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‘Conservation or community rights’? Bangladesh bans fishing for 65 days

Traditional fishing in Bangladesh. Image via Wikipedia by Michael Foley, World Bank. CC BY 3.0

The government of Bangladesh has imposed a ban on all types of fishing off its coastal region from 20 May to 23 July 2019 to ensure the safe and sustainable accumulation of fish reserves. The coast guard and navy will be patrolling the Bay of Bengal to enforce the ban. However, for the fishing communities, most of whom depend on fishing for their daily subsistence, the decision is a big blow. Although the government has promised to provide monthly rations to affected fishers, the latter are voicing out their frustrations and the challenges they will be facing for the next two months.

Fishing in Bangladesh

Traditionally, Bangladesh relies on fishing to feed its estimated population of 163 million. More than 60 percent of the animal protein intake in the Bangladeshi diet comes from fish. The country has an exclusive economic zone of 41,000 square miles in the Bay of Bengal which is 73% of the country's total land and maritime areas. There are approximately 475 species of fish, 36 species of shrimp, 15 species of crab, and 301 species of snail and oyster in the Bay of Bengal among others; and around 100 species are fished commercially. There is an estimated two million fisherfolk across the country and around 18.2 million people are employed in fisheries and aquaculture industries. Around half a million fisherfolk earn their livelihood from the coastal region.

The fish market in central Sylhet, Bangladesh. Image from Flickr by David Stanley. CC BY 2.0

In recent years fish stocks worldwide have started declining because of overfishing and due to the effects of climate change. This is also the case in Bangladesh. Short-term bans on commercial fishing in limited areas had been enforced in the past few years, but this is the first time that all fishing boats have been banned for a lengthy period. This includes local fisherfolk who work in the rivers and in the seas. Authorities said that this ban will be continually enforced in the succeeding years during the breeding season to boost fish stocks.

The State Minister For Fisheries and Livestock Ashraf Ali Khan Khasru told the media:

These resources will deplete one day if we do not use them sustainably. We should let fish grow and breed. Otherwise, we will have to suffer in the future.

Last October 2018, the government banned the fishing of the national fish Hilsa (Ilish) for 22 days to allow the fish to lay their eggs and migrate from the Bay of Bengal to the Meghna and other river systems. Data collected by WorldFish from Hilsa sanctuaries showed that the total Hilsa catch increased by 28 percent, from 387,211 metric tons to 496,417 metric tons in the 2015 and 2016 harvest seasons due to similar bans.

Last March 2019, the government has imposed a 60-day ban on the fishing of all sorts of fish in Padma, Meghna and their tributary rivers adjacent to different areas of Chandpur, Bhola and Lakshmipur. The government also banned fishing in Kaptai lake, the largest man-made lake in Bangladesh for three months.

‘Conservation versus community rights’

The local fishing communities have long been protesting these bans. They also protested the current ban carrying out angry demonstrations and street protests in the coastal region. According to the Bangladesh Fishing Boat Owners Association (BFBOA), many small-scale fisherfolk are day laborers who need to borrow money or their families will face starvation if no compensation is provided by the government.

The government has earmarked 36,000 metric tons of rice for distribution to affected communities. It plans to ration 40 kilograms of rice per month to 414,784 fishers and their families in 12 districts, However, the fishers reminded authorities that allotting only one type of food subsistence is not enough to sustain their families adequately.

Anwar Hossain Sikder, a member secretary of BFBOA, added that the ban will give undue advantage to the fishing companies of Bangladesh's neighbors:

The ban on fishing in 200 nautical miles of the sea is only benefiting Indian and Myanmar traders and fishermen.

On social media, some netizens favored the conservation of fish resources while others highlighted the need to save the livelihood of struggling fisherfolk. IT professional Asif Saif Uddin called for the creation of alternative jobs for displaced fishers:

It's a good move. But there should be efforts to create alternative job opportunities for the affected fishermen

Expat Bangladeshi Md Osman Ghani writes on Facebook about the issue of compensation for fishers:

সরকারের দাবী, এই সময় মাছ ধরা বন্ধ রাখলে মাছের সংখ্যা বাড়ে।

কিন্তু কথা হলো, যদি মাছের সংখ্যা না বাড়ে তখন কি হবে ?
তখন কি সরকার দরিদ্র জেলেদের এর জন্য ভতুর্কি দেবে ?
আপনি একটা গরিব মানুষের কাজ বন্ধ রাখলেন, বললেন- এর মাধ্যমে আপনার বাকি সময় আয় বাড়বে।
কিন্তু যদি না বাড়ে, তখন এর দায় কে নেবে ?

The government says that the fishing ban (during breeding season) increases fish stock.

But what if that does not turn out to be true?
Will the poor fishermen receive any compensation?
You enforce a ban on the work of poor people saying your future earnings will increase.
If that doesn't happen who will take the responsibility?

Many comments shared a similar concern about implementing measures to assist the fisherfolk:

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