Till even the start of 2020, farming of freshwater shrimp, otherwise known as 'white gold' among Bangladeshis for its lucrative export value, and recent strides in crab farming that cultivators could extend their business to. They combined to paint a very optimistic future for the sector, with the promise of ample export earnings once the pandemic was over.

Eighteen months later, the shrimp and crab farmers have lost not just income by way of lower demand, but also much of their assets in two natural disasters - Cyclones Amphan and Yaas- that brought tidal surges that washed away entire fish enclosures.

For the owners, it is now a question of survival, and by doing so, playing their part in keeping the 1 -1.5 million people employed in the sector and its offshoots in jobs. But they almost certainly cannot do it now without some form of bailout from the government - their dues have piled up, and many face the prospect of forced closure. Indeed, there have been scores of closures already.

Shrimp farmers must be wondering whether there is some curse preventing them from meeting their potential. Every year since the 2013-14 fiscal has seen their sector hit by some major disruption, coming with new challenges for Bangladesh's ''white gold" or commercial shrimp production. Viral infections, drought, heavy rain, flood, tidal surge, and cyclones are wiping away shrimp enclosures.

According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Bangladesh exported 41,236 tonnes of shrimp worth $545 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Since then, shrimp export has been dropping. By the 2018-19 fiscal year, exports had gone down by 34 percent to $361 million. In that fiscal year, the country exported 29,543 tonnes of shrimp.

The slump in demand for Bangladeshi shrimp over this period can also be partially attributed to the explosion in popularity of the whiteleg shrimp.

Most of the farmers are also suffering continuous losses because of the drop in prices after the onset of the pandemic and the actions of syndicates of frozen food entrepreneurs.

Cyclone Yaas and the resultant floods have shattered the hopes of shrimp and fish farmers of the coastal districts and nearby areas. Shrimp, white fish, and crabs in farms and ponds over vast stretches of land in many villages of Bagerhat, Khulna, and Satkhira. have been washed away by gushing floodwater and tides, causing huge losses to the farmers. Also, houses, structures and equipment surrounding the ponds and farms were washed away.

Aquaculture farmers and shrimp cultivators, who have already counted losses worth crores of taka, do not know how long it will take them to recover the losses. Shrimp farming, which once lifted many people out of poverty has now become synonymous with losses.

The fate of many, who invested all their hopes and money to renovate the pond, now hangs in the balance. So they are looking for other ways to protect themselves including the introduction of an insurance scheme and moving to other professions.

There was a shortage of shrimp fries at the beginning of the year. Also, viral infections and drought hit most of the shrimp enclosures during the farming season. A huge quantity of shrimp died in enclosures from viral infections.

Cyclones like Bulbul, Sidr, Aila, Amphan, and Yaas damaged fish, shrimp enclosures and other structures in coastal areas surrounding the Sundarbans, causing a loss of crores of taka.

Around 6,500 fish and shrimp enclosures were washed away recently in Bagerhat by tidal surges and storms, as an aftermath of Yaas, leaving damage of Tk9.5 crore, according to the district fisheries department. However, the farmers say the loss is as high as Tk50 crore, once you factor in all their costs.

A huge quantity of shrimps was washed away by a tidal surge that breached the embankments at many places during Yaas. Faced with the massive losses, shrimp farmers of different areas of Bagerhat have called on the government for bailouts.

Animesh Mandal, a Hurka union parishad member in Rampal upazila, said: "Most people in my area depend on shrimp farming for a living. The aftermath of cyclones, virus, and price drop have ruined the financial health of so many farmers. For example, Shrimp from my five ponds were swept away in the tidal surge recently."

Shrimp farmer Manoranjan Dhali of Rampal, who is incurring losses every year, said: "There was a shortage of juvenile fishes at the beginning of the year and the price of the available ones was about one and a half times more. After a lot of effort, I managed to do shrimp cultivation on my five bighas of land. But the tidal surge caused by Yaas caused me a loss of Tk3 to Tk4 lakh."

Local farmers said shrimp cultivation was once highly profitable - particularly when export demand was high. People of different classes and professions in the area turned to shrimp farming in the hope of making more profit.

But Shrimp exports have been steadily decreasing from 2011 in the face of continual low demand in the global market for the Bangladeshi farmed shrimp. Whiteleg shrimp (L. Vannamei) is dominating the world market because of its low price compared to Black tiger (P. monodon) and Giant freshwater prawn (M. rogenbergii) (the latter two are farmed in Bangladesh). Most of the Asian countries and some Latin American countries are farming Whiteleg shrimp. Bangladesh is falling behind in farming Whiteleg shrimp, which is sold $2-$2.5 less than the prices of Black tiger (P. monodon) per pound in the global market (Source: Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association news portal).

The demand for P. monodon and M. rogenbergii have been declining owing to the comparatively higher price. Though the export quantity declined 34.11% from the fiscal year 2011 to 2018, the export value decreased by just 1.15% with a little fluctuation. In the fiscal year 2002 Bangladesh exported shrimp worth about $170 million, and in fiscal year 2014 it peaked at $486.05 million.

However, many have no alternative source of income other than shrimp farming. As shrimp farming is profitable, many have raised the number of enclosures. But there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the shrimp cultivators for the last few years as they are now suffering damages in every disaster.

While export has been declining, the burgeoning national economy means nowadays local people can also afford to buy shrimp- something shrimp farmers say 'could not be imagined a decade ago'. Traders are selling big size of Bagda (P. monodon ) at Tk 800-1000 kg ($10-$12) in the local market. Local exporters could sell Bagda (P. monodon) at $8.70 per pound on the international market in the year 2016 but now it has reduced to $6, according to industry sources. At present, domestic demand for shrimp is very strong, and the prices in the domestic markets in Bangladesh are higher than those in the international market.

It almost certainly is why the Department of Fisheries officials are ignoring thefarmers' pleas that they may have to sell their businesses, and instead advising the cultivators to have raised enclosures, increasing the pond depths, and repairing the enclosures every year.

Bagerhat Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Azizur Rahman said, "A list of affected fish farmers has been sent to the higher authorities. Also, the cultivators will be benefited if an insurance scheme can be introduced for them."

There are 76,730 fish farms in Bagerhat across 67,000 hectares of land including 50,239 prawn (Galda) enclosures and 26,466 tiger shrimp (Bagda) enclosures, according to the district fisheries department.

In the last fiscal year, the district produced 33,825 metric tonnes of shrimp and 31,551 metric tonnes of white fish. Until May of the current financial year, it produced 33,130 metric tonnes of shrimp. Around 65,804 people are involved in shrimp farming here, said the district fisheries department.

The tidal surge caused by Yaas flooded 2,781 enclosures in Bagerhat's Rampal, 1,090 in Mongla, 784 in Morrelganj, 105 in Sarankhola, 588 in Kachua, 40 in Sadar, 35 in Fakirhat; and 110 fish farms in Chitalmari upazila.

Even before Yaas, the coronavirus pandemic and Cyclone Amphan had combined to wreak havoc on the sector.

Year of Disaster

Stakeholders of the shrimp industry came together at one point last year to demand soft loan provision for the sector, when it was in dire straits because of two natural disasters -- the Covid-19 pandemic and super cyclone Amphan.

The Shrimp Hatchery Association of Bangladesh (SHAB), Bangladesh Shrimp and Fish Foundation (BSFF) and Bangladesh Aqua Products Companies Association (BAPCA) placed the call in a joint statement. Shrimp is being cultivated on around 258,681 hectares of land in the south and south western part of Bangladesh, they said.

In the first three months of the pandemic in 2020, production and sales of shrimp came to a halt due to a lack of workforce because of coronavirus, disrupting the whole supply chain. Then Amphan appeared and caused 40,800 farmers of shrimp, finfish and crab losses worth Tk 217 crore, according to the preliminary estimate by the Department of Fisheries.

Shrimp farmers, who export their produce to the EU and US to earn the nation anywhere between $2-500 million annually, were the worst hit. Nearly Tk 175 crore was lost by 18,450 shrimp farms in the southern coastal regions due to the cyclone.

Vast expanses of water bodies were flooded and important infrastructures, farm establishments, hatcheries and ponds which were prepared for the next production cycle were badly damaged, according to the statement. So, the associations demanded special financial assistance for shrimp farmers for their urgent rehabilitation and procurement of post larvae.

Around 90 per cent of shrimp farmers are small entrepreneurs, and they are dependent on imported feed and other inputs, which have also been disrupted in recent times.

The shrimp sector plays a significant role in building the economy as it creates numerous jobs and leaves a positive impact on the aquaculture value chain, poverty reduction and export earnings.

Resisting vannamei

The fall in Bangladesh's shrimp export has mainly been attributed to the increased farming of Litopenaeus vannamei or whiteleg shrimp by competing countries. Vannamei is a hybrid shrimp variety that is low-priced but high-yielding. Countries like Ecuador, Argentina, Thailand, Vietnam, and India have been able to transform their culture systems to adapt to intensive farming methods to cultivate the Vannamei variety and drastically increase their shrimp exports.

Should Bangladesh follow that path? Opinion tends to be pretty divided and at present, the government of Bangladesh does not allow commercial farming of the Vanamei variety. only recently approving cultivation of Vannamei on a pilot basis, presumably to progress to commercial cultivation if the pilot is a success.

Quite certainly, the advent of Vannamei has definitely put downward pressure on the price of Bangladeshi shrimp exports. Global market price of shrimp has dropped down as countries like Ecuador and Argentina export a huge quantity of the lower priced Vannamei. But competition from Vannamei is not the only factor contributing to a stagnation of Bangladeshi export prices.

The valid export price of Bangladeshi shrimp has further declined. This decline can be attributed to the following factors (Research by Lightcastle Partners):

1. Increasing share of GFP in the export basket: Giant Freshwater Prawn (GFP) is a higher-end shrimp variety and can fetch a significantly higher price in the international market compared to BT shrimp. As a result of the increased production and higher price segment, GFP's contribution to the total shrimp exports by volume has risen from 13.65 percent in FY 2013-14 to 18.93 percent in FY 2017-18. Despite the increased representation of GFP in Bangladesh's export basket, overall export prices have not reflected a corresponding increase.

2. Increasing share of value-added exports: In recent years, Bangladeshi shrimp processors have added capacity for producing higher value-added shrimp products, expanding from traditional Head On Shell On (HOSO), Individual Quick Frozen (IQF) and block frozen shrimps to more of the Easy-Peel and Peeled and Deveined (P and D) product varieties. Also, Bangladesh's export mix has matured to include a multitude of Ready-to-Eat (RTE) and Ready-to-Cook (RTC) products for the international market. Once again, the expected price increases due to this higher value addition have not manifested in Bangladesh's average export price.

Alongside the rise of Vannamei and its accompanying downward pressures on international prices, various issues in the Bangladeshi shrimp supply chain have hindered the country's exports. Such problems include a lack of traceability and transparency within the supply chain, a lack of internationally-recognized certifications by most producers and exporters, weight manipulation using various means and product mislabelling.

Learning to survive

In 2019, the Embassy of Bangladesh in the Netherlands organised a seminar on 'Shrimp Technology: How Bangladesh can be benefitted through Cutting-edge Dutch technology. The objective of the seminar was to promote the shrimp sector of Bangladesh through adopting sustainable aquaculture practices as well as marketing of Bangladeshi shrimp products in the Dutch markets.

Dutch experts - Roel Bosma from Wageningen University and Research, Marcel Kloesmeijer from Octofrost, Arjen Roem from Skretting and Robbert Blonk from Hendrix Genetics - gave presentations on the potential of mangrove integrated shrimp farming systems, high-tech shrimp cooking and freezing technology, the latest developments in shrimp feed nutrition, feed management and shrimp genetics.

Dutch organisations Solidaridad Network Asia, the Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal and The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) jointly organised the visit, where manufacturers/exporters from Bangladesh had the opportunity to interact with the leading importers of shrimp in the EU - the world's strongest market for black tiger shrimp (Penaeus monodon). The Netherlands is currently the EU's largest monodon importer, buying in US$ 89.82 million-worth in 2017. So it would seem forces are at play, and not just here but also internationally, to ensure the galda and bagda produced by Bangladeshi farmers, are not lost to the world.

Additional reporting by Bisnu Proshad Chakrabortty, Bagerhat

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