Fishing in Bay: Stymied by poor catch, lengthy ban
For the past three years, the government has been imposing 65 days of fishing ban in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Bangladesh at Bay of Bengal.
Although the ban -- imposed every year from May 20 till July 23 -- is intended to protect and increase fish population, it has no significant impact on fish population in the Bay throughout the rest of the year, said fishers based in Pirojpur.
They said the ban in Bangladesh EEG alone cannot ensure an increase in fish population, as fishers in neighbouring EEZs of India and Myanmar continue to net fish during the ban period, right along the Bangladesh maritime boundaries.
In addition to the 65-day ban, the local fishers also have to refrain from fishing in the sea for another 22 days, around October-November every year, to protect the breeding of hilsa -- the most sought-after fish in Bangladesh and West Bengal of India.
Both the fishing bans, amounting to almost three months, fall within the eight peak months of fishing season that usually runs from mid-April to mid-November.
But their catch in the remaining five months -- when fishing trawlers are allowed to fish in the sea -- has been lower than the usual over the past several years, said both fishers and trawler owners.
Fishing trawler owners said they bear the expense of a voyage with money loaned from moneylenders, such as fish wholesalers, and the money to repay the loan and payment for the fishers comes from profit made from sale of fish netted in a particular voyage.
But over the past several fishing seasons, most of their voyages have not been producing much profit due to poor catch, resulting in failure to pay their fishers, let alone repay the debt, they added.
"We get a cut of the profit only if the trawler owner makes profit after meeting all expenses," said fisherman Sibu Das, from Tona village in Pirojpur Sadar upazila.
Before heading out to the sea on a voyage, the fishers loan money, known as 'dadon', from trawler owners and leave the money with their family for their household expenses.
That debt continues to pile up as they cannot repay the loan with the meagre income they have been making from fishing in the sea, said another fisher Ismail Hossain.
When the fishers' families struggle without cash during the periods of fishing bans, the only government assistance they get is in the form of rice, which is not enough for even a four-member family.
Many of them tried changing their profession for survival, but it is difficult to learn a new trade when they spent most of their lives learning how to fish in the sea, Ismail lamented.
Bimal Chandra, a fishing trawler owner, also from Tona village, said, "After spending over TK 1.5 lakh on a voyage to the sea, a fishing trawler oftentimes returns without expected fish."
The threat of pirates has been eradicated -- thanks to the authorities; but the volume of fish being netted is falling significantly due to multiple bans during the peak season, he added.
In the last couple of years, he had to count Tk 10 lakh in losses, said another trawler owner Mohammad Shahjahan, from the same area.
A fishing trawler costs Tk 35 lakh, but banks do not provide any loan assistance for the sector, he also said.
Local fish wholesaler Iqbal Hossain, who often lends money to trawler owners, said, "Many trawler owners flee the area after failing to repay the loan. But the money is hardly recovered if the matter is taken to the court."
Instead of imposing the 65-day ban, fish population in the sea could be increased by prohibiting the use of fine nets on improvised seagoing fishing vessels and by confiscating illegal fishing nets such as 'Behundi' in both sea and rivers near the coastline, said, Pirojpur District Trawler Owners' Association President Kamal Das.
Asked whether the 65-day fishing ban in Bangladesh EEG alone is helping increase overall fish population, Prof Hossain Zamal of Department of Fisheries under Faculty of Marine Sciences and Fisheries at Chittagong University, said more research is needed to ascertain the benefits of the fixed 65-day ban, from May 20 to 23 July, and the dates can be modified based on the research.
Aside from strict enforcement of laws prohibiting illegal fishing nets to increase fish population, which in the long run would benefit fishers in the country, the authorities in India and Myanmar could be convinced through diplomacy to observe the 65-day ban in the Bay of Bengal at the same time with Bangladesh, he also said.
Contacted, Pirojpur District Fisheries Officer Abdul Bari said the government has been looking to better assist the fishers with food assistance under various programs during the periods of fishing ban.