More and more youths are entering the maritime sector which points to the increasing shipping power of Bangladesh and the potentials the country could tap to exploit its vast territorial waters.
Take Mohammad Nurul Karim – a seasoned shipping captain who graduated from the Bangladesh Marine Academy in 1991. In his 32-year career, Karim has served 13 local and foreign shipping companies while his batchmates and juniors are also sailing across the globe for Bangladeshi and foreign companies.
Local seamen say their job market expanded over the years as the number of oceangoing Bangladeshi vessels is on a gradual rise.
Besides, local public and private maritime institutions have been producing more and more sailors to crew the voyages.
The public and private marine academies, institutes and fisheries academies have so far produced some 17,500 cadets and skilled seafarers, also known as ratings. Of them, 12,000 marine officers and crews are now working at local and foreign vessels and sealines, while around 8,600 seamen are operating foreign-owned vessels.
They fetch the country $520 million per year. Seamen who graduate from the marine academies are called cadets, while marine institute passed-out are known as sailors or ratings.
According to the Bangladesh Merchant Marine Officers' Association (BMMOA), some 7,000 locally graduated cadets are directly engaged in the shipping sector. Of them, 1,500 seamen work for Bangladeshi vessels while the remaining 5,500 are employed by foreign shipping lines.
Of the total 5,000 locally graduated ratings, 3,000 are directly involved in shipping, according to the association. Of them, 1,500 seafarers are employed by Bangladeshi vessels while the remaining 1,500 work for foreign employers.
The association says a captain earns $10,000-$15,000 per month depending on the size of the vessel they command.
Of the 1,914 marine fisheries cadets passed out so far, 85% work at foreign merchant ships as the remaining 15% seamen lead the fishing fleet in the Bay and oversee fish plants on the shore.
"Cadets who have passed from the Bangladesh Marine Academy are sailing across the globe. Many of our cadets are working at the top level in international shipping lines. They are contributing to the country's economy by earning foreign currencies," naval engineer Sajid Hussain, commandant of the Bangladesh Marine Academy, told The Business Standard.
Local shippers added 32 vessels to fleet during the pandemic
Thirty-three ships joined Bangladesh's ocean-going shipping sector fleet in the 2020-2022 period, raising the total flag vessels to 81 until March this year.
With the new ships, the entrepreneurs sent a positive message to the country's maritime sector while the overall economy had been reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic caused slowdown. Until 2019, Bangladesh had 48 flag carriers.
According to the Mercantile Marine Office, the fleet includes 23 vessels of KSRM, 16 of Meghna Group, 10 of Akij Group, eight of the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation, six of Karnaphuli Group, four of Bashundhara Group and one of Orion Group.
KSRM, the industrial conglomerate that owns the highest number of flag vessels, has 1,200 Bangladeshi sailors.
"We would have to hire foreign seafarers if there were no locally graduated seamen," KSRM Deputy Managing Director (DMD) Sarwar Jahan told TBS.
Another conglomerate Meghna Group employs 700 marine officers and crew members. Of them, 80% are local. "We had to hire foreigners during the pandemic crisis. But now we look to employ local sailors for all the posts," Meghna Group Chief Engineer Abu Taher told TBS.
Meanwhile, KSRM DMD Sarwar Jahan came up with a slew of recommendations to boost Bangladeshi shipping power. The recommendations include lowering interest for shipping loans, slashing tax on ship purchase and relaxing terms on selling the vessels.
Currently, there are eight public and seven private marine academies and institutes in the country.
Captain QN Zaman, principal of Ocean Maritime Academy, said the students who have graduated from private institutions also helped spread Bangladesh's reputation in international shipping business.
However, the authorities concerned emphasised maintaining the standards set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) instead of producing more cadets and ratings.
"Failure to comply with IMO standards often causes problems," ATKM Kamal, executive director of shipping company Conveyor Group, told TBS.
Kamal, a former captain, said if ships can be operated according to IMO standards, it will be possible to operate flag vessels in European and American ports.
Time to sail for unexplored deep-sea
Bangladesh has around 1.18 lakh square kilometres of economic area in the Bay, almost equal to the land, while most of the territorial waters are unexplored.
The country fishes in three zones spanning 15,700 square kilometres. The annual catch amounts to six lakh tonnes, including 3,000-4,000 tonnes of shrimp entirely exported to Japan. Rest of the fish go to local markets.
RV Meen Sandhani, a research vessel brought from Malaysia to survey marine resources in the Bay of Bengal, has charted the stock of 25 fish species. But it has not been possible to determine the stock of 476 species of fish and 39 species of shrimp in the Bay.
Marine Fisheries Association sources said a vast swath in the deep-sea still remains unexplored thanks to a lack of modern shipping vessels. The gap in data also hints at investment opportunities as the country is yet to survey the fish stock in the deep-sea.
There are 263 registered deep sea fishing trawlers, 67,000 boats and 180 vessels that fish in the Bay from 1 August to 20 May.
Each of the fishing trawlers needs two certified captains and two engineers. But the trawlers are often crewed by technicians due to a lack of enough certified engineers.
With a total 44 crew members each, 7,920 marine officers and staff work at the 180 vessels.
Sector people said marine fisheries cadets and crews usually switch to merchant vessels after serving one to two years on the fishing vessels – causing the sector to suffer from a manpower crisis and subsequently compelling the fishing vessels to recruit unskilled workers.
A man's world
The Marine Academy started admitting women in 2012, and 81 female sailors have passed out of the academy till date.
A number of the female maritime graduates said the job opportunities are not equal, and 50% of the female sailors had to switch to other professions mainly due to discriminations.
Beauty Akther, who passed out of the academy in 2013, said she worked for only two years including one-year "free-time" since her graduation.
The free-time is a kind of internship, and the company usually pays pocket money to the male sailors.
"After completing the course, I went to different companies seeking a free-time. Some of them even would not allow me in the office," Beauty said.
She later did her free-time at a Bangladesh Shipping Corporation vessel. "Chasing after jobs and a constant battle to prove myself are the major challenges. The obstacles sometimes make me feel like I have done something wrong by choosing this profession," she added.
Captain Md Anam Chowdhury, president of the Bangladesh Merchant Marine Officers' Association, said, "The government's women empowerment initiative has collapsed in this sector. Many shipping companies still cannot even think of employing a female sailor."
The Business Standard approached a number of shipping companies for comment on this topic. But none agreed to talk.
According to the Bangladesh Ocean Going Ship Owners' Association, most of the private ships are reconditioned and the ships are designed for men.
The association said this could be a factor for not recruiting the female sailors. Besides, if the captain and crew members of a ship do not want a female colleague, it turns out to be an issue deterring the companies from hiring female sailors.