have impacted the structure and functioning of the ecosystem.

Our research looked at the sustainability of livelihoods from fisheries in the northern area of Negombo Lagoon, focusing on the activities of three types of fishermen: traditional stake-net fishers, fishermen using outboard engine fiberglass-reinforced boats, and fishermen using multi-day boats. We examined the consequences of fishing and other human and industrial activities on ecological integrity and human well-being. In doing so, we focused on multiple issues including the impact on the lagoon’s hydrology, intergenerational sustainability, and the roles of local government and civil society organizations in the management of the lagoon area.

Interviews and focus groups with stakeholders including fishermen, government officials, and local community and civil society members helped us identify the key challenges faced by the fishing communities around Negombo Lagoon. These revolve around the degradation of the lagoon’s ecosystem accompanied by a significant shrink in catch size. The shrinking catch size can be generally attributed to four factors: an increasing number of fishermen operating around the lagoon, pollution, land reclamation, and changing hydrology. All types of fishermen claimed that their catch had decreased by 50% or more in the past 10-20 years. Due to the decline in income from the fisheries, most fishermen and their spouses emphasized that they do not want their children to follow in their footsteps, choosing instead to educate them so they will find work in the corporate or government sectors.

Most fishermen faulted poor governance of the lagoon area and inadequate monitoring of fishery activities by the authorities for the decline of their ecosystem. There appears to be poor coordination among the large number of local and state government agencies involved in the management of the lagoon and no agency is willing to take ownership of the problems faced by the lagoon. Regulations are inconsistently enforced with inadequate monitoring of illegal fishing activities. While civil society groups are sophisticated and able to provide crucial support at the local level, they seem to join forces across organizations only when there is an imminent threat to the entire community. One solution put forward by the fishermen was to form a taskforce of 5-10 government employees that would be empowered with the authority and resources to enforce regulations and take responsibility for the protection of the lagoon.

Our experience around the Negombo lagoon taught us a valuable lesson in the tragedy of the commons and the consequences of mismanagement for local communities. The traditional fishermen we met and their families offered us a glimpse into their realities, and the challenges they face in providing a decent future for their children in an environment where their way of life is no longer a viable option.