Bangladesh’s southernmost community hopes there are more fish in the sea

When entering Teknaf from Ukhiya sub-district, the landscape remains similar on both sides; high and low hill ranges in the east, a narrow strip of tidal floodplain and beach ridges in the west. Communities living in hills and lower plain has a distinctively different socio-cultural structure based on their ethnicity, rights over land and other natural resource uses and religion; their options for livelihoods varies accordingly.  Refugee flow from neighboring Myanmar is a source of social and economic tension. As a border-region refugee crisis, human trafficking and undocumented trans-border business have impact on about every aspect of life and livelihoods in the localities.

Communities living on the western side are largely affected by degradation of beach and dune system, coastal erosion and in the struggle to adapt to agricultural practices in the face of dwindling fish stock in the bay. In the Hnila Union where Naf river enters Teknaf sub-district, a narrow strip of tidal floodplain runs along the river bank towards the bay of Bengal, which was totally covered by mangroves once. On the other side, hill ranges end nearly at the border of Sabrang Union, just before the southernmost settlements of mainland Bangladesh. About half of the areas of the Sadar Union and most of  Sabrang Union remains intermittently flooded throughout the year. The inter-tidal zone provides ground for crab fishing to hundreds of families here. Overall Sadar and Sabrang Union communities are most vulnerable to floods, rising level of tide, increased salinity and other extreme weather events.

Two fishers in Naf Estuary
Nurul Hasan (left) younger brother is still in Malaysia working as an undocumented and illegal worker. The two brothers took the boat to ‘seek a nice job’ and crossed the bay of Bengal as he describes it ‘by evading Bangladeshi border guard’s reluctant eyes and then with help from Burmese and Thai security personnel’. Nurul found the job of gardener as comfortable but returned to the home several months later as he recalls it; ‘I felt like I’m not at home, then took the chance of Malaysian government clemency and took the flight to Dhaka with travel documents issued by them ’. Now he is struggling to cope with very limited income from daily fishing and his family mostly depends on money his younger brothers sending home regularly.

In northern parts of the Sub-district shrub, coarse grasses and bamboos have taken place of degraded hill forests. These hills originally were covered by Dipterocarp forest. Deforestation continues, mainly due to illegal logging and agriculture. Some hills are designated as legally protected forests (read, ‘plantations’). Though illegal, but communities largely depend on agriculture in the forest and highlands. Farming for betel-leaf, betel-nut, and banana is dominant in the hills and forest lands. Farming increases the risk of soil erosion on the hill slopes. The hills are extensively drained by creeks and small waterfalls, but during monsoon when heavy rainfall continues the saturated hill soils are prone to landslides causing deaths and damage to properties.

In north-western communities, dependence on marine-fishing has decreased rapidly. People say that, with increased costs of operating motorized boats and fallen stocks of fish in the sea, fishing is not considered as a trusted option for livelihoods anymore. They are accustomed to going fishing in August-September and January-March periods only when a number of brackish water small-sized species is found in abundance.

Shah Parir Dweep
Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is difficult now. This portion of Teknaf, from Sabrang to Shah Parir Dweep remains underwater round the year, apparently due to rise of high tide’s level, as the local elders suggest. They use mechanized boats to ferry the essential goods and passenger across this newly created ‘wetland’.

Bombay duck (Harpadon neherues), Greenback mullet (Chelon subvirdis), Gold-spotted grenadier anchovy (Coilia Dussumieri), Ramcarat grenadier anchovy (Coilia ramcarati), Tongue soles (family Cynoglossidae), Bigeye ilisha (Ilisha megalopetra) and Pama croaker (Otolithoides pama) traditionally formed the main catch. Fishers say it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in near-shore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go in the deeper area which they can’t due to lack of the sea-worthy boat.

The case for fishing almost same in the lower parts ( the , southernmost part of mainland Bangladesh) also. This tidal floodplain at the mouth of Naf river is exposed to storm surges and floods.

Fishing Boat
Fishers s it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in near-shore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go in the deeper area which they can’t due to lack of the sea-worthy boat.

What adds to the fishing scenario for southern and south-western Teknaf is the lack of an alternative. Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is difficult now. So the communities of Teknaf Sadar and Sabrang who are dependent on Tidal Floodplains, Naf river, Mangroves and Intertidal Zones always struggle to cope with difficulties in fishing.

Mangroves are largely degraded and deforested, but the bare mudflats provide them the opportunity for crab fishing. Mud crabs are also being harvested from inter-tidal zones and intermittently flooded areas between Sabrang and Shah Parir Dwip. Mud crabs have a relatively high price in the market. Export-oriented crab ‘softening’ farms buy the live crabs from the fishers on daily basis.

Families in Sabrang and Shah Parir Dwip manage the right to operate Estuarine Set Bag Nets in the lower parts of Naf river and river mouth on shared basis. They own and operate the boats in groups, and in some cases, they work as labor with a share in the profit. Whatever small is the size of the catch, they continue the operation around the season, because no other alternative is available. Post-harvest processing such as fish drying is almost absent. They sell the fishes in the local market, sometimes suppliers from the urban market by the catch from local collectors.

Abdur Rahman
Abdur Rahman, a shopkeeper and occasional fisher in his early 30s is one of some 40 men encouraging the youth for trying something hard at home for livelihoods, rather than taking an ‘easy’ boat-ride to Malaysia. He organizes villagers in Sabrang to rehabilitate Mangroves, to sustain it ecosystem services mainly ‘fishes and flood-free life’ in his terms. Their group cooperates with the government and the NGO-run program usually, but sometimes he is pessimistic about ‘reporting and run’ approach to the conservation programs. He says, rather than time-bound funded projects, if the government agencies, NGOs and greater civil society based in Dhaka give only moral support to them and little regular financial aid, they can mitigate the problems created by land grabbers restore the Mangrove ecosystems. The case of degraded hill forest in the upper Teknaf is more or less same, he thinks.

Lastly, one important thing; at least one in every six families here have a member currently working in ‘Melesia’ (as they pronounce ‘Malaysia) as an ‘undocumented’ and illegal migrant worker. And off-course they traveled to Malaysia by mechanized boats evading the reluctant eye of Bangladeshi border guards and with the help of Burmese and Thai corps in most cases. Most of the family I’ve encountered is happy in this regard because they say migrant workers are sending home a good amount of money.

How they use the money from Malaysia? They can afford their school going kids now and they invest in activities based on natural resources. Given all the adversities, before taking a boat to Malaysia the young guys just hope that there are more fish in the sea!

Though the tides are too high to farm salt- some of the families are trying, though the land is saline- effort to cultivate them is not so rare, and though the marine fish stock is declining apparently- desperate families sometimes build their own boats till now.

Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar
21st January, 2015

Photos: © Mohammad Arju

Published by

Mohammad Arju

Conservation Practitioner working in the Bay of Bengal region.