A large fishing boat has 22-28 fishermen with a leader, a craftsman and a cook.
They all stay in the sea for 10-15 times each voyage, which costs them 2,000 litres of oil and food, worth around Tk3.5 lakh.
Fish caught is usually around Tk5-20 lakh.
“When I go to the sea to catch fish, the economic wheels of my family keep spinning. If I don’t do so, they go without feeding. I can’t always afford to feed my three-year-old nutritious food or even buy medicine when he falls ill. We can’t afford a doctor in the city, so the pharmacy next door is the only hope,” he explained.
Men like Bashir know the risks of their undertaking, but for most there is little to no choice.
Bashir has already been caught in storms 8-10 times over his life.
During his lifetime, he has not seen much improvement in the fishing method. Till today, they rely on the winds and the flow of the water to determine how safe the seas are.
In addition, he has to borrow money when fishing is prohibited for 87 days of the year. He does not get any government support.
Abdul Moin, a fisherman of Jintala area of Patharghata upazila of Barguna coastal district, told TBS that when they come to the shore after catching fish, they can learn about the weather signals through the radio or coast guards.
“But when you are out at sea, you have to look around and determine your course. We take to the sea depending on the weather, but often get hit by storms,” he said.
An ever tightening noose
The Dadan is a cash loan mostly given to farmers which is to be repaid in the form of produce, the price of which is predetermined – usually at lower than the normal market rate.
For Abdul Moin, alongside many others, the exploitative Dadan system is also the only form of credit readily available.
“I have taken Tk1 lakh from the moneylender this year and have to bring the fish and sell it to him. Once we return with the fish, we have to sell it in the moneylender’s market. Of the total sales, we have to pay the lender his money alongside 8% of the sales,” he said.
But this doesn’t end here.
Photo: Md Jahidul Islam.
Photo: Md Jahidul Islam.
The system often sees fishermen doomed to generational cycles of poverty. Braving the risks, many still return empty-handed, finding themselves in debt.
Most fishermen also cannot eat daily meals, nor do they own properties. The sea may be a cruel mistress, but the land is no less harsher.
As they don’t own boats or even fishing nets, they have to take loans from moneylenders or even boat owners, having no formal contract with the latter.
Golam Mostafa Chowdhury, president of the Barguna District Fishing Trawler Owners Association, told TBS that there are about 3,000 trawlers in the district that go to catch fish in the river and sea.
“We, along with fishermen and sailors, are hostages to the wholesalers,” he lamented.
He said the system is: the costs are paid after all the sales. The remaining profit is also divided in another convoluted way. The fishermen receive around 37% while the boat owner gets a staggering 63%.
As of 2017, the number of registered fishermen in the country was 16.20 lakh. Among them, identity cards have been distributed among 14.20 lakh. There are currently more than 200 industrial trawlers and 68,000 indigenous engine-driven boats that go fishing in the sea.
A foreign intrusion
According to the sources of the Department of Fisheries, there is a 22-day ban on catching mother Hilsa in October, a 60-day ban on six hilsa sanctuaries in March-April, and a 65-day ban on fishing in the sea from 20 May to 23 July.
During the ban on fishing, fishermen from neighbouring countries, including India, have increased fishing in Bangladeshi waters.
Many are caught by the Bangladeshi Coast Guard, but they use the winds as an excuse.
Taiyab, 65, a fisherman at Moheshkhali Matarbari area, said, “Indian fishermen catch fish by throwing about five types of nets in the deep sea. Where it takes us 12 to 15 days to fill a boat with fish, it takes them only 2-3 days.”
He said Indian fishermen use the ban period to hunt fish in Bangladeshi waters.
“We have informed the higher officials about this several times but no resolution has been reached,” he added.
Operation Officer of the Bangladesh Coast Guard Lt Commander Shahidul Islam told TBS, “If fishermen from India or any other country enter the waters of Bangladesh, we catch them. We try our best to keep the sea safe with the manpower we have.”
Regarding the allegation that the Coast Guard is not active in the deep sea, he said, “Our ships regularly patrol the deep sea. Naval ships also patrol the waters of Bangladesh.”
Not even a safety net
Fishermen say even though the government provides nominal rice assistance during the year-round ban, most of the fishermen do not get it.
The ban also burdens fishermen of the coast with debt for years.
Khairul Islam, a fisherman of Patharghata’s Charlathimara Union, said if there is a ban on fishing in rivers and seas during important times of the year, then what is the benefit of the profession?
During the 22-day ban, the 25 kg rice provided by the government does not last even for 10 days. Then there are other expenses, he added.
According to a study jointly conducted by the Foundation for Humanity, Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS) and Coast Foundation from August 2018 to March 2021, 80% of the 8,644 families in Sadar Union of Patharghata Upazila of Barguna District and Kutubjom Union of Moheshkhali Upazila of Cox’s Bazar District are dependent on the income of a single earner.
A total of 10,082 people of these families are involved in fishery-based occupations.
Among the fishermen who participated in the survey, 42.5% are card holders. However, this number varies by area.
Photo: Md Jahidul Islam.
Photo: Md Jahidul Islam.
For example, in Patharghata Sadar Union, 66.5% are card holders, but in Kutubjom Union, it is 30%.
General Secretary of Cox’s Bazar Fishing Boat Owners Association Delwar Hossain said, “We don’t get any loans from anyone. So we are forced to take loans from different NGOs or individuals at high interest rates. In case of payment, for every one lakh taka per trip (8 to 16 days), an additional Tk7,000 has to be paid. Besides, the fish has to be sold between the period specified by the moneylender. While farmers get loans in agriculture, there is no loan facility for fishermen or boat owners.”
He also said boat owners help as much as possible, with a death resulting in a Tk50,000 compensation, although “it is very little”.
But the government does not stand beside the fishermen, he added.
Md Mujibul Haque Munir, joint director at the COAST Foundation told TBS, the government should undertake a separate protection program for fishermen, including building some mobile hospitals.
Restrictions should be given in coordination with neighbouring countries, he added, demanding monetary assistance alongside rice during fishing ban periods.
Mohammad Habibur Rahman, chief scientific officer of the Directorate of Fisheries, Bangladesh told TBS, through a project, arrangements are being made for tracking the routes of fishermen.
“In a few days, we will initially install this device on 1,000 boats on the coast. Through this we can identify the position of the boat even in the deep sea. Different times of disaster will also be predicted through this device.”
Fisheries and Livestock Minister SM Rezaul Karim told TBS that there is no new plan apart from the assistance of 40kg and 25kg of rice for coastal fishermen. “But we will take action in the light of need and situation.”
On government grants not reaching actual fishermen, he said they had made committees at grassroots and were reviewing with them regularly.
The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture-2022, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), ranked Bangladesh second in the world in terms of freshwater finfish production, including Hilsa.
A total of 1.3 million tonnes of fish is harvested from open water bodies in Bangladesh.
According to the FAO report, Bangladesh ranks 28th in marine fisheries. Bangladesh collects 670,000 tonnes of fish from the sea. And China, which is in the top position, extracts 1.17 crore tonnes of marine fish.
Agriculture contributes 3.57% of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of the country and fisheries contributes 26.50% of the agricultural GDP.
According to the information of the Department of Fisheries, the production of marine fish in the fiscal year 2020-21 has been 6.81 lakh metric tonnes, which is 14.74% of the total fish production of the country.