Bangladesh bans sea fishing for all, affecting half a million people
The June-September monsoon is the peak fishing season in the Bay of Bengal for more than half a million poor Bangladeshi fishers. But this year, their wooden boats are still moored along the coast. For the first time, the government is enforcing an annual 65-day ban on all types of marine fishing for what the officials say is conservation of spawning fish and crustacean species. In protest, many crews of artisanal boats took to the street in May. Without other livelihood options, this ban will force them into more poverty and hardship, they said.
As of June 2019, Bangladesh has 253 trawlers — purpose-built to use trawl nets, owned by seafood industries and licensed to fish in areas beyond forty-meter depth in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Added to this, according to official estimates, there are almost 68,000 small marine boats including gillnetters, operated by fishers who are artisanal — meaning they do very low-tech, small-scale fishing to make ends meet.
The monsoon ban on all marine fishing was written into law in 2015, but for four years it was only enforced on large trawlers. “Back then we decided not to enforce the ban on artisanal boats because livelihoods of a vast number of people were involved; we considered situations that you see are now unfolding,” said Mohammad Nazim Uddin. Speaking to thethirdpole.net at his Chittagong office, Nazim, an assistant director at the Marine Fisheries Office, said more than 516,000 people are registered with the agency as artisanal fishers.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, most of these coastal fisherfolk are landless. They live on public lands on the edge of the sea or riverine islands. Other than fishing, they have no livelihoods options to feed their families.
“Owner companies of the trawlers will pay the crews during the ban, the main challenge is for fishers of artisanal boats. So we decided to progress gradually,” said Nazim. He said that before enforcing the ban on small-scale fishers this year, the agency organised meetings with representatives of their associations several times — to inform the fishers in advance so that they were prepared.
Anticipating a crisis after the ban, authorities have announced limited food relief in 12 coastal districts. Fishing families will get the relief under a decades-old humanitarian assistance programme called Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) designed for poor communities to avoid a “temporary food crisis” during the “lean months” of agricultural harvest. Because these coastal communities have no ways of earning income other than fishing in the sea, relief will be distributed among 400,000 coastal fishing families. There would be a monthly ration of 40 kilograms of rice for each family during the ban from May 20 to July 23, said a recent press note by the Department of Fisheries.
This information, though, has not percolated to most fisherfolk. On the day the press note was issued, Jahangir Majhi, skipper of an artisanal gillnetter, was still waiting with the crews of other boats at the fishing harbour in Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh. Half a month after the announcement of the ban, they still could not believe that they would not be able to sail out during this peak fishing time when they make most of their annual income. According to the fishermen they were unsure of the ban before announcements were made during the second week of May over loudspeakers from the pavement of the nearby coastal road.
Speaking to thethirdpole.net, Majhi said, “We [only] heard that leaders of (fishers) associations are trying to persuade the government to lift the ban on us. We don’t know for sure, but rumour also has that they plan to take (fisheries) department to the High Court. Maybe the court will be good to us.” The news of the rice ration was met with dismissive responses from the fisherfolk.
Another fisher from a gillnetting crew, Mohammad Dulal, said that almost half of the ‘original’ fishers in the coastal region did not get the fishermen’s identification card distributed in the last few years — which is a requirement to get the rice ration. “In most cases, people who never set foot on a fishing boat, but are close to the politicians and local government officials got the fishers’ identity cards,” he said. His fellow crew members excitedly reiterated their claim that the distribution of such food relief is highly politicised and marked by corruption. Besides, “What difference does one kilogram of rice daily make in a family of, say, four. Families have other basic necessities,” Dulal said.
Mahmudul Islam, a leading fisheries management expert, said that there were other bans that affect fishing in estuaries and coastal waters, which impact artisanal fishers. There are two other annual ban periods to protect the flagship species Hilsa, Bangladesh’s most famous fish. From March 1 to April 30, there is a ban on fishing in some coastal rivers that serve as breeding and nursery ground of the Hilsa. There is another 22-day ban in October on all fishing to protect female Hilsa in all rivers and the sea.