Dried fish: Rising demand shows bright prospect

Much of Bangladesh’s dried fish — the much-loved traditional dish of Bangalees — is now coming from its neighbouring countries. With domestic production not being able to keep up with the constantly rising demand, imports are the only option. However, locals traditionally involved in this trade are obviously not a happy lot.
According to data provided by the Asadganj Dried Fish Merchants’ Association (ADFMA), demand in the domestic market now stands
at 55,000 tonnes, while the country produces only 20,000 tonnes. Of the imported dried fish, which accounts for 70 per cent of supplies, 60 per cent comes from India and Myanmar while 10 per cent enters from Pakistan.
Traders at the Asadganj dried fish market in Chittagong said the local market was gradually shrinking due to a decline in marine fish production, for which they blamed over-fishing in the Bay of Bengal, pirate attacks on fishermen, marine pollution and Indian and Burmese fishermen trawling in Bangladesh’s maritime territory.
Still, merchants, importers and distributors of dried fish feel
the local sector has huge potential to thrive and can generate
wide employment opportunities, provided it gets the necessary
government support.
“The dried fish sector has immense potential and can turn into a profitable industry if the government helps us. In the absence of any government-owned cold storage in this premier port city, we have to depend on private ones,” said Politon Barua, a wholesaler in the Asadganj dried fish market.
“The private storages charge 30 paisa per day for every kilogram of dried fish. The cost could go down in case of a government storage and people could buy dried fish at a lower price,” he argued.
As many as 3,000 people are directly involved in the Asadganj dried fish market. During peak season, the daily turnover at the market, which houses around 300 enterprises, stands at Tk 20 crore, but comes down to Tk 5 crore in the lean season.
Around 30 varieties of dried fish are found in the market. The most popular ones are Chinese pomfret (rupchanda), Indian salmon (lakkha), ribbon fish (chhuri), Bombay duck (loitta) and shrimp. Supplies from all fish-processing areas, particularly the coastal areas and islands like Rangabali, Sonadia, Kutubdia, Talpatti, St Martin’s, Teknaf, Banshkhali, Anwara, Moheshkhali and Cox’s Bazar, enter this market.
Traders claimed that consignments of dried fish from this market also go to the Middle Eastern countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, as well as the US and the UK, where large numbers of expatriate Bangladeshis live. The industry produces the lion’s share of dried fish during the peak season, from November to February.
Dried fish is usually processed in a natural way under the open sky in the coastal areas of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and Rangabali coast.
“Until very recently, the locally produced dried fish had a sizeable share in the domestic market, but things have changed a lot now. The rising imports are not a good omen for the country’s economy,” observed ADFMA general secretary Farid Ahmed.
“The fall in domestic production is also pushing up prices of dried fish. Medium- and low-income groups are increasingly opting for the imported dried fish as its price is relatively lower,” added Ahmed.
On the question of whether fish population was indeed decreasing in the Bay, Prof Md Shahadat Hossain, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences and Fisheries, said no survey has been conducted after the 1980s in this regard. “We cannot say for sure that fish production in the Bay has gone down as we lack current data. But a survey is likely to be conducted very soon,” he added.
Md Jamal Hossain, joint general secretary of ADFMA, felt that not only could the sector do with a little financial help, but also with increased vigilance along the coast. “It will get a boost if banks and financial institutions provide us with soft loans. Besides, local production has dropped in recent years due to a fall in the catch of marine fish. Fishermen are now afraid of going to sea, thanks to repeated pirate attacks. We do not see adequate vigilance by the Coast Guard,” he alleged.
In reply, Capt M Shahidul Islam, zonal commander of Bangladesh Coast Guard (East Zone), told The Independent that in spite of a
shortage of manpower and logistics to patrol the vast fishing areas, they were maintaining vigil and protecting the fishermen from pirate attacks.
Prabhati Dev, an official of the district fisheries department, however, said the fishermen were equally to blame. “The dried fish sector largely depends on marine fish. We must stop netting broodfish to increase marine food production. Every year, the government bans fishing for a certain period. But the fishermen hardly care for the ban, and indiscriminately catch fish,” Dev pointed out.
According to her, dried fish can be “a cheap source of protein for the low and middle-income groups”. “Usually, 5kg of fish are turned into a kg of dried fish. Therefore, dried fish is a lot richer in protein than fish, as protein is concentrated in it. It can easily meet our daily protein demand,” she explained.
Dr Md Rafiqueuddin, former deputy civil surgeon of Chittagong, however, had a word of caution. “Dried fish indeed contains rich food value if prepared in a proper manner. But consumption of dried fish processed with insecticide or any unsafe preservative poses a serious health hazard,” he pointed out.
“Most often, traders want the dried fish to retain moisture so that they weigh more, but moisture is a congenial environment for bacteria to breed. Traders then use DDT to protect it from pests. But this DDT can cause cancer,” he warned.
On August 8, a mobile court seized 1,000 kg of dry hilsa, popularly known as ‘nona ilish’, which had been sprayed with an inedible colour to look fresh, at Chaktai dry fish market in Chittagong city.
However, the joint general secretary of ADFMA claimed that the practice of processing dried fish with insecticides has stopped, with five cold storages coming up in Chittagong. “We are raising awareness among the processors about the health hazards of pesticides. As soon as we discover any consignment processed with insecticides, we cancel the order,” he claimed.