Post-harvest losses, processing and gender issues in fisheries | Sunday Observer

Post-harvest losses, processing and gender issues in fisheries

1 November, 2020

(President and Member of the Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF)

One of the serious issues in the fisheries of Sri Lanka today is the alarmingly high post-harvest losses, which remain as high as 40-60 per cent of the total fish harvested. While diverse strategies have been introduced to deal with the issue, none have led to any significant reduction in post-harvest losses. Although fish processing is one such means of reducing these losses, while providing the masses with a nutritious and palatable food, this sub-sector too is suffering from technological stagnation, lack of investment and miscellany, poor hygienic conditions maintained in processing sites, etc.

Women fisherfolk, who earn supplementary family incomes and contribute significantly to family wellbeing, are confronted with an array of problems which include, crude technology, unfair prices for produce, poo raccess to capital and, social barriers for engagement in fisheries related work.

Understanding the magnitude of these issues and to find appropriate solutions to at least some of the urgent issues, the Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF) and the National Fisheries Solidarity (NAFSO) jointly organised an Interactive Platform in Negombo in early 2020.

This Interactive Platform was formed by representatives of all stakeholders involved in the issues: fishers, fisher women, fish processors, civil society organisations, fisher community organisations, state actors (Department of Fisheries and the Aquatic Resources and National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency: NARA) and academics. The following is an account of the outcome of the deliberations on the issue of post-harvest losses, fish processing and gender, including agreements reached by all parties in resolving some important issues.

Post harvest losses

Losses due to unfriendly gear and fishing techniques

It was revealed that, fish quality is strongly affected by the type of gear used. Research carried out by NARA had revealed that the highest post-harvest loss (percentage loss being 39 per cent) had occurred due to ring nets while it was lowest (7 per cent ) with the long lining type of selective gear. However, the most distressing issue is the use of inappropriate mesh sizes which trap even juvenile and trash fish. Other disconcerting issues are the use of higher depths (or heights) in the gill nets (catching all types of non-target fish) and the longer times of keeping nets at sea (aimed at catching more fish) causing higher deterioration of fish quality. The process of mechanisation of the fishing fleet is another contributing factor because mechanisation has led to mult-iday fishing and the landing of poor quality fish, apart from its positive impacts on production.

Fishing traps (such as kudu dal} were also considered as gear that lead to harvest losses because they tend to catch the juveniles of fish. The need to develop gear that is more selective, prohibit gear which are more destructive, such as ring nets, setting limits on the depth to which gill nets are laid and, to impose the trawl ban law in identified areas, were suggested as remedial measures in resolving these issues.

Losses due to bad on-board handling of fish

It is known that fishing vessels which are engaged in long fishing trips are not adequately equipped with proper facilities for fish storage (fish is not frozen, only iced). Fish that are caught deteriorate with the prolongation of the fishing trip. As revealed by NARA’s research results, only 60 percent of the fish catch landed by boats are of “export quality”, or Grade A. Sometimes, fishermen resort to beating large fish with clubs, which is an unacceptable act, leading to loss of blood and fast deterioration of fish quality. Needless to say that poor handling and unhygienic practices cause contamination. It is (extremely) essential to follow proper hygienic measures inside the fishing vessel. This brings to light the need to develop the capacities of the vessel crew in employing proper hygienic practices inside the vessel.

A related issue is the need to ensure that the boats are equipped with a smooth and easily cleanable deck and storage rooms.

Rules are meaningless unless they are enforced. The lack of a proper mechanism and authority (with required professional qualifications) for craft inspection and providing certification on quality standards is a deterrent for ensuring the maintenance of proper hygienic and prophylactic practices on board fishing vessels and the skill of the crew in handling fish on board. In respect of the latter, the ILO Convention (C188) on Work in the Fishing Sector (2007) could provide guidelines in developing the necessary control measures.

Losses at landing sites

Losses could take place at landing sites due to non-smooth landing floors, dragging of fish along the floor, unavailability of clean water, poor sanitary conditions, improper fish handling, absence of ice boxes and cold storage facilities etc.

Fish processing and gender

Processing issues

What goes for fish processing are the poor quality fish from offshore crafts and those fish from coastal crafts during surplus landings. Post-harvest, value addition takes two paths: i. preparation into ready-to-cook fresh forms and ii. processed fish.

Ready-to-cook fresh forms:This is generally done for fish that needs a great degree of cleaning and skinning, such as Pothubari, Thilapia, Flat fish and other similar species. This is undertaken by some women and such cleaned products are sold in retail outlets.

Although, fish filleting might have a good potential for more affluent urban consumers who demand value added fish products, this alternative has not been studied in detail. Yet, this type of value addition is very poorly developed in the country.

Processed fish (dried fish):In general, the dry fish preparation process involves, cleaning, washing, cutting, salting and drying, while Maldive fish is a steam-dried product. As a means of dealing with fish quality deterioration in multi-day fishing, the first-caught fish are dried on the deck of the craft during the voyage and such dried fish is called “Boat-Dried Fish” (boattu karawala). It is believed that boattu karawala are clean, contain less moisture and are of better quality.

Nevertheless, the volumes available are limited. The dry fish traders, who usually visit the houses of producers (mainly women) enjoy oligopsonistic buying powers and producer prices are said to be very “unfair”. As revealed by small scale fish processors they earn a healthy profit margin only if they use poor quality fresh fish for processing. Some processors at industrial level use good quality fresh fish for fish processing, but only target certain limited niche markets among the high income groups.

In fact, the small scale processing industry is confronted with the dilemma of carrying out dried fish making as a viable livelihood alternative, while providing a quality product to the consumer. Processing technology, as a whole tend to be stagnating without any improvement as revealed by nation-wide stakeholder consultations. It is also to be taken into account that, dried fish is considered as an important food item in the poor man’s diet and his major source of protein. The problem is to find the exact trade-off between input price and quality.

Today, the fish drying areas, especially the beaches, are being narrowed down to mere strips of sand, hardly sufficient to provide space for craft landing and fish drying. Both, natural factors such as climate change and expanding coastal tourism under the anxious blue economic growth initiatives have resulted in displacing the small scale fishers from their traditional rights to the beach.

Gender dimension

One of the traditional household activities of women fisher folk in Sri Lanka has been the processing of fish into dried fish and Maldive fish and salted fish, which earned them supplementary incomes.In fact, for many fishing villages, where dried fish processing is widely practised, it has become a way of life for the women.

Women’s engagement in fish processing activities can be considered as a type of strategy towards coping with an array of risks and uncertainties inherent in fishing as it contributes for the smoothening of inter-temporal flows of daily fishing incomes.However, during recent times, small-medium scale dried fish and maldive fish industries have been established and they might offer a threat to engagement of women in this industry and thereby threaten the function that dry fish processing at household level perform in improving the resilience capacity of fishing households.

In fact, the role of women has often been undermined in fisheries, which is a male dominant industry. Their access to credit, information and training opportunities is poor , and very few efforst have been made to improve women’s access to such financial, physical and human capital.

Empowerment of women to gain control over their own lives is one of the Millenium Development Goals of the UN, and is also included in the Sustainable Development Goals, under gender equality. Article 7.2 of the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small Scale Fisheries states that “all parties should recognise the role women often play in the post-harvest subsector and support improvements to facilitate women’s participation in such work. States should ensure that amenities and services appropriate for women are available as required in order to enable women to retain and enhance their livelihoods in the post-harvest subsector”(FAO of the United Nations, 2005).

Into the future

Use of selective type of gear, better on-board handling of fish and improved on board preservation facilities, are of significant importance in reducing losses of the catches landed by offshore crafts. While post-harvest losses are quite low in coastal fisheries, the issue of losses could only be minimised if ice boxes are provided to fishers and cold storage facilities are available at large market centers to handle gluts.

Even if the quality of fish landed by multi-day crafts is improved through new innovations, it is unlikely that such benefits would trickle down to the dried fish and maldive fish producer at the bottom because the higher purchase price of good quality fish would push down the profit margins of the small scale producer.

The solution would be to add value to the end products by adopting health standards, cleaning, cutting, packing and labeling and sell the products through the establishment of market links with the busy urban consumer, and through product diversification (new products such as smoked fish, fish pickles, ambul thiyal and similar products.

Of momentous importance would be investment on further research and innovations in fish processing technology (including drying) and government intervention in training and capacity building of small scale fish producers in resolving the aforementioned issues. It is necessary to protect the small scale fish processor, especially the women, by providing them with technical know-how (through training and capacity building) and access to new technology and credit.

By organising themselves into cooperatives, the women fish processors could increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis the unscrupulous traders and also develop links directly with markets (ex. large chain stores), leading to improvements in the wellbeing of their families.