While many rivers in the country are dying slowly due to encroachment, several others, such as the Ratna and Shutki in Baniachong upazila of Habiganj, are facing a different predicament -- being robbed of all their aquatic life.
Thanks to the indifference of the authorities concerned, a chairman of a union parishad and several others have been destroying aquatic animals and insects in the two rivers for the last couple of years by placing fine fishing nets across the rivers -- in not one, not two, but at least 20 places.
This correspondent during a visit to the upazila recently came across two such nets, supported by bamboo structures, on the Ratna river.
Every single aquatic animal or insect that tries to pass through the nets are getting caught as holes in the nets are exceedingly fine. Later on, during collection of fish, the workers engaged by the net owners simply destroy all other living creatures caught in the nets.
Such practice is not only threatening the ecology and biodiversity in the area, but also causing a decline in fish population in the rivers.
Besides, locals who depend on fishing for their livelihoods have been struggling immensely to provide for their families thorough alternative means.
According to the Protection and Conservation of Fish Act, 1950, it is a punishable offence to set up any structure that obstructs flow of a river.
Prof Dr Md Shahab Uddin, dean of Faculty of Fisheries at Sylhet Agricultural University, said fish fry and aquatic life are being destroyed due to the unabated netting.
“If this is not stopped right now, the reserve of indigenous varieties of fish will decrease to a drastic level.”
A number of villagers requesting anonymity said Nine Mandori Union Parishad (UP) Chairman Sheikh Shamsul, also former vice president of Awami League’s Habiganj district unit; Anwar Khan, Arab Ali, Juber Ahmed, Shamsul Haque and Younus Khan with the help of several others have are behind the illegal fishing in the Ratna and Shutki rivers in the upazila.
Fisherman Sadek Mia from Bhatipara village said, “Most of the villagers living by the river depend on fishing. But some influential people have illegally set up nets with bamboo structures at around 20 different points of the rivers, depriving the villagers of their livelihood.”
Hasan Mia, also a fisherman from the same village, said, “The nets are causing obstruction to the river’s natural flow. Moreover, all sorts of fish and aquatic animals, including frogs and snakes, are dying after getting trapped in the nets. Only a few years ago, there used to be a plenty of fish in the rivers. But now, the number has fallen sharply.”
Although the authorities were informed on numerous occasions, they did not take any action against the influential people responsible for the illegal act, he alleged.
Asked about the illegal structures in the rivers, UP Chairman Sheikh Shamsul denied any involvement.
Meanwhile, Juber Ahmed, refuting the allegation raised against him, said, “I am not involved in [setting up] the bamboo enclosures [in the rivers]. Rather, I buy fish from fishermen and sell it to others.”
Tofazzal Sohel, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon in Habiganj, alleged that although the illegal activities have been going on for quite some time, the authorities concerned seem to be reluctant in taking any action against the offenders.
Local fishermen are being deprived of their livelihood, while local species of fish and other aquatic animals are going extinct due to the mindless act, said Imdadul Hossain Khan, general secretary of Baniachong Press Club.
Contacted, Baniachong Upazila Nirbahi Officer Mamun Khandakar said some of the structures in the Shutki river could not be removed due to stay orders from the court.
He also said they would soon take necessary action against the people who built the other obstructions in the Shutki and Ratna rivers.
ML Saikat, executive engineer of Water Development Board in Habiganj, said the obstructions in the Ratna and Shutki would eventually be removed under the ongoing drives of the government against river encroachers.