Till even the start of 2020, farming of freshwater shrimp, otherwise known as 'white gold' among Bangladeshis for its lucrative export value, and the newer addition of crab farming in the same ponds and enclosures as the shrimp 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, keeping the 1 –1.5 million people employed naked 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.
Shrimp farmers must be wondering whether there is some curse over them, preventing them from meeting their potential. Every year since 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 decreased 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 white leg 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.
Also, 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 loss.
The fate of many, who invested all their hopes and money to renovate the pond, now hangs in 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.