Bangladesh is renowned for its catastrophic floods, which sometimes inundate more than half of the country. Not so widely known is that a fifth of Bangladesh is submerged in an ordinary wet season, annually turning vast areas of cropland into freshwater lakes, many of them called beels. By tradition, a beel fishery is a resource open to surrounding villagers — landowners and landless alike. In the dry season, the fields in the beel revert to their owners for growing rice.
Floodplain fisheries are vital to the economic and nutritional security of Bangladesh. Fully 80% of its annual catch of 2.56 million tons comes from freshwater bodies, and floodplains contribute 77% of the catch from inland open waters. Direct beneficiaries of floodplain fisheries are estimated to number 6.7 million, of whom 2.7 million are poor or extremely poor, either landless or effectively so.
Fishers from Melandi village holding a Bighead carp.
Bangladesh has 3 million hectares (ha) of medium-to-deeply flooded areas, of which 1.5 million ha is suitable for community-based fish culture (CBFC). Adopting this approach on only half of that area would increase annual fish production by 450,000 tons worth US$340 million.
Building on decades of experience in improving fishery management and the livelihoods of the rural poor in Bangladesh, the CBFC project aimed to develop a fish-culture model that enhanced floodplain productivity and ensured the equitable distribution of benefits. Whereas previous initiatives focused on publicly owned land — bringing together communities to manage floodplain fisheries by introducing fish sanctuaries, stocking fingerlings and regulating the harvest — the CBFC project took the next step by introducing the practice on private land as well as public.
Working with the Department of Fisheries (DoF), WorldFish led CBFC trials beginning in 2005 at three locations: Kalmina Beel, in Mymensingh Province, occupies 33 ha of mostly private land. Angrar Beel, in Rangpur Province, occupies 31 ha of private land. Beel Mail, in Rajshahi Province, occupies 15 ha of government land and 25 ha of private land, the fishing rights for which were leased to a fishers’ society in the nearly village of Melandi.
Project beneficiaries at each site elected a floodplain management committee (FMC) representing all three stakeholder groups: landless fishers, fishers in the local fishers’ society and landowners. The FMC was responsible for species selection, stocking and harvesting decisions, and finances, with advice and supervision provided by a project implementation committee comprising representatives of local authorities, WorldFish and the district DoF.
Bamboo fences were installed at water inlets and outlets, permitting the entry of larvae and hatchlings of small indigenous species and preventing stocked fish from escaping. In some cases, dikes were raised. FMCs determined species combinations, ratios and stocking densities according to fingerling availability, species’ growth rates and the experience of project participants. Fingerlings were procured from either beneficiaries’ nurseries or nearby commercial nurseries. They ranged in weight from 30 to 46 grams and were stocked at a rate of 31-48 kilograms/ha.
Benefit-sharing arrangements varied. At Beel Mail, where public land was leased by the fishers’ society, fishers received a larger share of the net benefit than was the case at the other sites. All sites maintained a revolving fund to improve project sustainability.
Summary of Outcomes
In addition to improved water management in seasonal floodplains and increased fish yield from better stocking and harvesting practices, including a single-year increase of 107% at Kalmina Beel, the project brought better compliance with fishing regulations during grow-out periods. Initial results suggest that fish culture did not harm wild fish production. The increased participation of all stakeholders in decision making helped bring about more equitable benefit sharing. Fishers and landless alike were able to harvest fish over longer periods, market them more effectively and obtain more income from them. Members of the Melandi fishers’ society reported significantly smoothed income in 2 previously hungry months of the year and improved cooperation in their community, with knock-on benefits to other aspects of community life.
The project buoyed the confidence of local stakeholders and district and subdistrict DoF officials alike. Relationships established between stakeholders and authorities have strengthened the voice of community organizations such as the Melandi fishers’ society, which now enjoys DoF support for its efforts to obtain a lease with a term longer than the 3-5 years available under the current system. Only Angrar Beel is expected to discontinue CBFC with the end of the project.