The Sunday Leader

Moving St. John’s Raises A Stink!

Head of St. John’s Fish Traders Association, St. John’s Fish Market and The pristine new facility at Peliyagoda

By Abdul H. Azeez and Indi Samarajiva Reporting from Pettah
A move to shift the popular century old St. John’s fish market from Pettah to Peliyagoda initially met with approval from traders. But their opinion has now changed and requests to shift to the brand new complex have been met with strong refusal.
The floor of the current fish market is still alive and flopping, piled upon with purple cuttlefish, red snapper and tuna the size of a small man. The entire operation is supposed to move to Peliyagoda in a matter of months, but now the St. John’s Fish Traders Association (FTA) has decided they don’t want to go. This dispute could make the new market very expensive paperweight, burying a direct investment of Rs. 1,025 million along with Rs. 675 million from the Asian Development Bank.

St. John’s

The current fish market was started by the British in 1894 and is now the primary hub for the trading of fish in Colombo. Trucks arrive from all over the island at approximately 2 A.M. to greet the gathered workers who then begin the unloading process. By around 6 A.M. everything is set and ready to go. Wholesale customers, passers-by, and dedicated housewives flock for the fresh, cheap fish, braving the profound smell which sticks to visitors all day. This central location is readily accessible via bus, train and car, but this traffic also means congestion.


In an effort to relieve this congestion, the government proposed a new, modern fish market on the Katunayake Expressway (Negombo Road) in Peliyagoda. This location just outside of Colombo would relieve the downtown of the fishy traffic and also provide much more modern facilities including sinks for individual vendors, three cold rooms, an ice machine and parking for over 500 vehicles.
The proposal initially met with agreement from the St. Johns Fish Trader’s Association according to its President, Roshan Perera. Construction was initiated about one year and six months ago and work is almost complete.
Now however, the FTA says that even though they were involved in the initial planning of the complex, the ultimate results of the plan have not proved agreeable.
One trader who was interviewed by The Sunday Leader said that the new location was in ‘a jungle’ (meaning it was in a very out of the way location) and they would lose a lot of business due to the loss of this prime location (Pettah).

Trader Issues

“They initially told us that they will be moving a significant part of Pettah there, including the vegetable markets and the other essential wholesale markets that function in the area. But so far it only looks like the fish market is moving. We rely a lot on the scale economies we have developed for our business. Pettah is closely located to main transport hubs and it is the easiest place to access from anywhere in the country, the location of other essential markets nearby also means that customers find it easy to do all their shopping at once. We rely a lot on these factors for our retail business,” Perera said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by many other traders who were interviewed. He went on to add that the market provides more than a thousand jobs to people in an around the area and they range from people who carry out duties such as unloading lorries, portering, wrapping up goods, cutting fish etc. There also are a lot of other small businesses that thrive on the presence of the fish market such as small scale food outlets and transport service providers.
“How can we sustain these jobs if we just uproot ourselves to a different location?” asks Perera. Lorries arrive from all over the country as early as 2 a.m. in the morning and laborers must be ready and waiting to start unloading them. Most of the workers live nearby including those who don’t find it easy to get to Pettah at odd hours. If the market were moved to Peliyagoda, numerous problems would be created for the workers.”
He further alleged that the unloading facilities provided at the new location are not logistically in line with the fish market’s requirements; “We need more unloading bays. Traders usually keep their goods in ice boxes in their trucks and sell them as and when they are needed. The new place with its restrictions means that they will have to unload the goods all at once, this will mean that the goods will get spoilt.”
Aside from market access and infrastructure based concerns the third concern that the association puts forward is the ‘heritage’ of St. John’s. The market has been around for more than a century, having been initiated in the year of 1894. Traders have ‘ancestral’ stalls that have been passed from father to son. Brushing aside questions regarding the ethically questionable nature of this practice, Perera says that the traders have been entrenched in this system for all their lives and “have a strong resistance to change.”
“They have now called for applications to the new place. Some traders have already applied out of fear of losing out. But the majority has not applied as yet. We have not been informed by the Municipal Council to move as yet and therefore we do not see any reason to alter our operations,” he said.

The Flipside

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, a media official from the Ministry of Fisheries said that the Ministry was in the process of addressing the concerns of the FTA through discussions and was confident of coming to a ‘mutually agreeable’ solution. What exactly these solutions will be is unclear and The Sunday Leader was unable to contact the Minister of Fisheries, Rajitha Senaratne or his deputy for comment.
The media official stated that the Ministry has the ‘best interests’ of the people at heart and that the new complex has a plethora of facilities that will be extremely beneficial to business. Increased space will mean that more traders can trade there and prices can be reduced further. Facilities such as waste disposal and water supply also seem to have been included.
“We have provided a place that is easier to shop in and much cleaner. The new complex is built to modern standards and will be an improvement on current conditions,” he said. A few customers interviewed by The Sunday Leader did not appear to be deterred by the possible change of location; “we come here for the fresh fish which can also be bought at almost half the market rate. We live in Battaramulla but we won’t have a problem in going all the way to Peliyagoda”.
Another lady said that she would welcome the shift because it would be closer to Kandana, where she lives. To be fair to the trader, the new facility is located a good few hundred meters away from the main road. Its entrance also appears to be located in a position that may make it cumbersome for the public to access. The new facility, however, is ultra-modern compared to the old trading floor. It appears to be specifically designed as a fish market while the St. John’s market has grown organically and not in any particular order.


Objections aside, it appears that too much has already been invested in the new fish market to make significant changes. The government has already declared that construction is complete and that the market will be opened. The only question now is how they will catch the fishmongers and get them into the new facility on time.

4 Comments for “Moving St. John’s Raises A Stink!”

  1. Showman Joe

    Development means- change – we must be prepared-

  2. Sam Silva

    Hello FTA, the country needs to develop. Current fish market is an insult to the country and a health hazard.

    It is a wiin-win situation although you don’t quite get it.

  3. pemma

    Agreed. While the Government need to address legitimate grievences by the FTA, they too should understand that the Govt. need to move some of these operations presently concentrated in and around the heart of the city to outer suburbs thereby widening the city boundaries. This is a necessary part of the country’s economic development.

  4. Dictator

    This is what happens when you let uneducated fish mongers come to “agreements” and then start backing out. Better to show them who’se the boss.

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