The apple snail is no star species of any ecosystem. That its population in the wetlands of Gopalganj is depleting has gone largely unnoticed.
Village women used to wield stones to crush piles of snails. Separated from the shells, the snails become nourishing meat for their household ducks. It is considered a leisurely occupation, rather than a regular one in the rural areas.
Such was the low-profile existence for apple snails before the advent of the shrimp culture in the neighbouring southwestern districts. The demand for the snails’ meat as low-cost feed for the shrimp industry has led to their excessive harvesting.
According to traders, at least 5,000 people are now involved in the collection of the snails in Gopalganj. They sell their day's catch – 40-50kgs on average – in some 50 trading posts around the wetlands.
Despite there being such a large-scale apple snail business, the district’s Department of Fisheries (DoF) has yet to come up with a number for the total volume being caught, though it is quite huge, they confirmed.
Meanwhile, the snail collectors are of the opinion that the colonies of their prey in the wetlands are not as large as before.
Shantiram Ray, a collector from Kandi village under Kotalipara upazila, told the Dhaka Tribune that his whole day's catch nowadays does not amount to what he used to catch in just two hours in the past.
“The snail colonies are reducing in size day by day,” he said. Even so, a day's catch earns him Tk250-300 at the current market price of Tk6 per kg of apple snail.
The primary collectors sell whole snails to the traders. The meat is separated from the shell at a later stage. There are factories in Bagerhat to carry out the task. They sell the meat to the fish farm owners and keep the shells to make lime to be sold later as fertiliser.
Kamal Hossain, a trader based in Kotalipara, said: “There is huge demand for the meat of the apple snail as shrimp feed in the enclosures of Khulna and Bagerhat. Not even 1% of the demand can be met from the natural sources in those districts. That is why the shrimp farm owners are buying the snails from Gopalganj, Meherpur, Magura, Kushtia, Madaripur and Faridpur.”
According to the Gopalganj DoF, the district has more than 100 beels [water bodies]. All of the wetlands are considered hotspots for the freshwater snail.
Narayan Chandra Das, former additional director of the Greater Faridpur Fisheries Development Project, said the snail meat business is already taking a toll on the population.
Snail meat is cheaper than processed fish feed available in the market; all the same it ensures quick growth of the shrimp, he said.
“But the environmental impact of such indiscriminate harvesting has been ignored. We conveyed the matter to the higher authority and was instructed to take action against snail collection,” Narayan added.
A mobile court led by Kotalipara Upazila Nirbahi Officer Jelal Hossain recently seized two large collections of apple snails from traders in Dighalia and Ramgar areas.
The upazila administration officials released the seized snails in the wetlands, but the ones involved in the trade were not given any punishment.
There is no clear direction yet as to what the punishment for large-scale harvesting and trading on snails would be, according to officials.
A mobile court led by the Kotalipara UNO seizes large collections of apple snails from traders in Dighalia and Ramgar areas of the district Dhaka Tribune
The trading also worries Pavel Partha, a conservation researcher and activist, about its implication on the ecosystem.
Pavel has a life science background. He now works at Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (Barcik) as the coordinator of a food security programme and frequents the wetland areas of Gopalganj.
On his recent visit to Chandar Beel – the largest wetland of the district – he came across certain signs, strengthening the conviction that the apple snail population might have been disturbed.
Pavel said: “The district is famous for its floating agriculture. Floating rafts made of paddy straw and water hyacinth produce vegetables in the middle of the wetlands. These floating gardens are locally called gauta. Nowadays, the apple snail colonies mostly stick to the bottom of those beds underwater.”
“Apple snails did not live in such concentrated colonies before. The herbivore gastropods used to stick to the nodes of rice plants and graze around, spreading almost proportionately across every possible corner of the wetlands. Now that they are sticking to the gautas, this may imply that their populations are being disturbed in most other places,” he said.
“The matter first came to my notice when locals observed that the gautas with larger apple snail colonies have been producing healthier plants. No surprise at all, as snails are known to filter out water through their breathing. Then again, the shells of dead apple snail can turn into lime very quickly and improve the soil health. These are some of my views built on what I have learned from the knowledge shared by the locals who are part of the ecosystem,” Pavel added.
He observed that the snail harvesting takes place mostly during the monsoon period, which coincides with the peak reproductive season of the species.
“Some unseen disturbances are taking place in the ecosystem, which will become evident in the long run. First and foremost, the depletion of a species in an ecosystem affects the food chain. When it comes to apple snails, it involves the health of the water and soil,” he further observed.