The hilsa fishermen, hit by the pandemic and fishing ban, look to turn things around
One rainy morning, when I stepped into the Fishery Ghat – Chittagong's illustrious fish market – it was as if I had walked into a Hilsa kingdom.
The Ghat, the biggest fish market of the port city, is one of the leading Hilsa hubs of the country.
For people who prefer peace and tranquility, the hustle and bustle during peak hours at the market could feel almost unbearable. But for most people, this popular fish market, especially during the Hilsa season, is a virtual attraction.
The silver fishes, caught from the Bay of Bengal, mostly land at this messy fish station, to be delivered to different locations around the country. From here, the fishes embark on another journey of hundreds of kilometers through the great Bengal plains before reaching the dinner tables in various districts like Dhaka, Rajshahi, Sylhet, and Khulna.
For fishermen, vendors, and fish-related livelihoods, Fishery Ghat is a center of happiness and hope. When this place flaunts abundant supplies, you see happiness radiating from the faces of the people here. Unfortunately, such happiness was missing for a long period due to the Covid-19 lockdown and the 65-day ban on sea fishing.
As I strolled around the market, I met a bunch of fishers who were seen busy sewing fishing nets. One of them named Bashar from Noakhali responded to my queries.
During our chat, he recalled the challenging four months. "We have had a hard time with our families and children. Our livelihood and lives were threatened due to the unexpected situation as we could not set sail on the sea for a long time," Bashar said with a deep sigh.
After chatting with some other fishers, I learned that Covid-19 and the ban on sea fishing contributed to massive losses for fish farmers as their sales and the price of fish dropped significantly.
Consequently, the livelihood of many people involved in the supply chain, such as fish vendors, suppliers, or transport workers was also affected. Recently, the fisheries sector has seen a boom in Hilsa supply, which brought back a good fortune to their lives.
Yunus Majhi, the owner of a fishing trawler - FB Yunus, sat near the trawler station in the Char Chaktai area of the Fishery Ghat.
The 55-year-old veteran fisherman said, "After the ban, the sea has blessed us with plentiful Hilsa. The catch has tripled. This has brought hope back to our vulnerable lives and made us happy again."
However, he says, lady luck has been behaving erratically so far, as some fishermen returned with 20 tons and some get around 50 tons on a journey.
"Due to rough weather, we had been having a shortage of Hilsa supplies for a week. The sea was not allowing us to go into the deep where Hilsa fish are found. We have been discouraged by the long stormy waves and we were coming back with less fish," Yunus added, with hopes for better sailing after the sea gets calm.
As I wandered further, I discovered the market showed signs of rejuvenation and realised that it was returning to its normal state. Despite the past week's severe weather, hundreds of agents (Aratdar) and fish vendors at Fishery Ghat were seen trading and processing the most popular fish of Bengal, while the presence of other fishes was minimal.
From the fishing boats, tons and tons of Hilsa were being unloaded and making its way either to the storage or the trucks, to be delivered to different parts of the country. Apart from buyers and sellers, all you could see at the Ghat were vans, mini trucks, and baskets full of the king fish.
From a bird's eye view, it seemed like a "Hilsa festival" was taking place on the bank of Karnaphuli. The kings there were mature in size and weighed between 400g to 900g on average. According to size, the wholesale price varies between Tk300 to Tk1,000 per kg.
Bengal Fish, an agent and trading shop located at the center of the fish market was filled with rows of stockpiles of Hilsa. Mini trucks were seen unloading hundreds of fishes while bidders encircled the pack to haggle over the price.
Amidst the cacophony of noises, trade was in full swing. The more I walked through, the more I found the same picture.
I tried to speak to some of the vendors yet the king (Hilsa) kept them so engaged that they hardly had time to respond.
Luckily, I was able to draw the attention of Mohammad Delwar, owner of Haji Delwar cold storage, who mentioned that fish harvest has been abundant since the sea ban was lifted. However, over the last week, the rough sea had affected the market and the price.
Delwar added, "In the short to medium term, the market will suffer while in the long run, we look forward to earning a considerable amount." Despite the challenges, he admitted that the business has been running better than the last four to five months.
At the edge of the market, I visited the fishing trawler base where hundreds of fishing boats were resting, yet none of them were idle. Most of them were bustling with porters moving back and forth with baskets of fishes. Some were covered with big fishing nets while the fishers were repairing them.
There, I met fisherman Mohammad Hanif from Bhola whose owner's boat had arrived the night before from the sea. He said, "The Hilsa that we catch are sold here to the 'godi' (local agent), then the money is distributed equally between us and the trawler owner. Besides, we also get wages covering our food and other costs from the owner."
He added, "Since the end of July, we sold a huge amount of fish, which was worth Tk80 lakh. Even during this bad weather, we are preparing for our next sail with the hope of getting a good catch again."
According to the Department of Fisheries, the mouth-watering Hilsa comprises 13-14 percent of the country's total fish output.
Chittagong District Fisheries Officer, Farhana Lovely, said this year they have bigger hopes. She said, "The Hilsa production will break all previous records and contribute more to the total fish output. Though the fishers and traders had a hard time, the post lockdown period will eventually bring good news for them. Their patience will pay off soon, so they have to stick with what they are doing."
Faisal Karim is a journalist and Ph.D. researcher at Central China University.