SEVENTY-NINE years ago, Manik Bandopadhyay painted the picture of the strugglesof fishermen in his famous novel,'Boatman of the Padma River.' The struggle for survival and livelihood remains to this day for many fishermen.
But in recent decades, another story unfolded in Bangladesh: a story of fish farmers' endeavours to grow increasing quantity of fish and make fortunes. Some 1.38 crore farmers grow carps, tilapia, pangasius catfish, climbing perch (koi), stinging catfish (shing) and walking catfish (magur) in their ponds and floodplains. Thus they have emerged as the main suppliers of fish to the plates of daily meals of almost all Bangladeshi families.
Farmed fish, which was laggard in the mid 1980s, accounts for 55 percent of the 34.10 lakh tons annual supply of fish in the country. Bangladesh today is the world's fifth largest producer of fish from inland aquaculture.
The journey of aquaculture or fish farming began in the late 1970s with small scale enterprises - mainly fishermen and dominated fisheries. Aquaculture was practised on a low-level, ad-hoc basis.
The scenario began to change gradually after the establishment of the aquaculture experiment station in the northeast district of Mymensingh and the government's program of establishing over 100 fish hatcheries throughout the country, based on World Bank finance.
Other donors and lending agencies also came forward to finance the aquaculture development.
In one estimate, 10 major donors spent or committed USD 317 million in grants or loans to develop aquaculture in Bangladesh between the year 1985 and 2005.
As a result of these initiatives, the private sector came onto the stage in the 1990s and established many carp hatcheries, nurseries and aquaculture farms initially in Jessore, Bogra, Mymensingh and Comilla districts. Later fish farming expanded in other parts of the country, partly because of farmer-to-farmer transmission of knowledge on farming.
Today, in fish cluster areas, including greater Mymensingh and the northwest, various types of finfish are farmed almost throughout the country thanks to the increasing availability of fish fingerlings from 936 fish hatcheries.
Ponds, a common picture in rural and suburban areas of Bangladesh, dominate aquaculture followed by flood plains with carps accounting for 88 percent of the fish recorded as produced in ponds in Bangladesh.
Such a rapid expansion of aquaculture has also changed the composition of the country's fish production basket. Fish captured from inland open water bodies, rivers and canals, which were once the main source of the supply, has declined overtime.
The rapid expansion of fish farming and increasing production have contributed to increased fish consumption, not only among fish producers but also consumers, including poor and working class people who have got better access to animal protein because of declining prices in the last decades.
Daily per capita consumption of fish is now 49.5 grams in Bangladesh. During 1991-92, it was 34.5 grams. Fish today accounts for 56 percent of total animal protein intake in Bangladesh.
Although expansion of aquaculture has resulted in higher benefits for better-off landowners and wealthy investors, it has also created jobs for many low, mid-income and landless people across the fish value chain, ranging from hatcheries, nurseries, fish farming to marketing in urban areas.
Commercial aquaculture is now one of the main economic activities in many fish farming zones. Increasing production of farmed fish has also facilitated Bangladesh to attain near self sufficiency in fish. Only around two percent of domestic demand for fish is met by imports mainly from neighbouring Myanmar and these imported fishes are destined primarily for the restaurant trade.
However, farmers, especially small farmers, are yet to reap full benefits of production for their lack of control in marketing where fish traders dominate and enjoy the lion's share of the profits. One study finds that profits made by fish traders may appear to be high - ranging from 30 to 45 percent of the consumer price. Livelihoods of small actors have not improved much.
One point to note is that the expansion of aquaculture has brought about a change in social attitude. Once fishermen were usually ranked very low in the social hierarchy. That perception has changed due to the expansion of export-oriented shrimp farming and fresh water aquaculture. People engaged in aquaculture farming are no longer treated as lower classes in society.
Quality and safety
Concern remains regarding quality of fry for farming and the safety of fish at consumer's end. Recent studies find that poor quality fry, increased disease and mortality, inbreeding and hybridisation problem remain as major concern for fish farmers.
However, attempts to improve the quality of fry, especially carps that suffer from inbreeding and hybridisation, remain limited. A couple of years ago, the government framed laws for fish hatcheries and feed to ensure their quality. The Department of Fisheries aims to bring all hatcheries under its registration.
The marketing infrastructure for fish is also weak. There is inadequacy of cold storage, ice and facilities to transport fish from farmers' ponds to kitchen markets in urban areas. There is no standard practice for handling, washing, sorting, grading, cleaning and icing of fish while retail markets are unhygienic and in poor condition in most cases. In addition, use of toxic chemical formalin to increase shelf life has also raised serious public health concerns.
In absence of availability of insulated styrofoam boxes and high prices of ice, traders have allegedly been using relatively cheaper formalin in carps and in various local fishes to increase shelf life and avoid the risk of losses for spoilage in the supply chain up to the consumers. As a result, many people suffer from illnesses due to the consumption of unsafe fish. But the government's efforts to ensure people get safe fish remains a far cry although there are a host of laws, including the latest Safe Food Act, 2013, to ensure food safety.
While testing of fish is not usually done to check quality of fish marketed locally, it is done at government laboratories to monitor the fish quality for export markets, indicating that the government is less bothered about the domestic market and consumers. The testing of domestically marketed fish has so far been confined to formalin detection.
Studies also find that these laboratories do not have facilities for microbiology tests for organophosphorus (OP) and organochlorine (OC) pesticides. The Chittagong laboratory is the only one that has facilities for testing for heavy metals.
At what cost?
In addition to concerns about the safety and quality of fish, the increased fish farming has a cost: almost all expansion of commercial aquaculture took place on lands formerly used for paddy cultivation.
Lands, especially in some areas of Mymensigh region, are converted to ponds either by owners or by renters. No paddy is grown on such lands owing to the construction of ponds.
Aquaculture on flood plains, has also reduced fishermen's access and traditional foraging activities such as subsistence fishing. It has narrowed down the opportunities of nutritional aspects for poor households. There are also some concerns as to the implications of the impoundment of water and the stocking of non-native fish species on biodiversity. Pollution such as salinity from shrimp farms, antibiotics in feeds, discharge of nutrients also becomes a matter of worry.
Culture of exotic piranha, which was introduced in the 1990s into Bangladesh and was later banned for containing poisons, still exists. Culture of another banned exotic fish, the African magur, has also been going on despite a ban. These are marketed openly in many parts of the country.
Various studies and international organisations forecast that economic growth, rising income, population growth and urbanisation will fuel demand for fishin the coming years. At the same time, consumers will increasingly demand safe food. Food and Agriculture Organisation says Asian countries are expected to account for 91 percent of world aquaculture production in 2022, with Bangladesh, Thailand, India and China experiencing the highest growth rates.
But too much focus on increasing production can undermine the importance of improving the whole value chain and ensure supply of safe fish to commoners. Without ensuring safety and quality, the long-cherished goal of becoming a healthy nation will be at stake.
So, it is time to ensure governance and good practices in aquaculture so that commoners get safe food, a dream of the country's nearly 16 crore population today.
The writer is a senior business reporter, The Daily Star.