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Bangladesh: Witness to a silent fish revolution

  • Published at 06:54 pm January 17th, 2021
Fish Market_Mehedi hasan
File photo of a fish market Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

With over 1.2 million tons of annual capture, Bangladesh now contributes a tenth of the world’s total inland fish production

Bangladesh’s annual fish production has increased nearly two and a half times over the past two decades, helping the country keep fish prices low and increase protein consumption.

Just released official statistics show, Bangladesh’s yearly fish output increased to 4.4 million tons now from 1.8 million tons in 2000. The country’s Ilish catch rose to over half a million tons a year now while it was only 0.3 million tons 10 years back.

Bangladesh ranks first in global catch of Ilish, fourth in Tilapia.

With over 1.2 million tons of inland water capture fish output annually, Bangladesh now contributes a tenth of the world’s total inland water capture fish production, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) states in its latest flagship report – The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020.

China (1.9 million tons) and India (1.7 million tons) are the only two other countries in the world that produce more inland water capture fish than Bangladesh.

“A rapid increase in aquaculture production in Bangladesh has lowered fish prices, increased protein consumption, and reduced poverty,” states “The Making of a Blue Revolution in Bangladesh” – an International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) publication that offers a valuable case study of how this transformation in the fish value chain has occurred and how it has improved the lives of both fish producers and fish consumers in Bangladesh.

In recent years, fish researchers and scientists in Bangladesh also succeeded in establishing a gene bank for protecting local fish species and regaining breeding of at least 24 out of 64 near-extinct homegrown fish species. These efforts helped Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI) bag the country’s second highest civilian award Ekushey Padak in 2020.

Bangladesh’s tremendous success in fish production growth has transformed its population’s otherwise low-protein diet to a diversified and rich sustenance. Bangladesh today belongs to a small league of countries that provide over half of food proteins from fish sources.

Globally, fish provides only 17% of average per capita intake of animal proteins, but only a handful of countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and several small island developing states (SIDS) source over 50% of animal proteins from fish. In Bangladesh’s case it is 60%, making fish one of the cheapest sources of protein for 170 million people in the country.

“Fish production in Bangladesh has transformed over the past 20 years. Fish is the biggest protein source in Bangladeshi diets,” said IFPRI South Asia Director Shahidur Rashid, and the Washington-based food policy think tank’s Senior Research Fellow Xiaobo Zhang.

Xiaobo Zhang, also a Peking University economics professor, together with Rashid, edited the book – The Making of a Blue Revolution in Bangladesh.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, high prices for fish contributed to poor nutrition in the country but as fish farming—known as aquaculture—more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, prices fell, per capita annual fish consumption rose countrywide, and the expansion of pond fisheries generated more employment, they noted.

“Improved infrastructure and information access lead to lower transaction costs. Roads, rural electrification, and telecommunications access have all dramatically improved in Bangladesh………. Fish trade and marketing costs have declined accordingly. Fish value chains now involve fewer actors per unit of output. While the number of traders has increased, the increase in fish production has been much greater,” they explained.

They said, the yields of some fish varieties (measured by weight) are 13 times the yield of rice that could be grown on the same land, and revenues are several times higher.

According to the Department of Fisheries, Bangladesh, the fisheries sector now contributes over 3.5% to national GDP, over 25% to the agricultural GDP, and 1.5% to the foreign exchange earnings by exporting fish and fish products.

Three categories of major fisheries resources

Bangladesh’s total output of 4.4 million tons of fish in 2020 have been sourced from – inland capture (28.45%), inland culture or farmed-fish (56.24%) and marine capture (15.31%).

Inland fisheries comprise of rivers, ponds, estuaries, beels, floodplains, haors, baors, brackish water, etc. There are 260 fish and 24 prawn species in inland fresh water in the country. In the early sixties, inland fisheries contributed about 90% of total fish production of the country. Fish production from aquaculture has increased to a great extent but open water fish production is in slow progress. Now only about 28.45% of total fish production comes from inland open water.

Bangladesh’s marine fisheries resources, however, remained largely untapped. There is a total of 166,000sqkm of water area including Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Bay of Bengal in the south of Bangladesh but fishing is only confined within 200-meter depth. About 255 trawlers, 67,669 mechanized and non-mechanized boats are engaged in fishing. Deep-sea resources are still untapped. Total fish production from marine sources still hovers around only in the range of 0.6 to 0.7 million tons per year.

Bangladesh has got the right to access 100,000sqkm of water area in the Bay of Bengal through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), opening up scope for the country to tap its marine fish resource potentials fully. The FAO is also helping Bangladesh in getting assistance from research vessels in conducting appropriate stock assessment.

There are 260 freshwater and 475 marine fish species in the country.

Challenges ahead

To realize Bangladesh’s potential, policymakers, and researchers need to identify and address productivity constraints, particularly problems with fish feed.

According to IFPRI, a 2017 survey on problems and challenges faced by aquaculture farmers found that three of the top problems are related to feed: the high price of fish feed, difficulty in getting fish feed on time, and poor quality of fish feed.

“However, more research is needed to establish the link between low productivity and feed supply,” states IFPRI.

The international food policy think tank also says, if Bangladesh realizes its aquaculture production potential, the next step is to sell fish in international markets. “Unlike shrimp production, which is dominated by large entrepreneurs and largely exported, fish farming is dominated by smallholders. Meeting international safety and certification standards will be difficult for these fish farmers, especially since non-shrimp pond culture has developed to serve domestic markets, which do not enforce food safety standards.” 

Export promotion will require new institutional and regulatory frameworks. This is another important area for future research.

In recent years, researchers also expressed concern over the future stock of Bangladesh’s sweet water capture fish due to increasing salinity in Meghna estuaries and water scarcity in rivers during dry season owing to increased water withdrawals in the upper riparian country.

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