A fisherman inspects fish fry at a farm in Satkhira district of southern Bangladesh. Thousands of people in the country’s crab and eel industry are suffering after the coronavirus outbreak halted exports to China. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Sadhon Kumar Saha, a crab farmer from Bangladesh’s southern coastal district of Bagerhat, is usually very busy from January to March.
The Hindu man expects to make good money from exports in the first quarter when his farm is usually buzzing with dozens of workers.
But the scenario this year is completely different. Dozens of crab farmers like Saha are slapping their foreheads as their crabs remain unsold and left to rot.
Due to the deadly outbreak of novel coronavirus, exports of crab and eel to China have been suspended since the last week of January.
Crab usually sells for 700-1,000 taka (US$8-12) per kilogram during this period, but its price has slumped to 100-150 taka.
“In Bagerhat, about 50,000 people including crab farmers, fishermen and workers are suffering badly. Forget about profit, we have a huge loss already, and the conditions of day laborers are worse,” Saha told UCA News.
While crab exports ready to be shipped for China are still in warehouses, about 70 percent of crabs on his farm have already died and the rest will meet the same fate soon, he lamented.
“The people affected by this worst-ever crisis badly need support from the government and NGOs to survive,” Saha said.
According to the state-run Export Promotion Bureau, Bangladesh exports crab and eel worth over 7 billion taka (US$8.2 million) and the industry involves about 500,000 workers after growing thanks to high demand and prices in foreign markets.
Bangladesh exports crab and eel to China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Belgium, Singapore, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Australia. About 90 percent of exports go to China.
During Lunar New Year festivals, crabs and eels make up lavish delicacies on Chinese dinner tables.
But the deadly Covid-19 virus, which has claimed more than 3,200 lives and infected more than 93,000 people across the world, mostly in China, the epicenter of the epidemic, has changed everything drastically.
Bangladeshi crab businessmen and farmers are frustrated as they don’t know how to recover from the huge loss, said Basudeb Mondol, secretary of Khulna Crab and Eel Businessmen Society.
“We were well on target for crab and eel exports in the first six months of the 2019-20 fiscal year. Most people involved in the industry have become penniless and they don’t know what to do. While big businessmen might recover, small businessmen and farmers cannot make it,” Mondol, a Hindu, told UCA News.
Bangladesh is losing millions of taka from the collapse in crab and eel trade every day, he said.
Fishermen sell crabs, eels and shrimps at a village market in Satkhira district of southern Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
The government is still pondering support to people involved in the industry, said Dr. Muhammad Khaled Kanak, a government fisheries officer in Bagerhat district.
“For now, we have been conducting an awareness campaign to save crabs from death. There are 3,778 crab farms in Bagerhat and most are overloaded with crabs. We have advised them to move crabs to nearby ponds,” Kanak told UCA News.
The coronavirus outbreak should remain a great lesson for Bangladesh’s crab and eel industry, he pointed out.
“Large dependency on a single market is bad because it is risky. We have advised crab and eel traders to look for new foreign markets to avoid such a disastrous situation again,” he added.
Catholic charity Caritas has plans to support affected crab farmers, said Daud Jibon Das, regional director of Caritas Khulna, which covers the southern coastal region of Bangladesh.
“We have been working with small crab farmers and businessmen for years, and we will take up a support project to rehabilitate the affected community. Small farmers and businessmen used to sell their crab and eel in the local market, which is now swamped by unsold crabs and eels of big traders, so they are in a dire condition now,” Das told UCA News.
The government must move quickly to support affected workers and try to find alternative markets for exports, Das added.
Although Bangladesh has not recorded any infections or deaths from the coronavirus outbreak, the country has taken a financial hit from the epidemic.
Its vital export-oriented garment industry, which relies largely on imports of raw materials from China, has taken a major bite and recorded a slump in exports.
Bangladesh also has some major infrastructure development projects, including the Padma Bridge, which have Chinese firms as investors and experts. A prolonged virus outbreak could delay the project’s completion.