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3 August, 2018 00:00 00 AM

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Our Fisheries Industry

By Bipul K Debnath
Our Fisheries Industry

Fish, which is a popular food item in Bangladesh, used to be abundant in freshwater bodies, like rivers, ponds, lakes and canals, around the country in the past. An essential item in Bengali cuisine, it has even given rise to a popular saying, 'maachey-bhatey Bangali’, which means ‘fish and rice make a Bengali’. But due to the depletion of our water resources, the production of fish has faced huge challenges over the years. However, the country has achieved success in freshwater fish farming lately.

At present, the conventional concept of fish farming, which meant cultivating fish mainly for the family’s needs, has changed. Through the practice of aquaculture and use of modern breeding technologies, fisheries production in our country is increasing. Thus, freshwater fish species, some of which were about to disappear, are available again in the local market. And the country is also earning huge amounts of foreign exchange by exporting different varieties of fish to markets around the world.

“In the context of the socio-economic condition of our country, the importance of the fisheries sector is increasing. This sector is playing an important role in meet our food needs, creating employment and earning foreign currency,” M Goljar Hossain, Director General of Department of Fisheries (DoF), told The Weekend Independent.

In the 2017-2018 financial year, Bangladesh earned Tk 45 billion (approximately US$ 533 million) by exporting around  69,000 metric tons of fish and fish products, Fisheries and Livestock Minister Narayon Chandra Chanda told the media ahead of  National Fisheries Week 2018, which was celebrated across the country from July 18 to July 24. That means the fisheries sector contributed 3.57 percent to the national GDP last fiscal.  

As per a 2015 ‘red list’ prepared by IUCN Bangladesh, out of 253 freshwater fish species assessed, 64, or nearly one-fourth, were found to be under threat. Of them, nine species were critically endangered, 30 endangered, and 25 vulnerable. But despite that, Bangladesh now holds third position in inland water (capture) fish production, after China and India, according to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) production figures for 2015 and 2016.

Explaining the reason for the recent increase in fish production, Hossain said: “In 2007, we formulated a plan to make the haors and wetland areas safe zones for freshwater fish under community-based fisheries management. We run the project with direct participation of the local people. We also motivate the owners of village ponds to cultivate more fish. We award fish producers during National Fish Week every year to motivate them.”  

Inland or fresh water fishery operations include capture fishing, where fish are harvested in a natural water body like a river or lake, and fish farming, where fish are bred in tanks or ponds.

“Before, we used to produce 3 metric tons of fish per hectare of wetland. But under the new plan, we are now producing 5 metric tons of fish from each hectare. Besides, the total production of hilsa (ilish) fish has also contributed to our third position on the list. We impose a ban on catching hilsa jatka (young fish) from November to June. Everybody extends their helping hand to make the project a success,” the DG added.  

“The good news is we have a plan to declare Mehendiganj upazila of Barishal district as a safe zone for hilsa. That will increase the production of hilsa fish,” Hossain said. “We have the technology to prepare boneless hilsa, as well as ilish soup and noodles. We are also encouraging some private companies to produce fishmeal (feed) locally. Some companies have already started making those items,” Hossain said.

M Hazrat Ali, from Bajitpur upazila in Mymensingh, is the managing director of Hira Muktta Multipurpose Project. Talking to this correspondent at the National Fisheries Fair, held at Krishibid Institute in the capital recently, Ali, winner of a National Fish Week award in 2013, said: “Most of the fish producers in my area are poor who have access to small areas of wetland. Cultivating fish is the only way of earning a livelihood for them. But due to increase in electricity price, they are facing problems meeting the higher production cost. Producing fish is an agricultural activity. So, the authorities should consider that and save the fish cultivators.”

“Of course, there are some big companies in this sector that are producing a huge amount of fish commercially,” Ali, 55, said. Popular freshwater fishes that they cultivate include silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp, common carp, tilapia, catfish, pangas (yellowtail catfish), sor punti, koi (climbing perch), katol (catla), and tengra (painted catfish), he added.

M Abu Bakkor, 52, owner of Sadia Mascho Hatchery and Fisheries from Mymensingh, claimed there is no official monitoring at field level to control the price of feeds and medicines for fish production. “If the government takes steps on this issue, we will all benefit,” the fish producer said.

“We have the capacity to be a top country in fish production. So, we have to work together to use our recourses properly. Like us, many people will come forward, which will also create employment opportunities for many others,” Bakkor added.

Regarding the high price of fishery inputs, M Tarique Sarker, managing director of Fish Tech Hatchery Limited that provides services to the fishing industry, said: “The quality of the feed is important. So, we import fish feeds from Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. Imported stuff is expensive. Thus, we cannot afford to reduce prices.”

“But of course, both the government and the private sector should come forward to address the issue. If we are to provide moderate prices for our products, the authorities should ease import tariffs,” Sarker suggested. “It is good that there are some local factories producing fish feed in the country now. So, we hope the problem of high feed prices would be resolved gradually.”

Sarker, who is also president of Bangladesh Aqua Product Companies Association (BAPCA), added: “Our main concern now is to increase the export market. As part of our corporate social responsibility (CSR), we provide technical support to fish farmers. We have 50 experts at Fish Tech to advise them at the field level. If we get a stable position in the global market, our farmers will benefit. So, we have to work together to popularise our local fishes in the international market.”

“In our organisation, we are working on maintaining the standard of the produced fish. It is good that shrimps have already got standard recognition. Other freshwater fish species need to be introduced to overseas markets,” the BAPCA leader added.

Besides freshwater fish, crab and kuchia (mud eel) are playing an important role in increasing inland fish production. Binay Kumar Chakraborti, former director of  eel and crab culture research project of DoF in selected areas of Bangladesh, said: “Kuchia farming is going on at freshwater areas of Netrokona, Habiganj, Rangpur, Natore, Rajshahi and others districts, while crab farming is being done mostly in coastal areas with high salinity, like Khulna, Bagerhat, Barguna, Patuakhali and Chittagong.”

“Kuchia is a medicinal fish. Cultivating both kuchia and crab is profitable and they are being exported to many countries. Marketing of these two items has been increased. On the other hand, diseases are relatively low among these species, so our main challenge is to increase their production,” Chakraborti added.

Meanwhile, National Agricultural Technology Programme (NATP) of DoF has launched a second phase to expand the country’s fish production. About the programme, M Abdul Kaium, consultant, NATP, said: “It is a World Bank project. We have formed a common interest group (CIG) for fish production and trained the members on modern fish production.”

“Each group has 20 people and we are running the programme in 270 unions across the country. We also have a local extension agent for fisheries (LEAF) in those unions. After providing 10-day training, we have given them a digital kit box for testing soil and water, and a smart tablet to connect fish farmers with government fishery expert. Besides, they also counsel farmers not to use any harmful chemicals in the fish production. In this way, we are trying to inspire fish producers at grassroots level to cultivate a large amount of fish,” Kaium explained about the project. “If we think about export, we have to ensure healthy fish production. For that, we advise our CIG members to follow good agriculture practices (GAP).”

Nazmul Ahsan, an executive of Virgo Fish and Agro Process Limited, which has been exporting fish since 2017, said: “We are working to promote freshwater fish products. We have our factory at Trishal upazila in Mymensingh. We are producing fish oil and fishmeal. We export frozen fish, and fish products. Our products include pangasius fillet and steak (boneless), tilapia fillet, black tiger shrimp, pomfret, fish oil and fishmeals.”

“We are exporting to Singapore and some Middle Eastern countries and getting good response. We have introduced hilsa (illish) soup with noodles as a new product and we are getting good response from our local consumers. Most children and even adults like to eat boneless fish. It is now a huge demand among our fish-eaters. Besides, this product has a huge demand in the global market, too,” Ahsan continued.

“About 70 percent of the fish is wasted when we process fish at our factory. We get fish oil and fishmeal as extra products from that wastage. We want to produce more items from this large amount of wastage,” Ahsan explained.

The fish company executive further said Vietnam is our main competitor in the fish export market. “If the export market increases, our country will earn more foreign currency,” he added.

About expanding the export market and reducing the price of imported items for the fisheries industry, Goljar Hossain, the DG of Department of Fisheries, said: “We have taken the initiative to expand the export market. We also have a plan to reduce VAT (value added tax) on imported fish feeds and medicines.”

Giving his take on our fisheries industry, Khorshed Alam, 33, a visitor at the National Fisheries Fair, said: “They are saying that fish production is increasing. But when we go to buy fish in the market, we have to pay a high price. Of course, the farmers produce fish in abundance and sell their produce at low prices. But due to the presence of middlemen, the prices increase. Forming monitoring teams could be a solution.”  

“If we want to make this sector sustainable, we have to think of the interest of the farmers first. We may have become third, but our farmers are not happy, they still have many problems,” Alam, a private-service holder, added. n

Photos: Courtesy, File.

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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