It was the 12th of October; the Fisheries Development Corporation’s fish landing center and wholesale market at Barguna’s Patahrghata was barren, silent and devoid of any sign of either fish or fishermen. An unlikely scenario for anyone who has previous experience of being in any fish landing center in Bangladesh.
A typical fish landing center ought to be busy, crowded, chaotic and smelly. After the peak hours of fishing, every now and then boats arrive, laborers get busy at offloading the catch, nearby ice factories roar.
But the day was not just another day for any Fishermen, Bepary (primary trader), Aratdar (commission agent), or Paiker (wholesaler) at Patharghata landing center; it was the beginning of annual fishing ban period to protect breeding Ilish, the fish which contributes about 12% of Bangladesh’s total fish production and 1% of its total GDP.
The ban season was decided to last until 2nd of November for this year — 22 straight days, restricting all kind of fishing in inland, coastal and marine waters. In Barguna, there was no sign of any fishing activity in Paira, Bishkhali, Baleshwar or Haringhata River.
Walking past about a hundred mechanized boats in the nearby fish harbors, it was obvious to sense the hush descended upon this rowdy area. Nevertheless, a few fishermen were found, either repairing the torn nets or refurbishing boats in small groups.
As we approached one of these groups, we discovered that all of them belong to one boat named ‘Allahar Dan’ (Gift of God) — which netted Ilish for the last 5-6 months, making on average 3 voyages per month. All of the crew members, except for the Chief Boatman Mr. Nasir Fakir, are busy knitting Ilish nets or Chandi nets, despite the fact that they cannot go fishing for another 21 days.
We started discussing with Nasir ‘bhai’ (well, you can take ‘bro’ as a fine equivalent). Certainly, it started with protecting the breeding Ilish population but ended with a discussion on the state of existing approach in wild fisheries management in Bangladesh.
When Nasir bhai was asked about the Ilish caught in the open season, you could not miss the grins on the faces of everyone sitting around us. After netting more Ilish than past several years, they appear to be very vocal in endorsing the government initiative of a fishing ban, despite only a few of them having fishermen identity card(s), and even fewer ever having received the financial assistance (or the rice) granted throughout other fishing moratoriums, such as during ban on Jatka fishing (juvenile Ilish below 25 cm) from November to June and temporal fishing ban in sanctuaries placed by the Department of Fisheries.
As we discussed more with Nasir bhai amid occasional input by other crew members we understood that in fact they (crew members) are fed up with corruption and nepotism which exists within the local administration. There was only one fisherman in the group who have received such benefits and he admitted that it’s because he is among the kinsfolk of the local council’s leaders.
As the discussion deepened, Nasir bhai was asked if he, with his more than 25 years of fishing experience, truly believes that the fishing ban is helping to increase the stock and catch size of Ilish? In response, he sought refuge in God and invoked destiny — leaving no rational basis whatsoever in the course of our discussion. Although I was not looking for an argument, I was tempted to see whether they believe that the fishing ban can enhance fish stocks. During our stay in Barguna, almost all of the fishermen were of the opinion that they are not sure.
What troubles me the most is replacing of an appreciation of the science of the fishing embargo and community motivation with the fear of punishment. Fear is the only driver that keeps the fishermen on the bank during the ban.
And, it was interesting to discover that the fishermen do not necessarily follow any particular pattern during fishing. The crux at fishing is that they fish until they catch enough to cover their costs and make a profitable share for every crew member, regardless of the size of the boat, or the capacity (horsepower) of the engine installed.
Understandably, the fishing effort has increased sharply in recent times, but the total catch has not as per effort, Nasir bhai sighs. On that note, we have repeatedly referred that catch of Ilish is gradually increasing, but should not we start talking about how the fishing effort is increasing? Is it simply because with more efficient boats and gears than past years we are netting more Ilish than past decade? The answer is not there.
During the course of addressing this “Tragedy of the Commons“, I am not saying that enforcement is unnecessary; however, what I feel is individual and collective compliance ought to come from within, not from outside. And here in Barguna, what is missing is a clear understanding among fishermen of why they are not supposed to fish during the ban, and whom the ban benefits.
Photos: Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea
Mahatub Khan Badhon teaches Zoology at the University of Dhaka and is affiliated with Save Our Sea as a Program Associate. He can be reached at email@example.com