It was a sizzling Monday afternoon in port city Chattogram. Fishing trawler JK-3 still smelled tangy and of fish as the vessel had anchored at the estuary of River Karnaphuli just after a voyage.
Two sampans rowed towards the trawler and touched its belly softly. The load, including fishes and 50 sharks, was manhandled to the boats. A truck with no number plate carried the sharks from the riverbank to the old Fisheryghat market around 6.30pm.
In the next fifteen minutes, fins and tails of the sharks were cut off and were transferred to refrigerators at several warehouses of the market.
The Patharghata police outpost of Kotwali police station is just 20 yards from the unloading spot and yet the illegal trade goes on.
Shark hunting in the Bay continues unabated although netting of nine genera and 52 species of marine fishes including whales, dolphins, sharks and stingrays is prohibited in Bangladesh. Traders buy and sell fresh and dried sharks openly. Fins, gill plates, cartilages, livers and liver oil of shark and rays are smuggled from Chattogram to various countries of South-East Asia via Myanmar.
According to the international research organisation TRAFFIC, Bangladesh is now ranked 20th in the world in shark exports. Researchers warn that the number of sharks in the Bay of Bengal is declining alarmingly due to unrestrained hunting.
A total of 46 species of sharks and 58 species of rays belonging to 22 families have been recorded in the Bay of Bengal so far. Some 36% of the two fishes are at a serious risk of extinction.
Alifa Bintha Haque, Dhaka university zoology teacher and an Oxford University researcher, said around 70,000 vessels are fishing in the Bay on an average every day. If each boat catches a single shark, the daily hunt hovers around 70,000.
"A few years ago, there were six to seven trawlers in Cox's Bazar that used to catch sharks with fishing tackle. But now that number has leapt," she told The Business Standard.
According to the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, the Forest Department is responsible for protecting marine fishes, including whales, dolphins, sharks and stingrays.
Chief Conservator of Forests Mollah Rezaul Karim said shark hunting has been going on in Bangladesh for a long time by an organised group. They allegedly traffic the fishes and other items to various East Asian countries.
He told The Business Standard that an awareness campaign among fishermen, traders and consumers could save the sharks and stingrays from extinction.
Overfishing leads to the existential risk
Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur, senior manager of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said several marine species such as sharks and rays play a major role in protecting the ecosystem of the Bay. But overfishing threatens the number of these species as the fishes fetch fishermen more money than the regular catches.
She said sharks are late maturing animals, meaning they will not become sexually mature until later in their lives. So, its population grows slowly. Whale sharks do not reach sexual maturity till the grand old age of 30 – making them more vulnerable to population decline. Besides, low birth rate and slow growth also add to the decline risks.
Researchers say the Bay of Bengal is surrounded by seven developing countries apart from Bangladesh. All these countries have been deploying unprecedented surveillance for decades due to their dependence on marine resources.
Bikram Jit Roy, former assistant director of Chattogram district fisheries office, said large sharks have become almost extinct in Bangladesh territory thanks to higher rates for those on the international market.
In his research paper titled "Shark Fisheries in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh: Status and Potentialities", Bikram Jit Roy mentions once 150-200 commercial vessels used to catch sharks by net and fishing tackle in Chattogram, Cox's Bazar, Patuakhali and Barguna districts. Shark meat, leather and fins were exported to Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and China.
He said 3,933 tonnes of sharks were caught in Bangladesh in the fiscal 2008-09. But there has been no survey on shark hunting in the country since then.
Badiul Alam, a fisherman on seagoing MV Shah Amanat Fishing Trawler, said there was a time when fishermen could catch at least 1,000 sharks and rays in five to six days, but now they cannot find a single shark in the sea even in a week.
Conservation on paper only
The two most important laws for wildlife and fish conservation and protection in Bangladesh are the Protection and Conservation of Fish Act and the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act.
Due to the increase in the tendency of shark and waterfowl fishing in the presence of that law, the schedule of the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act 2012 was amended on 22 September 2021 to include 52 endangered species of shark and ray fish.
The Protection and Conservation of Fish Act did not provide any protection to sharks and stingrays. In 2012, the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act provided 23 marine fishes with some sort of protection. The Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act was later amended in 2021 to include 52 endangered species of sharks and rays.
According to the law, netting and sale of the fishes are subject to one year of prison sentence or Tk50,000 fine or both. If a person commits the crime a second time, the punishment will be doubled. Even those who aid or abet the crime will be punished too.
But the law is just on paper as the Forest Department, which is in charge of protecting the fishes, has no visible measures in this regard.
Fishermen, traders and traffickers are cashing in on the inaction, turning the 710km of the Bangladesh coastline as a shark hunting hotbed. The sharks and rays come to different fish warehouses in Cox's Bazar and Chattogram by sea.
"Although the amended law stipulates protection to sharks and rays, the situation has not improved due to lack of implementation," Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur told TBS.
Banned, yet being sold openly
About 70,000 vessels regularly fish in the Bay of Bengal. Even a few years ago, fishermen would only catch sharks or rays if they came up when the net was pulled.
Times have changed. Due to the increasing prices, many fishermen are now rushing to hunt only sharks and rays.
Prafulla Jaldash, a fisherman at the new Fisheryghat, told TBS that they would release sharks and dolphins if those are caught while fishing. But many trawlers now carry large iron hooks meant for catching sharks.
About 40 ships and 10,000 trawlers bring sharks and stingrays with other fish in Chattogram every day, The Business Standard investigation finds. Those banned fishes end up in some 30 fish warehouses on both sides of the Karnaphuli. The wholesale shops offer sharks weighing a maximum 10 tonnes for sales.
Visiting the Karnaphuli warehouses on 11 April, traders from different parts of the country were found buying sharks openly. Those fishes cost Tk200 to Tk1,000 per kg depending on their size.
"We have contacts with fishermen. Whenever sharks are caught, they bring them to us. We send the fish to different parts of the country from this market," Subrata, a shark seller, told TBS.
"We have been trading sharks here for years. Neither the police nor any other agency has ever raided this market," Subrata told TBS while showing his refrigerated stock.
According to Chattogram Conservator of Forests Rafiqul Islam, there were only three raids in the past seven months.
However, Chief Conservator of Forests Mollah Rezaul Karim told TBS that all the local officials had been instructed to conduct the raids flanked by policemen regularly. He said he would ask the field-level officials if the raids are not being conducted regularly.
International black market features Bangladeshi shark fins
According to a survey by the international research institute TRAFFIC, 3.33 lakh tonnes of sharks and rays are caught every year in 20 countries. Some 17% of the fishes are on the "endangered list". As a shark "exporter", Bangladesh ranked 20th in the survey.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List also supports the country's ranking.
Abdur Rauf, deputy director of the Marine Fisheries Wing of the Department of Fisheries, said they are aware of illegal shark hunting and smuggling.
According to traders, no parts of shark and stingray are discarded during processing. Shark oil, liver oil, bones, jaws, teeth and intestines are sold in the domestic market. Fresh and dried shark, skin, vertebrae, jaws, teeth, fins, intestines, liver and liver oil, and ray plates are smuggled to the international black market.
Visiting fish warehouses in Chattogram's old Fisheryghat market, sharks in refrigerators were found not having the fin and tail. Traders said they had chopped off the high-value parts and sent those to foreign markets.
Sudhanshu Das, owner of Japanese & Brothers, said he has been selling sharks and stingrays for 50 years. No one has ever told him that those are banned.
"I know Muslims do not eat those due to religious reasons. Therefore, dried sharks are sent to ethnic people in the hills, while fins and tails go to foreign markets," he added.
Sagorika Smriti, a research associate of Patuakhali's World Fish Bangladesh, told TBS that sharks and stingrays caught in the district go to Chattogram to be smuggled to Myanmar. She claimed a part of the local administration, politicians and unscrupulous businessmen are involved in the racket.
The Business Standard has obtained photos and video clips of the items stocked at Chattogram's Bastuhara area to be smuggled to Myanmar.
Meanwhile, a local dried fish vendor claimed those who are selling or drying sharks locally are not involved in the smuggling. "There are many big fishes who collect sharks directly or through brokers. They smuggled from Chattogram to Myanmar via Cox's Bazar Teknaf."
A research titled "Observations of Shark and Ray Products in the Processing Centres of Bangladesh, Trade in Cites Species and Conservation Need" also supports the claim. The research mentions an international online-based black market featuring sharks and rays netted from the Bay. However, the findings conclude that Bangladeshi fishermen are not directly involved with the online business.
Oxford University researcher Alifa Bintha Haque said, "The fishermen told us sharks get caught in their net incidentally. But when those sharks arrive at the dock, they appear to be valuable."
According to the researcher, if the poor fishermen are fined for the unintentional catch, they would dump the fishes into the sea next time.
"It would be very unusual for a man who has been fishing for 40 years to be fined suddenly," Alifa commented, adding probation alone is not enough to deter shark trading while the international market offers a lucrative price.
"Fishermen need to be trained on shark species that can be netted. It is necessary not to become too obsessed with the enforcement of the law, rather to chart out other ways to protect sharks and rays in the Bay," she noted, reminding the same policy for tiger conservation in the forests might not work out to save sharks in the Bay.