In the midst of all the doom and gloom surrounding the economy, it is good to know that Bangladesh now occupies the 2nd place in global freshwater fish production. According to a FAO report titled, ‘The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2024’, Bangladesh topples China to trail only India in fish production. The figure mentioned in the report (that is published every two years) takes into account all fish, i.e. farmed fish, fish caught in open water, haors and beels and rivers.

According to officials from the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI), the bonanza has come primarily due to the fact that the country has taken steps to protect its open water bodies. On top of that policymakers have made it mandatory to stop catching fish fry during breeding season, allowing for the sufficient repopulation of fish stocks. Pragmatic steps taken are bearing fruit in the case of Hilsa fish production. It is obvious that the authorities took the issue of the national fish ‘Hilsa’ very seriously.

Success with Hilsa breeding should be replicated for all the other breeds of fish that are popular with Bangladeshi consumers. Having sanctuaries where fish fry may breed in peace, introducing them to different water bodies and rivers – all these should be done as part of policy and not just as mitigation interventions when stocks run low. Looking at official data, it is seen that the country produced some 4.8 million tonnes of fish during the fiscal year (FY) 2023. When this data are segregated, it is found 1.3 million tonnes came from freshwater sources and the remainder were sea-catch. Of the 1.3 million tonnes, roughly half was Hilsa breed, the prized fish of the country.

The research conducted by Bangladeshi scientists have resulted in artificial breeding and advanced farming methods for some 40 varieties of fish. These successes are paving the way for multiplying fish stocks through scientific and planned farming in the various waters including ponds, beels and haors. Reportedly, the number of people involved with the entire fishing supply chain is about 20 million people and it is quite significant. According to one national daily, “back in 1990, per capita fish consumption was 7.5kg which has now reached the bar of 30kg”, or a four-fold increase. Needless to say, fish now is major contributor to meeting daily protein needs of the nation.

Putting all this into a global perspective, that Bangladesh produces 11.7 per cent of the world’s freshwater fish is no small feat, especially, when one takes into account the perpetual river-grabbing practices prevalent in the country; the unabated pollution of river and waterway systems by a largely unguarded industry. Yet the country marches on given its paucity of land and burgeoning population.

As stated before, prudent policies on research and action plan to boost fish production coupled with protecting water bodies and ensuring that fishermen do not catch fish during breeding season, all helped to propel the country to this enviable position. Again, as with the Hilsa experience, it is time to extend the same sort of protection to other highly-prized fish varieties not simply from their market price but also nutritional value. Since the country has shown the propensity to do well in this sector and so many people are involved with the supply and value chain of fish farming and trading, there is a need for giving this sector enough protection and develop cold storage supply chain for preservation of fish for longer periods. Large-scale fish export could fetch valuable foreign exchange.