Bangladesh’s rivers have provided for fisherman Rafiqul Islam’s family for generations, but a few years ago the 27-year-old noticed his nets were coming up empty.
This year, Islam was forced to leave his small fishing community in northern Mymensingh District to find work, an early victim of what scientists are warning is an alarming decline in freshwater fish stocks.
“Eight, ten years ago it was possible for a fisherman to make a decent living all year round — now, our catches are tiny and most people are having to find other seasonal work to survive,” Islam said.
Surveys of fish stocks paint a gloomy picture.
According to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2000, Bangladesh is home to 266 species of freshwater fish, 54 of which are classified as “threatened” in the group’s Red List.
However, a more recent study by the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) stated that at least 25 of the freshwater species of fish are now extinct and more than 100 species should be classed as threatened.
“We are losing our freshwater fish at an alarming rate,” said BAU professor Mostafa Ali Reza Hossain, whose team has spent a decade traveling the country to track the decline in fish species.
The dwindling of freshwater fish has major repercussions for low-lying and deeply impoverished Bangladesh, home to numerous rivers, floodplains, lakes and lowland areas.
It puts more than 1 million jobs at risk, will accelerate migration of the estimated 1.4 million fishermen to Bangladesh’s already overcrowded cities and removes a crucial, free source of protein for the rural poor.
It also risks having a catastrophic effect on overall biodiversity as the impact ripples up the food chain to birds and reptiles, Hossein said.
Inland fishing is deeply traditional in Bangladesh — as one old adage goes, fish and rice make a -Bangladeshi — and another 11 million people are involved in seasonal or part-time fishing or fish-dependent businesses.
Many of these part-time fishermen come from the bottom third of Bangladesh’s population — the “ultra-poor,” who cannot afford to buy more costly farmed fish, Dhaka-based food and nutrition professor Keramat Ali said.
“The very poor have traditionally relied on fish caught in inland rivers and lakes to supplement their diet — especially for pregnant women, children or the old and sick,” he said.
“These fish are crucial for protein supplies — without these fish in their diets, the poor will be missing out on key nutrients as well as protein. How are they meant to afford an alternative to these fish?” he added.
In Bangladesh, a nation with more than 200 rivers, fish accounts for at least 60 percent of the average person’s total animal protein intake, according to the Bangladeshi department of fisheries.
Overfishing, especially using illegal drag nets, industrial pollution of fish breeding grounds and the impact of pesticide run-off from farms are the primary reasons behind the decline, the BAU’s research has found.
In addition, waterways are being filled up for construction of roads, bridges and houses to accommodate Bangladesh’s ever-increasing population, which grew nearly two-and-a-half times in four decades.
“The 375km2 Chalan Beel, the largest inland wetland in the north, is a perfect example of how pesticide use and construction are having an impact on fish,” Reza said.