The real income of the coastal fishermen have gradually been declining, forcing them to live in hunger and debt only to make Hilsa available on the plate of the Bangladeshi households.
The marginal coastal fishermen have gradually been a poorer community amid lack of necessary compensations during the fishing ban periods comprising about 87 days - 65 days in May-July and 22 days in October-November, a recent visit to Cox's Bazar and Patuakhali districts revealed.
The government introduced a marine fishing ban back in 2019 in the bay aiming to bring a balance in the sea's ecology, to raise production of fisheries, and to boost depleted fish stocks, especially that of Hilsa.
Hilsa, known as a delicious fish, earlier was abundant in the water along the Bay of Bengal but its catch declined in recent decades, as experts claim, due to overfishing.
Bangladesh is responsible for about 60 per cent of the total catch globally while the market for hilsa is worth more than $2.5 billion.
However, interviewing 65 fishermen and owners of 10 boats and trawlers in the two districts, the FE found less than 50 per cent of coastal fishermen have so far got fishermen cards.
Using the cards, the fishermen could get 86 kgs of rice during the ban in May-July period and 20 kgs in October-November period, according to the Department of Fisheries (DoF) offices in the two districts.
While talking to this correspondent, the fishermen said 70 per cent of them lost their real income in the last four years.
"The three-month ban without necessary compensations has stopped all possibilities to make our life a bit better," Letu Jaladas, a fisherman from Jaladaspara of Thakurtala in Maheshkhali told the FE.
The Jaladas are a fishing community from time-memorial in the coastal and riverine regions of parts of few Indian states and Bangladesh.
Mr Letu said their income started rising notably amid a surge in fish prices across the country from the beginning of the new millennium, helping many of them to have some education and to prepare their next generation to go mainstream.
But the periodic ban, which has been continuing for the last four years, has stopped all such possibilities, he said.
He said their children dropped out before entering high schools amid lack of money for their education.
Luckily, Mr Letu got a fisherman card through which he could get a total of 116 kgs of rice during the 87-day ban period.
"But on an average, I get 1.34 kgs of rice worth a maximum Tk 70 per day during the banning period against my average income of Tk 600 in the bay," he said.
He said even the rice is also not enough for his six-member family as they require at least 2.5 kgs of the staple a day.
"I've a small boat which I bought after getting a loan from an NGO but couldn't pay half of the debt due to losses for the last three years," he said.
Parimal Kanti Shil, another fisherman from Jagannathpara in the same area who works for a Hilsa boat, said only rice can't run a family - other commodities, including edible oil, vegetables, protein and medicine, are also needed.
He said his average income is Tk 500 a day though it is not enough for his five-member family.
To him, they remain workless for three to four months, slashing down their annual income by 30 to 40 per cent.
While interviewing 23 fishermen in the Thakurpara, only 11 said that they had got the fisherman cards while the rest were yet to get any such facility during the ban.
Jasim Uddin, who lives in the Ghotibhanga Government Rehabilitation area in Maheshkhali, said: "My wife and I jointly would earn Tk 500-600 in normal days through which we could hardly run the seven-member family."
Only loans can feed them during this period; all the marginal fishermen are living with hunger and debts due to the ban, he said.
He said they could get loans either from their Mohajans (owners of boats or trawlers) or from NGOs.
Mr Uddin said everyone in his locality has Tk 20,000 to Tk 0.1 million worth of debts now.
Bank officials also do not permit them to enter their banks, he alleged.
He said: "We were poor and now we have become poorer amid lack of compensation from the government."
The ban ultimately forces thousands of fishermen to live a terrible life during the period.
As a result, out of desperation, many fishermen go to the sea during the fishing ban though there is a chance to be fined by the law enforcers, he said.
He informed the FE that there are three kinds of fishermen in the Maheshkhali upazilas - the first group works on salary basis for a year at Tk 12,000-15,000 a month for a Boro Bapary (a big trader) with medium-size trawler dedicated to Hilsa.
The second category works with a big and deep net called 'Bhendi' which catches all kinds of fish, and the last one works with small boats and hundreds of fish-hooks.
Mr Uddin said apart from fishing in the bay, another two professions - salt and shrimp farming - are left but are almost occupied by others.
Abdul Monnaf, a young fisherman from Pashchimpara of Sonadia Island under Kutubjom union in Maheshkhali, was preparing to go to the deep sea during the interview.
He told the FE that the ban had forced many families to starve.
"We could hardly manage food two times a day during the ban," he said.
He said education is rare as there is only one primary school in the island for a population of three thousands.
Besides, they are also living with fear of evacuation as most part of the Island has been leased out by the government to the private sector, he added.
Meanwhile, Babul Majhi, a fish trader at Alipur Bandar in Kolapara of Patuakhali, told the FE on August 10 that the ban had started impacting even the medium-scale trawler owners.
He said every Hilsa trawler owner is in Tk 1.0-1.5 million debts due to squeeze in fishing days for the ban as well as for rising rate of coastal storms for the last one and a half decades.
Majhi said the 65-day ban hardly could bring any change amid lack of the same conservation programme in the neighbouring borders.
He said the marginal fishermen, who work for them, might leave the profession within a few years amid starvation.
However, the government allocated 16,752 tonnes of rice under the Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) programme to assist the families of 0.3 million registered fishermen in 67 upazilas of 14 districts during the 65-day ban on fishing in the Bay this year, according to the DoF.
DoF data showed there are 0.6 million coastal fishermen in the country.
Cox's Bazar fisheries officer Md Badruzzaman said 64,302 fishermen have so far been registered while most of them got VGF rice during the May 20-July 23 ban period.
He said a number of people will be registered within a few years when they will turn 18.
Contacted, Deputy Chief of DoF Masud Ara Momi said they were trying to bring more fishermen under the VGF.
She said apart from the 65- and 22 day-ban, 0.39 million fishermen during the February-May's Jatka Conservation period also got 40 kgs of rice a month across the Hilsa regions.
She said apart from this, a project has been taken for fishermen in 107 upazilas for their alternative professions.
A 30,000 fisherman households would get input assistants worth Tk 25,000 under the project, she added.
Prof Dr Muinul Islam, Department of Economics, Chittagong University, said the government first should acknowledge that it has to 'compensate' the fishermen - not assist.
He said the small amount of rice during the ban is surely leaving them in starvation.
He said apart from introducing alternative earning, the government should also raise the current compensation by more than three times.
"The authority should think how could only 1.34 kgs of rice feed a family containing four to six members"? Prof Islam questioned.
Prof Dr Md Sujahangir Kabir Sarker, Department of Economics and Sociology, Patuakhali Science and Technology University, said fishermen are living in debts and hunger amid inadequate compensations during the fishing ban.
He said the country's production of Hilsa has increased by 0.1 million tonnes in the last four years to 0.56 million tonnes in which the fishing ban has a great contribution.
But coastal fishermen families could never enhance their living standard being workless for three months with such rice charity by the government, he said.
He said the compensation should be fixed after an 'opportunity cost analysis' if the government really wants to do something for the community as well as want to boost fish production in real terms.
He said production of marine fish is above 0.7 million tonnes - of which, Hilsa comprises above 50 per cent.
The rise in fish production for the ban, market price of the increased amount of fish, and decline in income by the fishermen should be taken into consideration during an opportunity cost analysis, he said.