Note – published in Nov 2020 but backdated for sequencing purposes.

This post is one of a series of projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists, and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.

Oceanswell is Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education nonprofit organization and was founded by MCAF Fellow and renowned blue whale scientist, Dr. Asha de Vos. Recently, MCAF helped support a timely project led by Asha and the Oceanswell team to understand the impacts of the global pandemic on fishing communities in Sri Lanka. Specifically, the team worked to understand the on-ground perils that the fishing communities face due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the support the Sri Lankan government rendered towards these communities and how this affected their lives. Through involving local students this project helped to empower the next generation of local ocean heroes with strong relationships in their own communities. In this piece the authors, Oceanswell’s Program Officer, Nadiya Azmy and Intern Arpana Giritharan, talk about their experiences working on this groundbreaking project while facing safety and curfew restrictions.

සිංහල පරිවර්තනය සඳහා මෙතන ක්ලික් කරන්න.
தமிழ் மொழிபெயர்ப்புக்கு இங்கே கிளிக் செய்க.

by Nadiya Azmy and Arpana Giritharan, Oceanswell

As the prevalence of COVID-19 grew in Sri Lanka, the country went into lockdown from mid-March. As a marine conservation research and education organisation we became increasingly interested in the impact this would have on the local, mostly small-scale, fishing communities we often interacted with. We used the remainder of the lockdown to fund-raise and prepare to launch the project. As soon as the lockdown was lifted in June and we got the green light to embark on this important work, we initiated an islandwide investigation to understand the effects of the lockdown on key actors in the fisheries value chain – fishers, processors and sellers/traders.

Antony interviews a processor in Pallikuda, Kilinochchi located off the northern coast of Sri Lanka.

Antony interviews a processor in Pallikuda, Kilinochchi located off the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Photo: Antony Santhosh/Oceanswell

Sri Lanka’s coastline spans 1340 km and as a result our fishing communities are both geographically and culturally diverse. To ensure representation of the different fishing communities, a structured socioeconomic survey was designed that allowed us to survey 415 fisheries actors from 14 study sites around the island. The primary objective of the study was to understand the impacts of COVID-19, specifically the lockdown, on the most vulnerable parts of the community, and therefore a third of our surveys were targeted at women fisherfolk.

A virtual training session held on Zoom.

A virtual training session held on Zoom. Photo: Oceanswell

The field team comprised 14 research assistants, some of whom were fishers themselves. The scale of our project and the inter- provincial travel restrictions imposed, meant that we could not bring all our research assistants physically together at any point during the project. However we navigated these barriers by recruiting and providing rigorous training to our team, virtually.

Training the research assistants was extremely important as conducting socio-economic surveys requires a lot of skill and patience to ensure that data collected is honest and usable. The importance of taking time to build relationships and trust cannot be underestimated. To maintain morale among the team members who were scattered across the island, we organised informal networking sessions online so they could share their experiences and the challenges they faced while in the field. This provided an opportunity for peer-to-peer problem solving.

Mujas interviews a processor as she separates the shells of clams in Mutur, located on the East coast of Sri Lanka.

Mujas interviews a processor as she separates the shells of clams in Mutur, located on the East coast of Sri Lanka. Photo: Mohammad Mujas/Oceanswell

As the safety of our team was of utmost priority, we continuously assessed the risks on the ground and ensured they were well equipped with necessary safety precautions such as face masks and gloves, along with everything they would need for the surveys. Our field team quickly mobilised and carried out surveys in their own backyards in the native language of the fisheries actors (either Sinhalese or Tamil). Working with research assistants with pre-existing relationships within these communities enabled us to ensure our data was reliable and that we were able to collect all the necessary surveys in a short window. This project also allowed us to fulfill our goal of nurturing local heroes on every coastline.

Thamiliny takes notes as she speaks to a coastal fisher in Mathagal, Jaffna.

Thamiliny takes notes as she speaks to a coastal fisher in Mathagal, Jaffna. Photo: Thamiliny Kaneshalingam/Oceanswell

Three months into the project, we are now in the final stages of data analysis. The experience has been a steep learning curve that gave us a greater appreciation of the challenges and limitations when carrying out socio-economic research. We have acquired many new skills along the way, and most importantly, learnt the extent to which fishing communities, regardless of location or role in the value chain, were negatively impacted by the lockdown. The virus is still among us and will be for the foreseeable future, therefore work of this nature helps us build resilience and capacity to tackle similar situations as we move forward.

In closing we would like to say thank you to the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund for bringing our vision to life by funding this timely and important study. Additionally, we would like to thank our Founder, Dr. Asha de Vos and our collaborator Dr. Sangeeta Manghubai, the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Fiji Country Programme, for their guidance. The data collection phase of the project would not have been possible without Mrs. Jegatheeswary Ehamparam Gunasingham and our fourteen interviewers – Kaushalya Balasooriya, Dilini Gamage, Manuja Hendawitharana, Iflal Ilyas, Thamiliny Kaneshalingam, Mohammed Mujas, Kajanthini Rajanalendran, Shalanka Ranjula, Rifdha Riswan, Antony Santhosh, Saranya Sinnathurai, Sathiavakeesparan Sivanthan, Abilagini Vickraman and Muththulingam Yuhinthan.