Harvesting of shrimp fries in the River Meghna in the coastal areas of Lakshmipur goes on unabated in violation of government instructions, causing enormous damage to marine resources as well as the aquatic biodiversity of the area.
More than 50,000 people are reportedly involved in shrimp fry collection from the river in different upazilas of the district and earn around Tk300 crore annually, people concerned have said. But, in the process of collecting one shrimp fry, the shrimp fry hunters kill around 70-80 fries of other species of fish, they added.
Although there is no official data, fish traders, scientists, and fisheries officials estimate that the yearly ecological cost of these activities, however, would surpass Tk6,000 crore if only the damage caused to a single fish species, poa, is taken into account.
According to the Department of Fisheries, the government on 21 September 2000 issued a notification banning the collection of shrimp fries, and eggs from the coastal areas to protect the biodiversity of the rivers.
But, the local administration seems to be oblivious to implementing the government instructions, as local people have alleged that the administration seldom takes any action against those who are flouting the government prohibition.
Experts, however, say it is possible to earn thousands of crores of taka by collecting shrimp eggs in a natural way if the authorities concerned take proper steps by training people and raising public awareness.
The eggs and fries collected from the River Padma can breed high-quality bagda shrimps, they said.
Damage to other fishes
Thousands of people of all ages from different upazilas of Lakshmipur catch shrimp fries and eggs from the River Meghna from March to July.
According to locals, shrimp fry hunting covers a stretch of about 45km from Raipur upazila to Tanki Bazar in Ramgati.
Zainul, a young shrimp fry collector, said, "The low tide comes twice a day for at least four hours in between two high tides. That's when the fries are caught. This season, I have caught shrimp fries every day before going to school and earned around Tk30,000 a month."
Shrimp hunters use mosquito nets and push nets to catch the fries and eggs. Eggs and pollen of many other species of fish also get caught in the nets, however, people only keep shrimps and dispose of other varieties on the shore.
One Shahjahan from the Balur Char area of Ramgati upazila said, "The hunters come ashore at least five to six times per hour.
Each time, they catch 20-25 fries of bagda (tiger) shrimps. Around 800 fries of other species also get caught in their nets which they destroy. This is one of the reasons behind the decline in the number of fishes in the river."
Anisuzzaman, associate professor at the Faculty of Marine Science and Fisheries, Noakhali University of Science and Technology, said, "A hunter picks his net at least 10 times per hour. If s/he catches at least 100 poa fries in one go, then in four hours of a day s/he destroys around 4,000 fishes. Thus, around 1.60 crore fishes of only a single species are destroyed by around 50,000 hunters per day."
"If the price of a fish fry is Tk1, then in 70 days of the season fries of one species worth about Tk6,000 crore are destroyed," he added.
He further said that about 70-80 fries of other species are destroyed for one bagda fry.
Some people take the fries of other fish from the shrimp hunters and cultivate them in the ponds.
Jaher and Sohag Gazi from the Char Bhuta area in Sadar upazila said, "Last year, we collected fries of different species of fish from them which they generally destroy. We have raised them in our pond. Now the pond is full of hundreds of fishes including koral, poa, chewa, laitta, vetki, pangash, rita, pabda etc."
"Since the law does not stop the hunting of shrimp eggs and fries, it is time to think about how to protect the biodiversity of the river," said Anisuzzaman.
Violation of govt instructions
Naim Hossain, a teenager from the Char Kalkini area of Kamalnagar upazila, regularly catches shrimp fries from the River Meghna. He said, "I heard that it is forbidden to catch shrimp fries, but I do not know why? I sell the fries to farmers. They cultivate them in their ponds and export them, bringing in dollars for the country. So why is it illegal?"
Other shrimp fry catchers from different areas of the district also echoed Naim.
Zainab, a woman from the Burirghat area of Lakshmipur Sadar upazila, said, "I have never seen any people from the administration preventing people from catching shrimp fries in the river. But, they sometimes conduct operations to stop vehicles on the road and seize drums filled with shrimp fries on their way to be taken to other parts of the country."
Lakhsmipur District Fisheries Officer Aminul Islam said, "We conduct more campaigns against traders because if they stop buying fries people will not catch them from rivers," he noted.
Experts have said the large-scale hunting of shrimp fries can only be controlled if the government conducts awareness activities as it has taken in case of protecting hilsa.