Big Money for Small Fry – Bangladesh

December 2004

The people of Bangladesh, especially the poor in rural areas, largely depend on fish to meet their protein needs. Several decades ago there was an abundance of fish in this country, but recently fish production from inland captures has declined. Intensive farming and agro-ecological pressures have contributed to this decline. To address the problem, farmers are being encouraged to cultivate the locally available fish species of tilapia in their rice paddy. This provides an environmentally sustainable and financially profitable alternative to existing systems.

Capture Fisheries on the Floodplains

The four million hectares of open waters in Bangladesh are among the world’s richest and most complex fisheries. The rivers, beels (small land depressions that hold water permanently or seasonally), baors (oxbow lakes), haors (large deeply flooded depressions), and floodplains support around 260 fish species. About 80 per cent of rural households catch fish for food or to sell, and about 60 per cent of animal protein consumption comes from fish. The small fish caught from the floodplains by poor people have, however, been neglected in official statistics and policies. Small fish are the accessible and preferred food of poor people and are good sources of nutrients.

© Rachel Berger / ITDG
© Rachel Berger / ITDG

Pond fish culture is the most common production environment. Most ponds are under subsistence or improved-extensive methods of farming. About 73 per cent of rural households are involved in this type of aquaculture system. However, pond-use statistics show that a high proportion of pond owners are not currently practising aquaculture in their ponds. Only about 52 per cent of the ponds are stocked with fingerlings and inputs are limited.

Capture fisheries produce about 1.5 million tonnes of fish a year, which is roughly 11 kg per person per year. About 46 per cent of this production comes from inland captures, dominated by major carps, catfish, and snakehead. Inland fish resources are spread throughout the whole country. Half of the area under rivers and estuaries lies in the south-west region; half of the area under baors is in Jessore; the largest lake (Kaptai Lake) is located in Chittagong; and the largest flooding basin is in the north-east. Beels and ponds are evenly distributed throughout the country.

Seasonal Waters

© John Hellin / ITDG
© John Hellin / ITDG

Fish production in Bangladesh is seasonal. This is largely a consequence of the fact that inland fisheries are linked to fish migratory flows, reproduction and growth patterns, and river flooding processes. During the pre-monsoon season, upstream spawning migration of major river species takes place. Following the onset of the first heavy rains, between May and June, river waters overflow their banks and flood extensive areas of the low-lying lands. It is at this time that young and mature fish begin to migrate from rivers and beels to floodplains for reproduction and feeding. A large number of people then become involved in fishing activities as part-time and subsistence fisherfolk.

Between May and July, migrating fish are caught in canals and floodplains. In the following months, the fish population increases dramatically, and catch volumes in the floodplains expand. When the floodplain waters recede, from September to December, fish migrate back to rivers or take refuge in permanent water bodies, and are caught in large numbers. Inland fishing then becomes restricted to rivers and permanent water bodies such as beels and ponds. Initially, beels are well stocked, but intensive harvesting leads to a depletion of fish resources, and a scarcity period of approximately four months (late March to early July) follows until the onset of the next monsoon season.

Since the early 1990s there have been several projects in Bangladesh that introduced community management of fisheries, in an attempt to tap into the under-used resource of fish in permanent and floodwaters. These were mostly based on carp stocks in closed beels and baors. Carp dominates freshwater aquaculture in Bangladesh. Indian major carp and silver carp account for more than 78 per cent of total pond production in the country. Other species include grass carp and common carp. However, the fingerlings needed to breed these carp species are transported from the south, several hundred miles away. Farmers are therefore reliant on a breeding stock that often arrives in a poor, stressed condition.

© Ken Ritchie / ITDG
© Ken Ritchie / ITDG

Responding to Agro-ecological Pressures

Greater pressure on these aquatic resources is being exerted from an ever-increasing human population and the related intensive farming practices, especially the greater dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilisers. On the migration journey to the floodplains and the return to safe sanctuaries, populations of fish now face many obstacles and hazards, which seriously disturb reproduction in open water and ponds. Chemical, agricultural runoff, sedimentation and other forms of pollution accumulate in areas such as rice paddy fields and cause direct harm to migrating fish, as well as damage to plants that are potentially food for the fish. The loss of habitat, through land development activities and the destruction of fish breeding grounds, as well as illegal fishing methods, such as electro-fishing and chemical poisoning, further threaten inland aquatic ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

Despite the constant depletion of the river, canal, and floodplain habitats in recent years, Bangladesh still holds the world’s most diverse and abundant inland fisheries. The availability of many species that were very popular locally has, however, decreased drastically, and some are no longer found in the country. There is growing recognition of this erosion of agricultural biodiversity and that agro-ecosystems are endangered by these losses. To help combat this destruction of both agro-ecological diversity and people’s livelihoods, the UK’s Department For International Development (DFID) established the Aquaculture and Fish Genetics Research Programme (AFGRP) in co-operation with the University of Stirling Institute of Aquaculture.

DFID Aquaculture and Fish Genetics Research Programme

The goal of AFGRP is to ‘improve the livelihoods of poor people through sustainably enhanced production and productivity of renewable natural resource systems.’ The purpose is to ‘improve knowledge of aquatic stocks to generate sustainable productive benefits of aquatic resources for poor people.’

DFID has long recognised the importance of aquaculture, particularly in its target regions, and identified the importance of well-focused research to remove constraints, reduce vulnerability and maximise potential. Focus has recently been on the ways in which a sector such as aquaculture, and its related bio-technical elements such as genetics, might best be supported and developed. While technical issues can be important, the delivery of benefit to poor households and communities requires a mix of approaches and understanding, to target research more appropriately to the needs of producers and consumers.

University of Stirling Institute of Aquaculture

The Institute is a department in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Stirling. It is the leading international centre in its field and brings together cross-disciplinary, world-class research to meet the wide range of challenges faced by aquaculture as it grows to meet global demand. Research focuses on fundamental questions relating to strategies for sustainable aquaculture, whether in modern commercial markets or in feeding poor communities in developing countries. Fundamental research on environments, reproduction, genetics, aquatic health, nutrition and feed supplies, on production systems, on markets, and on social and economic impacts all play significant roles.

Aquaculture in Rice Paddies

A main thrust of the combined work of AFGRP and the Institute of Aquaculture is to encourage a trade-off among Bangladeshi farmers between capture fisheries and fully-fledged aquaculture. Capture fisheries that depend upon the seasonal flood processes in Bangladesh are vulnerable to increased bio-degradation and the poaching of fish stocks. Conventional aquaculture, meanwhile, relies on transported fish and intensive methods. AFGRP and the Institute of Aquaculture are encouraging the cultivation of locally available breeds, such as tilapia.

‘Conventional aquaculture relies on hatchery-produced stock, which are transported long distances across Bangladesh and arrive very often stressed and in poor condition. The projects that we’ve been doing here in Bangladesh are looking at locally produced fingerlings, which arrive not stressed. They can be sold locally and produced locally and, most importantly, the poorest farmers can reproduce them in their own systems.’
Anton Immink, DFID AFGRP

Over the past 25 years, the Institute of Aquaculture has been working with several institutions in Bangladesh to help improve the livelihoods of those depending on fisheries. By improving local knowledge of aquaculture in an environmental, social and economic context, the aim is to help diversify the livelihoods of many Bangladeshi people in a sustainable way. Particularly, re-thinking rice production through integration with juvenile fish production benefits the environment and favours the less-well-off farmers. An approach has been adopted to redress the balance between high-yielding rice varieties (which require large amounts of inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers) and fish production. The aim is to use rice fields to produce juvenile fish that can be further matured in aquaculture ponds. Those who are unable to gain access to a pond of their own can rear juvenile fish through simple modifications to irrigated rice fields, which can be sold on to pond owners. Stocking and harvesting fish can double farmers’ incomes compared to producing rice alone.

© Ken Ritchie / ITDG
© Ken Ritchie / ITDG

There are two main options for farmers looking to combine rice production with the cultivation of the locally prevalent species of tilapia. They can either grow high-yielding rice followed by tilapia, or they can grow high-yielding rice followed by fish and deep water rice. They can expect to achieve a fish yield of 1.5 tonnes per hectare. According to research by the Institute of Aquaculture, there are no ill effects on yields of rice by also cultivating fish. The cost of rice production is actually reduced by about 10 per cent, mainly because land preparation and weeding are made easier, and because diseases and insect infestation are less of a problem. Equally, there is no detrimental effect on the fish stocks of cultivating them with rice.

Mohammad Altaf Hossain started with just 12 female and 6 male tilapia fingerlings in 1999. He now employs ten fishermen to produce enough fish to cope with demand from travelling fish traders. Mohammad also encourages other farmers to adopt the combined approach of rice and tilapia cultivation, and as an incentive he offers seed fish from his original stock at discount prices. Mohammad sells about 100 kg of fish a month and, having paid his fishermen, reels in a profit of 3300 BDT (Bangladesh Taka – US$55) a month.

‘Combining rice and fish together works really well. We used to have wild fish which came into our paddies, but people outside would just come in and take it. By doing the culture of tilapia in the rice field, we are getting higher fish production. We have a large amount of fish for household consumption and I am also selling it and get an income from this.’
Mohammad Altaf Hossain, Farmer

Originally, 90 farmers in the north-west region of Dinajpur took part in the fingerling trials. The approach was then promoted through farmer field schools, and now thousands of rice farmers also breed fish. Once introduced, the idea of producing fish juveniles spreads rapidly between farmers, which helps to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of promoting the approach. The Institute of Aquaculture has developed strong links with a range of universities, government and non-government organisations, including the Bangladesh Agricultural University, which has helped spread the benefits of sustainable rice and fish cultivation to poor farmers. The Institute has also worked with the Bangladesh office of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), which has been assisting in the training and educating farmers and land owners on topics such as simple technologies for maintaining water levels during fish production.

Working the Benefits

Provided farmers can apply the extra time to maintain water levels and harvest the crop of fish when required, the approach of combined cultivation can have many benefits. Maintaining rice fields as environments friendly to local species of fish not only enhances biodiversity, it also makes financial sense. Less money is spent on pesticides and, with wild fish increasing in value, farmers have a number of outlets to choose from, which may be selected according to financial gain.

Further Information

Participating Organisations

Bangladesh Agricultural University

DFID Aquaculture and Fish Genetics Research Programme

Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling

ITDG Bangladesh

World Fish Center

Donor and Supporting Organisations

Department for International Development (DFID)


World Bank


FAO Fisheries Information Centre

ITDG Technical Briefs

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