Northern Sri Lanka has gone through a long period of civil war that has had significant impacts on the fishing economy. This paper presents ethnographic material from a longitudinal (1977-2013) study on fisheries regulation from a village in the Jaffna region. Starting from the observation that fisher law, which is based on old perceptions of territorial use rights, has survived the war, it investigates the manner in which the fisheries cooperative of Kadalur has reacted to three challenges occurring at various scale levels: (1) the incursion of a fleet of Indian trawlers into inshore waters, (2) the arrival of diving companies from southern Sri Lanka, and (3) the initiation of squid-jigging by local fishers. The cooperative responds differently to each of these challenges, seeking alliances with, but sometimes engaging in strong opposition to, military and civil authorities. The paper concludes that fisheries governance in northern Sri Lanka is murky and infected by various degrees of power struggle. A conspicuous feature, however, is that fisher organizations enjoy (varying extents of) space to articulate and implement their own perception of fishing rights.
Humanity’s relationship with fish dates back to prehistory, when ancestral hominins evolved the capacity to exploit aquatic resources. The impacts of early fishing on aquatic ecosystems were likely minimal, as primitive technology was used to harvest fish primarily for food. As fishing technology became more sophisticated and human populations dispersed and expanded, local economies transitioned from hunter-gatherer subsistence to barter and complex trade. This set up a positive feedback ratcheting fishing technology, mercantilization, and the commoditization of fish. A historical narrative based on archaeology and documentary evidence follows the principal changes in fisheries through evolutionary, ancient, classical and medieval eras to modern times. Some local depletions are recorded from early fishing, but from the 1950s, massive impacts of serial depletions by size, species, area and depth are driven by commoditized fishery products. North Sea herring fisheries are described in detail. Today’s severely depleted wild fish populations reflect social institutions built on global markets that value fish predominantly as a consumptive commodity, risking future ecological integrity and human food security. To sustain global fisheries, decommoditization strategies that sustain human and ecosystem relationships with fish beyond their commodity value are needed.