KAlam Sheikh’s life revolves around the few months he went in search of the prized hilsa fish of Bangladesh. When he gets a good catch he can earn enough money to live the rest of the year. He can pay off some of his debts and even improve his house.

But that fragile annual cycle has been broken this year, with poor catches blocked by months out of the water by the coronavirus pandemic and government restrictions to stop overfishing.

With another break from fishing for the October hilsa breeding season, Sheikh and his colleagues are worried about further indebtedness.

“If we get a good intake of hilsa, we can live a good life for the rest of the year… Sheik.

Kalam Sheikh on the docks near his village of Patuakhali, Bangladesh. Photography: Rafiqul Islam Montou

“I wanted to make up for the crisis of the coronavirus period by winning the hilsa season. But this year the amount of hilsa is less. So far we are at a loss and the crisis is expected to worsen in the days to come. “

In addition to the usual loans he has to take out each year to buy fishing gear and rent a boat, Sheikh has been forced to borrow more money to meet his family’s needs during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Hilsa fish, commonly found in the sea but migrating seasonally up rivers to spawn, is prized in Bengali cuisine and culture, as similar shortages in Indian West Bengal encouraged cross-border smuggling.

Almost 300,000 Bangladeshis are directly involved in catching hilsa and two million more are involved in the more lucrative business of transporting and selling fish to consumers.

Fishermen, however, receive little reward for their catch because they are forced to sell at low prices dictated by local wholesalers as a condition of the loans they give to fishermen.

“When you take the money from me, you have to sell the fish at a low price – these are the conditions between the wholesalers and the fishermen,” said Atiqur Rahman, researcher for the fishing NGO World Fish.

He said banks usually don’t lend to fishermen, forcing them to rely on local businessmen or wholesalers who easily lend, but at high interest rates and on strict terms.

Hilsa fish market in Dhaka
Hilsa for sale at a fish market in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Photograph: NurPhoto / Getty Images

Sheikh said he was not allowed to sell to someone else as a condition of the loan, which prevented him from making enough money to pay off the debt in full and tied him to the wholesaler for another year. .

Bangladesh’s hilsa stocks had been depleted after more than 30 years of overfishing, until 2003 when periodic fishing bans and protected areas were introduced.

Rahman said smallholders often lose out because of illegal fishing by powerful local businessmen as well as overfishing in the Bay of Bengal.

The government is preparing to allocate more than 10,000 tonnes of rice to fishermen to compensate for the restrictions, but food is often insufficient as they need an income to pay their debts.

Bashir Uddin on his boat in Bhola
Fisherman Bashir Uddin on his boat in Bhola. Photography: Rafiqul Islam Montou

“We don’t have a chance to be happy, even after suffering our whole life. These days of crisis never end and we are dying of debt, ”said Bashir Uddin, 48, in a teahouse built on stilts by the river in the coastal district of Bhola.

Like Sheikh, Uddin had to take out a loan during the coronavirus lockdown to keep his family afloat.

Like many Bangladeshi fishermen, Uddin started out as a boy to contribute to the family income.

“When the other kids were busy playing, I would go fishing in the river. Many of my friends who I grew up with went to school. I didn’t have this opportunity, ”he said.

Rahman said Bangladeshi fishermen have essentially found themselves in a generational trap, forever in debt and unable to afford school for their children, as more and more frequent natural disasters regularly force them out of the water.

“It has become a rule that whoever is born into a fishing family, he will be a fisherman,” Rahman said.

The problem, he said, is that most have no control over their own, having to pay a large chunk of their profits to creditors and boat owners, who demand a share when they don’t. have no role in fishing.

“The fishermen are getting poorer and poorer, but the people in the upper levels of the field are getting richer and richer,” Rahman said.

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