DHAKA — Abdus Sobur is a small fisherman with a simple formula for success: “Catch those mud crabs, both male and female, and sell them to the local dealer at a high price.”

Sobur’s fishing grounds are Bangladesh’s Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, where he catches 40-50 kilograms (88-110 pounds) of crabs daily, year-round.

  • Crab harvests in Bangladesh are booming to meet thriving export demand, but the rates at which wild stocks are being depleted may be unsustainable, experts warm.
  • Researchers say the loss of large numbers of mud crabs from ecosystems like the Sundarbans mangroves could trigger an ecological imbalance.
  • Bangladesh exported about $35 million worth of crabs in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, with the trend expected to increase to markets like the U.S., the EU and Singapore.
  • Experts have called for more efforts to hatch crabs on aquafarms as a way to ease the pressure on wild stocks, but this option isn’t available yet at commercial scale.

The dealers he sells to are people like Khisnopodo Shaha, who in turn usually ships about 3-4 metric tons of crabs daily to exporters in Dhaka. Of this figure, Shaha buys the vast majority from mangrove crabbers like Sobur, and only about 5% from fishers who cultivate crabs on aquafarms.

That massive imbalance, echoing up the supply chain, has prompted alarm among experts and conservationists who say that Bangladesh may be overexploiting its wild crab stocks.

If crab-harvesting rates from the wild continue at current rates, says Shafiqul Islam, a professor of marine science at the University of Chittagong, then “the crab becomes endangered. Artificial reproductive techniques should be introduced for crabs rather than catching them from the wild. Otherwise, the natural stock of crab will be imbalance[d].”

A mud crab in the Sundarbans. Abdus Sobur catches 40-50 kilograms (88-110 pounds) of crabs here daily, year-round. Image by Mohsin Ul Hakim.

The same problem was flagged in a 2020 study that found mud crabs (Scylla spp.) are being overfished from the Sundarbans, resulting in severe impacts to the genetic diversity of the remaining population. It also says the depletion of wild mud crabs may lead to ecosystem imbalances resulting in deterioration of water and soil, along with loss of biodiversity in the Sundarbans mangroves and other areas experiencing high fishing pressure.

The Bangladesh government bans crab catching in the Sundarbans in January and February, which is when the crustaceans breed. The three months from June through August are also closed to any kind of activity in the Sundarbans, aimed at allowing the world’s most extensive mangrove forests to recover. But these restrictions are seldom enforced, with fishers like Sobur saying he fishes there throughout the year.

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