Shrimp and crab farmers have not just lost incomes as a result of lower demand, but also much of their assets through two natural disasters — Cyclones Amphan and Yaas
Until the start of 2020, the farming of freshwater shrimp — 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.
This came with the promise of ample export earnings once the pandemic was over.
Eighteen months later, however, shrimp and crab farmers have not just lost incomes as a result of lower demand, but also much of their assets through two natural disasters — Cyclones Amphan and Yaas, which brought tidal surges that washed away entire fish enclosures.
For the owners, it is now a question of survival, and by doing so, keeping their 1-1.5 million employees in the sector.
Although, it is most likely that they can no longer carry this out without some form of bailout from the government as their dues have piled up, and many face the prospect of forced closure. Indeed, there have been scores of closures already.
It is not a surprise for shrimp-farmers to be wondering whether they are under a curse, one which prevents them from meeting their potential.
Every year, since the 2013-14 fiscal year, this sector has hit some form of major disruption, providing new challenges for Bangladesh's “white gold” or commercial shrimp production. Viral infections, droughts, heavy rain, floods, tidal surges, and cyclones are wiping away shrimp enclosures.
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According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Bangladesh has exported 41,236 tonnes of shrimp, worth $545 million within the 2013-14 fiscal year. Since then, the shrimp export has been dropping. By FY19, exports had decreased by 34% to $361 million. Within that time, the country had exported 29,543 tonnes of shrimp.
The slump in demand for Bangladeshi shrimp, during this period, can partially be attributed to the explosion in popularity of the Whiteleg shrimp as well.
Not to mention, 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. In addition, Cyclone Yaas and the resultant floods have shattered the hopes of shrimp and fish-farmers residing in the coastal districts and nearby areas.
Shrimp, white fish, and crabs in farms and ponds over vast stretches of land, as well as houses, structures and equipment surrounding the ponds and farms in the multiple villages of Bagerhat, Khulna, and Satkhira, have too, been washed away by gushing floodwater and tides, resulting in devastating losses for the farmers.
Farmers of aquaculture and shrimp-cultivators, who have already counted their losses to be worth crores of taka, are unaware of how long it will take for them to recover the deprivations.
Shrimp-farming, which once lifted many people out of poverty, has now become synonymous with loss.
The fates of many, who invested all their hopes and money in renovating the pond, now hang in constant threat. Thus, new ways of protecting themselves financially are being looked for, including the introduction of an insurance scheme and moving on to other professions.
There was a shortage of shrimp fries at the beginning of the year. On the other hand, viral infections and droughts hit most of the shrimp enclosures during the farming season, which lead to a large quantity of shrimp dying in these enclosures.
Other cyclones like Bulbul, Sidr, Aila, along with Amphan and Yaas, damaged fish, shrimp enclosures and other structures in coastal areas that surrounded the Sundarbans, causing a loss of crores of taka.
Recently, around 6,500 fish and shrimp enclosures were washed away in Bagerhat by tidal surges and storms, in an aftermath of Yaas, leaving behind damages worth Tk9.5 crores, according to the District Fisheries department. However, according to the farmers, the loss is as high as Tk50 crore.
A great quantity of shrimp 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, viruses, and price drops 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 fish at the beginning of the year, and the prices of the available ones was about one and a half times more. After a lot of effort, I managed to cultivate shrimp on my five bighas of land. But the tidal surge, caused by Yaas, caused me a loss of Tk3 to Tk4 lakhs."
Local farmers said that shrimp cultivation was once profitable, as people of different classes and professions in the area turned to shrimp-farming with the hope of making more profit. However, many have no alternative sources of income other than this occupation.
As shrimp-farming is profitable, many have increased the number of enclosures, and yet there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for shrimp-cultivators, at least for the last few years, as they are now suffering damages during every disaster.
However, the department of Fisheries is advising the cultivators to build raised-enclosures, increase the depth of the ponds, and repair the enclosures every year.
Bagerhat Deputy Commissioner, Mohammad Azizur Rahman, said: "A list of affected fish-farmers has been sent to the higher authorities. The cultivators will also benefit if an insurance scheme can be created 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 tonnes of shrimp and 31,551 tonnes of white fish. Until May of the current financial year, it produced 33,130 tonnes of shrimp. “Around 65,804 people are involved in shrimp-farming here,” said the District Fisheries department.