Fish and Aquatic Food Systems COVID-19 Updates: Bangladesh

Protective measures were instated progressively from March 17th, evolving into a ten-day nationwide holiday from March 26th. Offices closed and the population was encouraged to stay at home and practice social distancing. During this time, thousands of migrant workers left the capital city Dhaka to return to their places of origin. It was recently announced that the lockdown would be extended until May 5th. By the beginning of May, Bangladesh had registered 8790 confirmed cases and 175 deaths.

The crisis has exacerbated underlying inequalities, and malnutrition burdens amongst the poorest. Many workers subsisting on daily wages have seen their incomes disappear and have faced difficulties buying food as a result. A drop in demand for fresh produce including fish from aquaculture was reported at the beginning of April.

Impacts on fisheries and aquaculture: Impacts from the lockdown were felt across the sector with restrictions on movement rendering fishers and fish farmers unable to move their produce to markets. Customers reportedly deserted retail markets due to fear of infection and lockdown measures, causing the price of fish to fall sharply. These factors left small scale fishers of the southern district of Jhalokati in great distress due to their reduced incomes and ability to purchase food. Adding to this burden, fish traders were reported to be unable to access ice needed to store fish.

Fish farmers from the Kishoreganj, Mymensingh and Netrokona districts were also affected to the suspension of inter-district transportation. It was reported that fish that would otherwise have been  sold at markets across the country has remained in ponds, delaying the start of the next fish production cycle. As a result, some farmers are unable to afford to feed their fish and are facing large financial losses. Farms also report having difficulty finding workers for harvesting due to their fear of the virus. This situation may in turn impact fish seed production by hatcheries and nurseries, with implications for food security in the longer run. One fish farmer stated future income remained uncertain as mass migration from cities, where most of the fish usually goes, back to rural areas, could lead to a decrease in demand and prices. It was said the financial crisis could therefore result in fish farm workers losing their jobs.

Fish processing has also been badly affected, including frozen shrimp and dried fish production. Fish drying activity usually peaks during the last months of the sea fishing season, which lasts until May. At Najirartek in Cox’s Bazar - one of the largest fish drying sites in Bangladesh - fishing is reported to have halted for the past month, leaving 30,000 processing workers, two-thirds of whom are women, out of work. Dried fish was said to be left stranded in warehouses and shops at Bangladesh’s largest dried fish wholesale market in Asadganj Bazar, Chittagong, due to the markets closure since March 26th. Export agreements for both shrimp and dried fish were also said to have been momentarily suspended .

Bangladesh sells 70% of the black tiger shrimp it produces to the restaurant sector in north-western Europe, leading analysts to predict major difficulties for the country’s shrimp sector if the European hospitality sector does not rebound quickly. Bangladesh’s crab farming industry had already been hit hard in February when Chinese borders closed. Exports had eventually resumed but were halted again when Bangladesh shut down all its airports on March 23rd. It was reported the industry is mainly comprised of poor smallholder farmers, with China account for around 85% of Bangladesh’s crab exports. Losses were estimated by the Live Crab and Eel Fish Exporters Association to reach $46.9 million with crabs dying, domestic market prices crashing due to surplus supply, and crab farmers being driven into debt.

Responses and adaptations: The Bangladesh Navy reportedly alerted fishers and their families in the coastal areas to raise awareness while distributing masks and disinfectant soaps. The national government is reported to have taken several measures have been taken by to ease the financial stresses upon fish farmers. The government opened a ‘control room’ at the beginning of April including a hotline where people involved in fisheries could call for assistance. Fishery officials were said to be drawing up a list for the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock so they could be included as part of a $0.6 billion national financial assistance stimulus package. Exporters were specifically looking for interest free loans from the government to help salvage their business and alleviate pre-existing bank loans. Innovative measures such as digital platforms to match farmers with potential buyers in case of product surplus were also said to be under development.