Many children in Sharankhola spend on average of three to four hours collecting shrimp fry each day. Once they collect around a thousand fry, they sell it to nearby Southkhali Bazar for around Tk1,200 for Bagda fry and 3,000 for Golda fry.
Every year, when the fishing season hits it peak in the Sharankhola area of Bagerhat, people scouring the Baleshwar River for a good catch become a common sight.
At the riverbank, the Dhaka Tribune met Shimul Hossain, a young boy of eleven who was collecting shrimp fry with his mother.
Shimul usually studies at South Khuriakhali Primary School, located about one hundred metres from his fishing spot.
On this occasion, however, the boy’s mother, Nargis Akhter, said she had no other option but to take her child with her to collect shrimp fry.
“We are barely making ends meet without any savings,” the 28-year-old said. “I am struggling to cover the day-to-day expenses of my family, (so) where would I get the money for my children’s education?
“Tuition is costly. The government is providing books free of charge, but children must be sent to private tutors for better education. I also have to give my children some money every day, so that they can have something to eat during recess at school.”
Nargis said many children in Sharankhola were working the river with their mothers, typically spending three to four hours collecting fry each day.
Once they collect around a thousand fry, they sell it to nearby Southkhali Bazar for around Tk1,200 for Bagda fry and Tk3,000 for Golda fry.
“I do not want my children to collect shrimp fry, but our life is not easy here,” Nargis said. “If I had an alternative means of income, I never would have let my son do this.”
Halimullah, 36, is a resident of Tafalbari who also makes his living as a fisherman in Sharankhola.
“The fishing profession is getting more and more difficult,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. “So I bring my children to the river and nearby canals to collect fry.”
Not only are the desperate families of Sharankhola taking their children out of school, the work they are being put to is not even legal.
Bagerhat district Fisheries Officer Zia Haider Chowdhury told the Dhaka Tribune that the government had banned catching fry from rivers to protect certain species of fish.
Sarankhola Matsha Chashi Samity (fish farmers’ association) General Secretary Kamruzzaman Bulbul said that despite the ban, some shrimp farmers still buy fry from these natural sources if the quality is good, encouraging the continuation of the poaching.
“The shrimp and prawn populations have witnessed an alarming reduction in different rivers due to unchecked collection of fry,” he said.
Government records show that of the 7,330 families in Southkhali Union, around 4,600 are living in poverty. Nearby unions in the area suffer the same economic conditions.
Southkhali Union Parishad Chairman Mozammel Hossain said the people of the area need more help from the state.
“The government provides 40kg rice per month to registered fishermen during the ban on Jatka (Hilsa fry) fishing,” he said.
“However, the government is yet to take any steps for the benefit of those who collect fry from the rivers. All fishermen families should be brought under the social safety net programme, to curb child labour and illegal collection of shrimp.”
Executive Director of Voice of South Bangladesh, Md Shahidul Islam, pointed to the lack of alternative livelihood sources.
“Unfortunately, there is no scheme for the betterment of the marginalized people of this area,” he said, adding that no studies have yet been conducted to gauge the effects of unchecked shrimp fry collection.
The director of Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum, a network of 269 non-government organizations working for the children’s rights, said that despite the economic hardships faced by the river families, forcing children to work is a punishable offence under the existing laws of Bangladesh.
“We urged the government that a fresh list of children and their family, who are collecting fry for a living, be made,” Abdus Shahid Mahmud said. “These families should be brought under the social safety net programme so that their children can have a brighter future.”
National Human Rights Commission Chairman Kazi Reazul Haque said any form of child labour is “unacceptable”.
“The Sharankhola children have long been involved in child labour, and this has remained unaddressed for a long time,” he said.
“I believe that the government has failed to fulfill its duty, and it should put more emphasis on social activities for curbing child labour.”
Around 276,000 hectares of land, 1.32 million fishermen, and 14.7 million fish farmers are currently associated with the shrimp farming industry in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association Senior Vice-President Kazi Belayet Hossain told the Dhaka Tribune that shrimp was the country’s sixth highest exports earner, contributing 3.65% to the GDP of the country in 2017.
“Shrimp farming is the backbone of Bangladesh’s frozen fish export industry,” he said.
“In the 2016-17 Fiscal Year, shrimp worth Tk3,568 crore was exported.”
Despite these impressive figures, Shrimp Research Institute Chief Scientific Officer, Khan Kamal Uddin Ahmed, said only 17 of 57 state-owned hatcheries are currently in operation, leading to an acute crisis of fish fry among the owners of the enclosures.
“These hatcheries are only able to supply 10-12 crore fry, against the demand of 600 crore Golda fry each year,” he said.
“This shortage forces fish farmers to depend on the natural source of fry. (Therefore) during the season, women and children of riverside villages illegally collect shrimp fry from the river and sell them to the fish farms.”