Till even the start of 2020, farming of freshwater shrimp, otherwise known as ‘white gold’ among Bangladeshis for its lucrative export value, and the newer addition of crab farming in the same ponds and enclosures as the shrimp combined to paint a very optimistic future for the sector, with the promise of ample export earnings once the pandemic was over.
Eighteen months later, the shrimp and crab farmers have lost not just income by way of lower demand, but also much of their assets in two natural disasters – Cyclones Amphan and Yaas- that brought tidal surges that washed away entire fish enclosures.
For the owners, it is now a question of survival, and by doing so, keeping the 1 –1.5 million people employed naked in the sector and its offshoots in jobs. But they almost certainly cannot do it now without some form of bailout from the government – their dues have piled up, and many face the prospect of forced closure. Indeed, there have been scores of closures.
Shrimp farmers must be wondering whether there is some curse over them, preventing them from meeting their potential. Every year since the 2013-14 fiscal has seen their sector hit by some major disruption, coming with new challenges for Bangladesh’s ”white gold” or commercial shrimp production. Viral infections, drought, heavy rain, flood, tidal surge, and cyclones are wiping away shrimp enclosures.
According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Bangladesh exported 41,236 tonnes of shrimp worth $545 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Since then, shrimp export has been dropping. By the 2018-19 fiscal year, exports decreased by 34 percent to $361 million. In that fiscal year, the country exported 29,543 tonnes of shrimp.
The slump in demand for Bangladeshi shrimp over this period can also be partially attributed to the explosion in popularity of the whiteleg shrimp.
Most of the farmers are also suffering continuous losses because of the drop in prices after the onset of the pandemic and the actions of syndicates of frozen food entrepreneurs.
Also, Cyclone Yaas and the resultant floods have shattered the hopes of shrimp and fish farmers of the coastal districts and nearby areas.
Shrimp, white fish, and crabs in farms and ponds over vast stretches of land in many villages of Bagerhat, Khulna, and Satkhira have been washed away by gushing floodwater and tides, causing huge losses to the farmers.
Also, houses, structures and equipment surrounding the ponds and farms were washed away.
Aquaculture farmers and shrimp cultivators, who have already counted losses worth crores of taka, do not know how long it will take them to recover the losses.
Shrimp farming, which once lifted many people out of poverty, has now become synonymous with loss.
The fate of many, who invested all their hopes and money to renovate the pond, now hangs in balance. So, they are looking for other ways to protect themselves including the introduction of an insurance scheme and moving to other professions.
There was a shortage of shrimp fries at the beginning of the year. Also, viral infections and drought hit most of the shrimp enclosures during the farming season. A huge quantity of shrimp died in enclosures from viral infections.
Cyclones like Bulbul, Sidr, Aila, Amphan, and Yaas damaged fish, shrimp enclosures and other structures in coastal areas surrounding the Sundarbans, causing a loss of crores of taka.
Around 6,500 fish and shrimp enclosures were washed away recently in Bagerhat by tidal surges and storms, as an aftermath of Yaas, leaving damage of Tk9.5 crore, according to the district fisheries department. However, the farmers say the loss is as high as Tk50 crore.
A huge quantity of shrimps was washed away by a tidal surge that breached the embankments at many places during Yaas. Faced with the massive losses, shrimp farmers of different areas of Bagerhat called for incentives.
Animesh Mandal, a Hurka union parishad member in Rampal upazila, said: “Most people in my area depend on shrimp farming for a living. The aftermath of cyclones, virus, and price drop have ruined the financial health of so many farmers. For example, Shrimp from my five ponds were swept away in the tidal surge recently.”
Shrimp farmer Manoranjan Dhali of Rampal, who is incurring losses every year, said: “There was a shortage of juvenile fishes at the beginning of the year and the price of the available ones was about one and a half times more. After a lot of effort, I managed to do shrimp cultivation on my five bighas of land. But the tidal surge caused by Yaas caused me a loss of Tk3 to Tk4 lakh.”
Local farmers said shrimp cultivation was once profitable. People of different classes and professions in the area turned to shrimp farming in the hope of making more profit.
However, many have no alternative source of income other than shrimp farming. As shrimp farming is profitable, many have raised the number of enclosures. But there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the shrimp cultivators for the last few years as they are now suffering damages in every disaster.
However, the Department of Fisheries is advising the cultivators to have raised enclosures, increasing the pond depths, and repairing the enclosures every year.
Bagerhat Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Azizur Rahman said, “A list of affected fish farmers has been sent to the higher authorities. Also, the cultivators will be benefited if an insurance scheme can be introduced for them.”
There are 76,730 fish farms in Bagerhat across 67,000 hectares of land including 50,239 prawn (Galda) enclosures and 26,466 tiger shrimp (Bagda) enclosures, according to the district fisheries department.
In the last fiscal year, the district produced 33,825 metric tonnes of shrimp and 31,551 metric tonnes of white fish. Until May of the current financial year, it produced 33,130 metric tonnes of shrimp. Around 65,804 people are involved in shrimp farming here, said the district fisheries department.
The tidal surge caused by Yaas flooded 2,781 enclosures in Bagerhat’s Rampal, 1,090 in Mongla, 784 in Morrelganj, 105 in Sarankhola, 588 in Kachua, 40 in Sadar, 35 in Fakirhat; and 110 fish farms in Chitalmariupazila.