Haor water bodies in Sylhet once used to be reservoirs of local varieties of fish but due to various natural and man-made disasters, they are now rare and many of them are on the verge of extinction.
Even the fish markets of Sunamganj, also known as the capital of Haors, are now full of mostly farmed fish.
To save the local varieties, Sylhet Agricultural University (SAU) researchers have come to the rescue and built a sanctuary in Ratargul, a swamp forest in Sylhet.
The sanctuary was set up in 2018 at Ratargul in Goaighat Upazila to produce, conserve, and eventually distribute the deshi fish species. The project was undertaken by the Department of Water Resources Management of the Faculty of Fisheries of Sylhet Agricultural University.
It is being jointly led by Dr Mrityunjay Kundu, head of the Department of Fisheries at SAU, and Dr Faisal Ahmed, professor of the Department of Social Work at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST).
Professor Mrityunjay Kundu, lead researcher of the project, said, "Our open water bodies tend to dry up in the dry season and fishes lose their shelter. Many native fish species are also on the verge of extinction due to excessive fishing and irrigation of lakes and Haors during the breeding season."
He added that the project was undertaken to protect a rapidly dwindling number of fishes native to Bangladesh.
Visiting Ratargul recently, this correspondent found that unlike every year during the dry season, Ratargul has not become waterless this time. The water has been retained with a dam and the fish sanctuary has been built by surrounding the area with bamboos and nets.
Native fishes from various rivers across the country, including the Shurma and Kushiara Rivers, are brought to the sanctuary to breed.
Local Ratargul fishermen have also been engaged in the project to care for the fishes.
There are two different sanctuary management committees, formed to ensure proper maintenance of the sanctuaries. Some 50 fishermen are part of the Gurkachi sanctuary management committee, and the Ratargul sanctuary management committee consists of 30 fishermen.
According to the researchers, the proceeds from the sale of the fish will be distributed among local beneficiaries.
Apart from Ratargul, SAU researchers have set up another sanctuary for native fishes in the River Gurkochi of the same Upazila.
"About three acres of land has been allotted for this project. We have made arrangements to retain water in the area all year round. Steps have also been taken to ensure that native fish species can grow and breed without interruption in the sanctuary," said Professor Kundu.
"Many species of fish have bred in the sanctuary. They are released in the open water every monsoon. We hope this will increase fish production and prevent the fishes from going extinct," he added.
According to locals, within two years of building the sanctuary, many endangered species of fish not spotted for a long time, can now be seen in the surrounding water bodies.
Abdul Gaffar, a local fisherman, joyfully said, "Some fishes that we only saw as children are now making a comeback."
The SAU Administration, Forest Department, and Fisheries Department are cooperating in this project funded by the National Agricultural Technology Program- Phase II Project of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council.
SM Sajjad Hossain, Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer, said that the of the Sylhet Agricultural University researchers have been doing their work for the last three years in the allotted forest space of Ratargul.
"Their lease will expire this year," Hossain added.