- Bangladesh third in inland water fish production, fifth in fish farming
- Despite the shining rankings, the country fails to be on top 10 fish exporters' list
- Bangladesh exported Tk4,309 crore fisheries in 2017-18, with shrimp ruling the volume
- In 2017-18, Bangladesh produced 4.53 lakh tonnes of pangasius and 3.81 lakh tonnes of tilapia
- Change in fish feeds and a fish farming guideline could take fish export to a new level
Though Bangladesh ranked third in producing fish from inland waterbodies and fifth in fish farming, the country is not on the list of the top 10 largest fish exporters.
Aquaculture experts said if fish farmers are just provided with a national guideline, fish farming could be the second largest export sector after textile.
The country in 2018 produced 1.22 million tonnes of fish, according to "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture-2020" report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The FAO published the report on June 8. It publishes the fish production ranking report in every two years.
The report said Bangladesh has been steady in fish farming since 2017. The following year, the country harvested more than 24 lakh tonnes of fish in this sector.
According to the report, Vietnam – fourth in fish farming and 18th in fish production – is also responsible for five percent of total fish exports globally.
On the other hand, India's export amounts to 4 percent of the total global figure while the country is second in both fish farming and production.
Moreover, there are other countries -- ranked below Bangladesh in both inland production and farming – that are performing better in aquaculture export.
Though Bangladesh lags behind fish export, production has been on a gradual rise in the last five years. Production in 2014-15 fiscal year was 36.86 lakh tonnes, which climbed to 43.81 lakh tones in 2018-19.
Professor Dr Md Mahfuzul Haque of Bangladesh Agricultural University's aquaculture department said there is a handsome demand for pangasius and tilapia in the international market.
In 2017-18 fiscal year, Bangladesh produced more than 4.53 lakh tonnes of pangasius worth Tk5,500 crore and 3.81 lakh tonnes of tilapia worth Tk6,000 crore.
In 2019, Vietnam exported 2.5 lakh tonnes of pangasius worth $1 billion. Bangladesh often compared its aquaculture production with Vietnam as the two countries have similar climate and weather.
Professor Mahfuzul said quality is shaping the whopping aquaculture export differences between Vietnam and Bangladesh.
"They [Vietnam] maintain quality as they aim export, but we do not. In 2018, China exported tilapias worth $448 million while our export performance remains poor even after being the fourth largest tilapia producer," he noted.
The professor said, "If we can export shrimp maintaining the export requirements and qualities, we will be able to maintain those for other fish varieties too."
"We have fish farmers and farming facilities. All we need is a national guideline for fish farming. If the government drafts it and implements properly, fish could be the second largest export item after ready-made garments," the academic observed.
In the meantime, Mymensingh-based Virgo Fish and Agro Process Limited official Syed Saiduzzaman said they had set up the unit targeting export.
He said aquaculture entrepreneurs like him were struggling with quality.
"We have to maintain the highest focus while collecting fish," he said.
The company exported fish worth Tk60 crore to the European market in the last two years.
Another aquaculture unit in the same area, Seven Ocean Fish Processing Limited, said the colour of pangasius has emerged as an issue for export.
Selim Ullah, assistant general manager of Seven Ocean, said Bangladeshi pangasius is yellowish or slightly reddish while Vietnam is sending white pangasius.
"Customers prefer the white one. Therefore, though the country produces plenty of pangasius, we fail to perform better in pangasius export," he said.
According to fisheries department data, aquaculture contributes to 3.50 percent of the gross domestic product while agriculture contributes 25.71 percent.
Bangladesh in 2017-18 fiscal year earned Tk4,309 crore by exporting 68,935 tonnes of fish and fish products. Shrimp contributes to the lion's portion of that amount.
While other countries are banking on tilapia and pangasius export, the fisheries department says customers are losing interest in those even in the local market as local pangasius looks and smells weird.
A research titled "Upgrading Pangasius and Tilapia Value Chains in Bangladesh" investigated why the two fish varieties were losing market despite growing production.
The four-year research from 2015 to 2019 with Danish funding found that fish feed and water management were responsible for low-quality production, resulting in the fish varieties losing market gradually.
"Maize-based fish feeds make the fish yellowish. The problem can be resolved if soybean-based feeds are used," said Copenhagen University Associate Professor Dr Niels OG Jorgensen.
"Besides, smaller farms have less oxygen and more ammonia in water due to poor water management. To produce quality fish, you have to make qualitative changes to traditional farming," added the researcher.
Mymensingh Swarnali Fish Farm owner Abdul Hye said they blindly rely on the feed supplier as they feed whatever ingredients the feed manufacturers use.
Professor Max Nielsen of Copenhagen University, who was part of the research team, said Bangladesh still has export opportunities, and tilapia and pangasius exports depend on willingness of the government and farmers.
"Importers now want to know the details of farming to ensure quality. Some international organisations also play a role in setting the standards," said the researcher.
Principal Scientific Officer of the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute Dr Mohammad Khalilur Rahman said many farmers raise more fish in a smaller pond and give additional feeds.
"The rotten feeds then grow a type of plankton which is responsible for the bad smell from fish."
Professor Dr Md Akhtaruzzaman Khan of Bangladesh Agricultural University's agricultural finance department said producing quality fish will be easier if the government introduces zoning system for fish varieties.
Director General of Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute Dr Yahia Mahmud said they provided farmers with training and the fisheries department was working at the grassroots level in this regard.
He said Bangladesh's annual demand for fish is 41 lakh tonnes.
"Nearly two lakh tonnes of fish remain in surplus after the country meets local demand," he added.