How to nurture tomorrow’s ocean stewards

In Sri Lanka, a Restoration Steward works with fishing families to secure their future

By Samara Polwatta, 2023 Ocean Restoration Steward. All photos by Shehan Boteju.

Located on the breathtaking east coast of Sri Lanka, Kalkudah is emerging as a haven for sun seekers, surfers and scuba divers alike.

But despite being lined with unspoiled white-sand beaches and flanked by the Kayankerni coral reef to the north, this seaside community remains a fishing town at heart.

Kalkudah Beach
Kalkudah Beach.

In fact, Batticaloa district – where Kalkudah is located – is home to nearly 18 percent of all of Sri Lanka’s fishers, despite making up just 2.5 percent of the country’s population. Unsurprisingly, most communities in the vicinity rely on the fishing industry as their main source of income.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the industry as demand for fish tanked amid widespread misconceptions and misinformation on the safety of fish consumption. Fish catches fell by 20 percent, and exports by 26 percent, in 2020.

Meanwhile, the country’s ongoing economic and energy crises has further inserted pressure on the industry, leading to a drop in fish production and increased production costs. As a result, fish prices have soared, threatening the livelihoods of fishers, who are already among the lowest-paid workers in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, poverty rates have soared from 14 percent in 2019 to 31 percent in 2023, exacerbating conditions for anglers and their families.

In these challenging circumstances, fishing families are increasingly encouraging their children to drop out of education after completing primary school to join the fishing industry. Only a few students manage to fully complete secondary to tertiary education and escape poverty. Despite the best efforts of school administrations to improve attendance, they often struggle to compel children to attend classes due to the difficult circumstances their families face.

Fishers off Kalkudah
A fishing boat off the coast of Kalkudah.

Building ocean literacy

On top of economic hardship, Sri Lankan fishers also face the loss of their livelihoods for another reason: the decline of the country’s fisheries.

With more than 50,000 fishing vessels registered in Sri Lanka, many fisheries are already overfished and require rebuilding. But in the face of poverty and food insecurity, many fishers are keen on maximizing their income and tend to overlook their environmental impacts. 

Unfortunately, fishing communities also have a limited understanding of sustainable resource extraction practices. Rather than trusting the statistics, they believe their practices are sustainable as long as there are still fish in the sea for them to catch.

And despite warnings and policies in place, many fishers still resort to destructive practices such as using dynamite, which causes immeasurable damage to marine ecosystems, or discarding their fishing nets haphazardly despite the harm this causes to coral reefs and biodiversity. Moreover, waste from the houses near the coast is usually deposited into the ocean. This waste mostly consists of plastic, which can be severely harmful to ocean life.

We need to raise awareness of these damaging practices and of the climate and biodiversity crises. One way to do this is by increasing community-level engagement to encourage local people to embrace change. To strike a balance between resource extraction and conservation, we must adopt sustainable practices that mitigate environmental impacts while still meeting economic needs.

Environmental stewardship is key to achieving this balance – and it should start from a young age. Our project, School Meets the Reef, works with young people to cultivate positive change, move away from unsustainable practices and embrace their traditions.

Scuba workshop
A student learns to use scuba gear during a workshop by School Meets the Reef.

Sparking a fire within young minds

Launched in 2023 and based in Kalkudah, School Meets the Reef combines a coral conservation project with an education program aimed at increasing ocean literacy and knowledge on nature-based solutions, with the ultimate goal of addressing the many challenges Sri Lankan fishers and coastal ecosystems face.

There are several schools in the vicinity of our restoration site, attended by schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 16. While conservation is a part of their curriculum, it is often taught vaguely and lacks a focus on nature-based solutions.

Conservation is taught more broadly in secondary schools, but only in geography classes, which are optional, and not all students choose to study the subject. As such, many students miss out on important knowledge about their local environment. This makes it challenging to engage these young minds to become effective stewards of change.

We need major changes to the curriculum to make environmental education more appealing to students and to help parents understand the importance of school to their children’s future. Until that happens, our project aims to plug the gap.

Workshop by School Meets the Reef
An icebreaker during a workshop by School Meets the Reef.

Our first session, held at a community hall in Kalkudah, saw the participation of 42 students ranging from ages 10 to 16. This two-day program covered coastal ecosystems, conservation practices and the impacts of the climate crisis, including those on local fishing communities.

The most engaging activity saw students work in groups to create miniature models of their ideal coastal environments. This activity enabled them to not only express themselves creatively but also showcase how they imagined their ideal coastal ecosystem.

We also introduced students to scuba diving by screening a video of divers engaged in conservation and the wonders of the deep blue sea. Our main goal was to instill in them the importance of defending our oceanic ecosystems.

Samara and students
Samara Polwatta, 2023 Ocean Restoration Steward, chats with students at a workshop.

Training tomorrow’s ocean stewards

Following the workshop, many of the students said they had developed a better understanding of the linkages between ocean restoration, conservation and the fishing industry, and they were eager to share their new knowledge with their families when they returned home.

“I only think of the ocean as a source of income, but I can now see how everything is interconnected,” said Rani Selvaratnam.

“It’s very nice to see not only men but also women engaging in conservation,” added Raja Subramaniyamr. “At home, only my father goes to the sea to catch fish, while my mother stays at home. I am happy to see all these sisters engaging in saving the ocean.”

This positive reception is testament to the importance of early childhood education in driving positive change for both nature and people. We’ve since partnered with the Blue Resources Trust, an established Sri Lankan marine research and consultancy, to expand our project to more schools. We’ve conducted eight sessions in total, reaching 192 students, and added an extra module focusing on plastic pollution and potential solutions.

School Meets the Reef team
The workshop facilitators from School Meets the Reef and the Blue Resources Trust.

Through these workshops, we strive to ensure that our coral reef restoration efforts not only enhance ecosystems but also deeply involve local communities, especially youth. This is crucial in every phase of an ecological restoration project as it helps incorporate valuable local knowledge and enables communities to develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for its success.

Young people are not only the future but also the main agents of change and progress. That’s why one of our main goals is to create opportunities for young minds to flourish, which we believe is crucial for the success of our restoration efforts.



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