In Barisal's Agailjhara upazila catching Gangeatic mud eels is a livelihood for many. The freshwater eel-like fish, which technically belong to the swamp eel family rather than being true eels, are locally called “cuchia”. They are regularly sent to markets in Dhaka and beyond. But fixed purchase prices from exporters and limited government support over past years has impeded the growth of a potentially lucrative mud eel industry.
“We catch mud eels using various techniques including hooks and nets,” says Kartik Mandal of Bakal village. “We also catch them with hands, while wading through ponds and water bodies.”
“Mud eels from wetland areas can weigh up to one kilogram,” says another mud eel fisher, Sushil Mandal from Gaila village. “But mostly they weigh between 400 and 700 grams. We sell the mud eels at a local wholesale market where the rate is about Tk 250 per kilogram. In a day we can catch up to three kilograms of fish.”
Around 500 people in Agailjhara upazila and across the Barisal region are engaged in mud eel catching and trading. Every week one or two truckloads of the fish leave for Dhaka, carrying up to seven tonnes of them. “Our product is on-sold to an exporter located in Dhaka,” explains one wholesaler, Susil Mandal. “He exports them to China and other countries.”
The local conditions are also suitable for mud eel farming, an activity that does not require huge expenditure up front. A waterhole or wetland where mud eels naturally occur can be ideal for an aquaculture project, as can local ponds.
“The government has set up three mud eel demonstration farms at Rajihar, Nagirpar and Gaila in Agailjhara upazila this year,” says the local upazila fisheries officer Rojia Akhter. “If these projects succeed mud eel production in the upazila may quickly double.”
“The demand for mud eels in China is high,” says Abul Kashem Gazi, secretary of the Bangladesh Crab and Cuchia Exporters' Association. “Per week it would be possible to export at least eight tonnes of mud eels to China, but we fulfil only about ten percent of that demand. If Bangladesh could increase its mud eel production, it promises significant foreign earnings.”
President of the South Region Cuchia Traders' Society, Prodip Baroi, agrees. “If we had proper industry support mud eel production could be doubled or trebled,” he says. “This area is absolutely fit for mud eel farming.”
Apart from a lack of support in developing the industry previously, traders also note that the syndicate-like arrangements with exporters are also impeding the industry. “The rate for mud eels is more or less fixed and we are bound to sell to the exporters,” says Baroi. “There is no competition.”