The marine fisheries sector constitutes a critical element for the economy of Bangladesh, a country where more than 17 million people work in this sector, comprising about 11% of the population. Fish plays a crucial role in the average food consumption and is an important source of protein. While within the marine fisheries sector, small-scale fisheries account for the biggest share of fish production, they are also one of the most vulnerable groups in the industry, facing a number of challenges -including poverty-, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis.
An information paper of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published in November 2020, warns that "key activities in a fisheries or aquaculture supply chain [are] susceptible to being disrupted or stopped by impacts arising from COVID-19 and related measures (...) Furthermore, the reduction in domestic demand and widespread containment measures affects both a nation’s imports and reduces foreign income". "Financial distress in businesses can lead to a reduction in wages, working hours or labour layoffs," the paper also alerts.
In August 2020, the Center for Sustainable Development of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, a UNAI member institution, conducted a research study on the impact of COVID-19 on the socio-ecological system of the Bay of Bengal. The main objective of the study was to identify the consequences of a fishing ban, and the situation as a whole generated by the pandemic, on the livelihood of fishermen and their overall health situation. In addition to this, the study also looked at coping mechanisms and how resilience was actually present in these fishing communities.
A mixed method was used to collect data through extensive literature review and telephone ethnography. One thousand respondents took part in the rapid appraisal survey and out of this number, one hundred respondents from fisher communities in the districts of Barguna and Cox's Bazar, gave in depth interviews. Results showed that small-scale or artisanal marine fisheries were damaged due to the pandemic, particularly during the enforced lockdown from March-May 2020. Fishermen could not catch fish and most of them were unable to go for other livelihood options as well.
The market and the fishing distribution system was also interrupted due to restrictions on movement of people. In the meantime, the coastline of Bangladesh was devastated by the cyclone ‘Amphan’ on 20 May 2020, which added to the sufferings of the fisher folk community and the industry as a whole. The study found that more than a third of the respondents did not have any livelihood alternative, so they had no other source of income. Those who were indeed able to find menial jobs, lost between 61% and 80% of their income during this period.
The study revealed as well that small-scale fishers do not have income round the year, nor the skills to diversify when they are unable to go fishing. Given the absence of proper financial institutions ready to support the fishers, some of them have to take loans with high interest rates from money lenders, warehouse owners and boat owners to make ends meet. Thus, they are caught in cycles of debt and bound to pay off loans from boat owners with their work. This practice leads in practical terms, to what could be considered as debt bondage or bonded labor.
"I fell under many debts, my brain is not working due to over stress and income shock," said a fisherman from Patharghata. "Our children have mental pressure due to the school lock downs, and they are impatiently waiting for the schools to reopen (...) we are too poor to pay for their extra tuition at home," stressed a fisherman's wife from the same sub-district. This is an example of how the pandemic has caused serious problems, as everyone was forced to stay indoors causing their income sources to be crippled or completely blocked.
Most fishermen who had special IDs were given food aid by the government, however some respondents argued about problems with mismanagement of the assistance while others with large families complained about the amount of food, rice in particular, that was provided. Despite their dire needs and the insufficient medical assistance, most of them knew about preventive measures related to COVID-19 and were cautious about the virus, thanks to news spread through social media platforms and traditional media outlets.
Based on the study findings, researchers from the university shared a number of recommendations with policy makers, including government officials from the Ministries concerned, and civil society organizations. Some of the recommendations included the need to create opportunities to diversify income generation among these vulnerable communities, increase more flexible support for the fishermen, ensure equitable access to financial services, enhance community resilience, improve access to information on health services, and encourage homestead gardening and food growing.