The fishermen survive the whole year with the money they earn during peak season of ilish catching. Dhaka Tribune’s Bilkis Irani looks into how they manage their livelihood for the rest of the year and what’s being done for them, in the third instalment of a four-part series
With the population of ilish, the fish that has traditionally enriched the culinary tastes of Bangladeshis, declining day by day in the country’s rivers, fishermen are leaving their profession and opting for alternative means of survival.
According to the fishermen, they now cannot depend on fishing to survive, as their earnings have been reduced with the decrease of ilish fish in the rivers.
“They are seasonal fishermen as ilish comes into the rivers from the sea during a certain time for breeding and releasing eggs. In this case, during the offseason, there is no work for ilish fishermen.
“They have to survive the whole year on their earnings from the peak ilish catching season,” said Dr Niamul Naser, chairman of the Zoology Department at Dhaka University.
The struggle to survive
Fisherman Mohammad Yasin, 75, was found working as a mason in his village in Bhola near Nasirmajhi Fish Ghat. His children live in different places and no one looks after him and his wife.
“I work hard for survival and earn Tk200-250 per day by working on someone else's fishing boat. But there are many days when I come back home empty-handed as the number of ilish has been declining in the rivers. Now, I hardly go to the river to catch ilish,” Yasin said.
Speaking with other fishermen at different fishing ghats in Bhola, this correspondent found a similar situation. Most fishermen are poor and helpless. Although they go fishing in the rough waters of the Meghna to support their families, they are not getting enough ilish to survive on and, therefore, have been leaving this profession.
Similar circumstances have been noticed in other districts, including Chandpur and Noakhali.
At Saju Mollar Ghat in Chandpur, a 10-year-old boy named Ibrahim Khalilullah was spotted going along the road. This correspondent spoke to him and asked what he did.
The little boy replied that he had been studying in a madrasa nearby and was now preparing to get admission at a school. When asked why he wanted to study in a school the boy said his father was an ilish fisherman and wanted him to be a school teacher, rather than being a fisherman like him.
“It is my father’s wish that I study in a school so that I can get a job as a teacher and help my family to get out of poverty,” Ibrahim said.
The boy took this correspondent to his home where his father Ratan Chowdhury was scared of the correspondent as he thought the lenders from whom he had taken loan had come to the house. But later he understood the situation and agreed to talk.
“I don’t want my child to do such a stupid thing that I am doing. I am in fishing because I am not educated. Meanwhile, the fish I get from the river is not enough to survive on with the family and we are just hostage to the lenders,” Ratan said.
Another fisherman, Mohammad Saiful of Char Bhoirabi said: “I am working as a fisherman as I am not getting another job during the Covid-19 pandemic. As soon as I get a new job I will leave fishing. I certainly will not allow my children to be involved in fishing.”
Deprived of govt rations
Although the government has started a ration system for fishermen during the ilish fish-catching ban period, some fishermen complained that they did not get it during that period.
On one hand, they were not getting fish from the rivers and on the other, they were not receiving the government rations allotted for them. Thus, in both cases, they have been in dire financial straits.
Jamal Bepari and his co-workers from Shariatpur said due to working in the heat of the sun as well as getting drenched during the rainy season they fell sick, but they never got any proper treatment, as they stayed in mid-river all day.
They have been doing alternative work like farming in Shariatpur as the Padma-Meghna rivers are almost empty of ilish fish.
“Last year we got Tk5 lakh of ilish during this season, but this year we are facing losses even if we have a Tk1lakh loan. In this situation, most of my co-workers have left fishing,” a fisherman said.
Another fisherman from Patuakhali, who did not get any ration in 10 years, complained, “People who are not fishermen or are not even involved in the fishing profession got enlisted and got rations. But we real ilish fishermen have been deprived of the rations.”
Dulal Sardar is not a fisherman. He is the general secretary of Jubo League Ward 8 of Kuakata Municipality. He said he had been given Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) rice slips.
Mohammad Masud, a fisherman of Ward 3, complained that he was not given rice slips even though he had a fisherman’s card. The common complaint was that at least 20% to 25% of people who had got VGF cards were not fishermen.
Abdul Khaleq, president of Chandpur Matsya Banik Somobay Samity, agreed, saying: “The names were enlisted by political leaders. So most of the people enlisted as fishermen are not in any way real fishermen. If you can collect the lists you will find the proof.”
The correspondent went and contacted the Department of Fisheries and asked for the list of fishermen which was stored in their server, but the authorities declined to give it.
Masud Ara Momi, deputy chief of Ilish Section, Department of Fisheries, told the correspondent to go to all the upazilas to collect the lists and later did not respond to phone calls.
“Even if you apply in line with the Right to Information (RTI) Act, we will not provide you with the list. You have to obtain information one by one from the upazila offices of different districts for particular persons to know whether they have been enlisted or not,” Masud Ara said.
Meanwhile, attempts to speak with Kazi Shams Afroz, the director general of the Department of Fisheries, several times during the last two months and till the filing of this report proved fruitless.
She did not respond to any of the phone calls or text messages from this reporter.
Fisheries and Livestock Minister SM Rezaul Karim said: “The government has already taken a number of steps to enhance ilish production in the country, including destroying “current nets” (current jal), restoring the navigability of the rivers, which resulted in a huge amount of ilish this year, and plans to create alternative work for fishermen and providing them with rations.
“But to hold on to this success and these initiatives, we are considering taking more essential steps.”
According to the Department of Fisheries, there are 1.6 million registered fishermen in the country. Of them, more than 500,000 are ilish fishermen but all are not enlisted for rationing.
New project approved
Recently, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved a project of Tk246.28 crore for the development and management of ilish resources which will be implemented by the Department of Fisheries by June 2024 in 134 upazilas under 29 districts of six divisions.
Planning Commission member Md Zakir Hossain Akand said: “The main project objectives include boosting ilish production to 620,000 metric tons from 533,000 lakh metric tons.
“The project will also create alternative employment opportunities for some 30,000 fishermen families engaged in catching ilish fish and distributing some 10,000 legal fishing nets among fishermen.”
“The main project operations include operating six fish sanctuaries and imparting training to some 18,000 fishermen to create alternative employment opportunities for them,” he said.