Sri Lanka’s devastated fishermen on Wednesday sent a shipment of fish to the president as they pleaded with people to resume eating seafood in the wake of the Asian tsunami disaster.
At the southern fishing village of Mirissa, where around 300 boats support some 1,300 families, three boats of fishermen returned to sea Tuesday night and sent part of their catch north to the capital Colombo, relief workers said.
The president is due to accept the parcel at 6:00 pm (1200 GMT), they said.
Many of the fishermen here still have boats which they are desperate to use so they can earn a livelihood but they cannot sell their fish due to rumours of them nibbling bloated corpses or being infected with viruses.
"There have been SMS messages going around suggesting that there was a virus in the fish, they even gave it a name, and it spread around like a bushfire," said Belgian Pierre Pringiers, whose company helped organise the president’s fish shipment as a publicity stunt as part of its relief work.
"Look, there are boats out there on the water. Now they have to go out. This is a very small beginning," he said.
Fisherman Lasantha Jayasooriya, 30, told AFP he was afraid to go back out in his boat after the disaster which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans but was willing to go because he needed to earn an income.
"There are many fish on the boat today but we cannot send it to the market because nobody will buy it," he said, standing in the shade of one of the damaged boats tossed from the harbour onto high ground like a toy.
"We want to work again if only somebody will buy the fish," he said, adding that a shipment sent to Colombo last week shortly after the disaster was rejected by normal buyers due to a lack of demand.
Around 20 fishermen and their family members were killed in this village alone, along with thousands of others along Sri Lanka’s southern coast, where the fishing of tuna, marlin and mullet and others is a crucial industry.
The fishermen who have survived and their families have no other way to earn an income, Pringiers said.
"If they don’t get back into fishing, they’re in trouble. This whole coastal belt has no revenue at all. We have to get them back to a state of taking responsibility for their lives," Pringiers said.
Nearby, fish sizzled on a coconut-husk fuelled barbecue, as the fishermen cooked up some of their catch rubbed with salt and pepper to eat in front of other villagers and the media to demonstrate its safety.
"We have been in touch with the WHO (World Health Organisation) and they say the fish should be perfectly okay to eat," Pringiers said.
A large number of fishermen who were out at sea in their trawlers only discovered the tragedy when they returned to the devastated coast.
Seafood is a staple for most Sri Lankans and despite the country being an island, it is a net importer of seafood because of the heavy consumption.