Humans of Hilsa

The last ban season (October 12 – November 2, 2016) to protect spawning Hilsa alias Ilish has gone well. After the ban; catching, selling, transportation and hoarding of hilsa resumed on November 3. The prohibition on fishing was enforced in 7,000 square kilometers of Hilsa breeding grounds in outer and inner coastal districts.

Shoals of mother Ilish start swimming upstream from the sea towards the rivers, weeks before the full moon in October (Ashwin in Bengali calendar), and they return to the sea after spawning Usually 15-day long, the ban has been extended to 22 days this year. While the years of consecutive ban season delivers result now, the king Hilsa is returning to the rivers, but how’s life for the fisher folks?

I traveled to the coastal districts during the ban to meet the fishers- who contributed to this conservation success despite being ultra poor.

Hilsa Fisher 1

On the second day of the ban, Abdul Hamid was busy in sorting out fishing gears at Patharghata landing station in coastal Barguna district. The boat has returned to the sea after the ban ended on 2nd November, but he has not and will not until the next monsoon because at the late sixties ‘he just can’t handle the chilly weather out there’ said fellow fisher folks. In winter, he will work in the field to support his extended family. Hailing from Padma village on the bank of Bishkhali River, Mr. Hamid is in fishing since his early age, but never got any financial assistance or free rice during ban periods, which the Department of Fisheries officials say they distribute among tens of thousands of fishers in 85 coastal sub-districts.

 

Hilsa Fisher 3

At least 900 fishermen got arrested and jailed for seven days to two years for violating the fishing ban across the region. This group of fishermen said people were arrested even while taking the boat to the harbor for repair and maintenance.  ‘What troubles me the most is replacing of an appreciation of the science of the fishing embargo and community motivation with the fear of punishment. Fear is the only driver that keeps the fishermen on the bank during the ban,’ said conservationist Mahatub Khan Badhon.

 

Hilsa Fisher 2

After the last fishing trip of the open season, crews of FV Anukul-2 got back from the Swatch of No Ground in the Bay of Bengal. Fishing in the open season was extraordinary this year with an unprecedented big catch of Hilsa in more than a decade. The catch soared up to half a million tons just before the ban began, said Fisheries Research Institute’s center at Chandpur. This is a huge surge from 1,99,000 tons back in 2002 or even the last year’s 3,87,000 tons. So, the 22 straight days of the last ban was time for some boat-keeping, sorting out the nets and many repairs.

 

Hilsa Fisher 4Kalam Miah, ‘the giant catfish’, as his fellow fisher folks call him, lives on the bank of the mighty Padma in Rajbari district. During the ban on Hilsa fishing, this inner coast fishing community was still in the river with their nets especially made for catfish. Mesh size of their net is so big that average Hilsa can get through, but not their targeted giant freshwater catfishes such as Boal, Aor, Pungus. First imposed in 2003-04 the October ban to protect spawning Hilsa was 15-day long in previous years, in place to an area of 7,000 square kilometers that includes rivers in 27 districts. This year, along with the extended time, it also included the coastal water and the total area of Exclusive Economic Zone in the Bay of Bengal.

 

Hilsa Fisher 5

On last day of the ban, the painter was giving his last touch to the boats. He traveled to this fishing hamlet in the outskirts of Chittagong to ‘decorate’ the boats before they sail again into the sea next morning. The major share of Bangladesh’s marine catch comes from this kind of mechanized and non-mechanized small boats, which last year accounted for 515000 metric tons, 85.86% of the total marine catch. Official estimates limit the number of these mostly artisanal fishing boats within 68,000. Back home in the central coast district of Feni, the painter owns one.

 

Hilsa Fisher 6

With this dinghy and small-mesh driftnet, Mohammad Ismail managed a fortune from Hilsa fishing at Haringhata River in the open season. The price he got over a couple of months before the ban started was ‘over one lakh and ten thousand takas,’ he said. Visiting the neighborhoods with the newly bought cell phone in the pocket was the only ‘work’ he was doing during the ban. ‘No one will observe the fishing ban if the Coast Guard was not there because it’s just impossible to resist the temptation of Hilsa’ said Mr. Ismail.

 

(This photo-story was first published by Daily Sun on November 26, 2016 titled ‘Hilsa Heroes’)

Flying crabs: Notes on Bangladesh’s export oriented mud crab fishery

The A great hunt is underway for the Mudcrabs in the Sundarban, world largest mangrove forest. Once just another scavenger in the forest, but since last decade the Mudcrabs are now known for their ‘export-quality’ flesh down here.

From the mudflats, creeks, canals, and rivulets of Sundarban, Mudcrabs are being exploited on an unprecedented scale, to be exported, alive; much to the delight of crustacean loving South East Asians- mainly the Chinese restaurant goers.

During some of my recent trips to the forest and impact zone, I’ve taken following notes on this;

A. The thriving crab fishery emerged as almost a Hobson’s choice for the local communities hard-hit by shrimp aquaculture and climate change. Sundarban dependent poor communities were already struggling hard to cope with disappearing livelihood options in the face of increased salinity, losing agriculture, declining fish stock and repeated floods and cyclones. So when the south-east Asian demand for seafood delicacy knocked at the door, the local traders took the opportunity.

 

IMG_0857
Fishers sleep on their dinghy in the Sundarban.

 

Take Munshiganj for example, a Union under Shyamnagar Upazila of Satkhira district. Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.

When I first visited the area in 2008, bazaars around namely Kolbari, Nowabeki, and Harinagar has only six crab buying house operating seasonally. Now, more than thirty depots operate in only Kolbari bazar all year round. Every fine morning of Kolbari will remind you the hustle and bustle of Karwan Bazar fish market.
The scenario is more or less same for villages located in Sundarban Impact Zone of Bagerhat and Khulna districts too. Crab fishing in the mangrove heartland is spreading so rapidly that loan-givers cum buyers from far north are setting their new businesses throughout the coastal zone.

B. This is not a subsistence or artisanal fishery of local fishing families anymore. exploitation of mud crab is  Poor workers from the north-western regions are migrating seasonally to join this force of fishery workers. It’s easy to start now, as the buyers provide boat and gears with a lump sum of the cash. The newly turned fishers just need to go in with a permit from Forest Department and collect literally whatever they can get.

 

IMG_6679
Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.

 

Satkhira district provides at least thirty percent of total Mudcrab extraction for export. Parulia bazaar is the main crab trade center of the district. On many occasions, I’ve talked to leaders of Parulia Crab Processing Traders Association. According to their account, they process seven to nine tonnes of Mudcrab in Parulia.

In every evening on an average of two truckloads of live Mudcrabs leave for Dhaka, where they wait for maximum two days, then hitch a ride on air cargo to be served as delicious dishes in China, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia.

C. And it does not look like that, policy-makers have any idea about what is going on. Of course, it is not formally recognized as a ‘fishery’. The Forest Department sees it another ‘forest produce’. They just issue ‘permits’ for crab fishing in exchange for very little fees, as many ‘permits’ as the businesses want them to do. The other government agencies related to export promotions are keeping the record on how much foreign currency the crab exporters are earning.

 

Crab fishers
The fishers get only a third of the end value of the crab, which is less than fair, and in turn, pushes overexploitation to increase.

But reinvesting the revenue to maintain overall ecosystem balance or at least for sustaining the crab population is still unheard of.  Even there are no substantial efforts to know more about the crab populations to enable related agencies for sustainable management of the fishery.

 

D. Coastal regions of Bangladesh have very bad experience with another 100% export oriented industry; shrimp farming. Ecosystem balance and livelihoods in the coastal zone have been devastated by unsustainable shrimp farming in the last few decades. Thousands of hectares of Mangrove forest was cleared for shrimp farming in the Chakoria Sundarban region. In the western coast, shrimp farming is responsible for loosing for agricultural lands and salinity intrusion. And now, this wild crab fishery is just like the historic Burma-teak rush.

Back in Dhaka, I’ve talked with many government officials and exporters. But none them are planning anything to bring sustainability in the wild crab fishery.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju