Dried fish businesses in Lalpur village of Brahmanbaria's Ashuganj upazila have been experiencing a financial crisis as most of their produce remains unsold this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The merchants are not being able to buy fresh fish as per demand, so production of dried fish in the village in the current season has been significantly curtailed.
Traders from Lalpur village said some of the dried fish they had stocked last year have already perished, leading to a loss of around Tk12 crore.
Dried fish from Lalpur is well-known all over the country. In addition to supplying dried fish to the local market, these merchants export their products to India and some Middle Eastern countries.
People involved in the business said they market dried fish worth around Tk150 crore every year, yielding around 10% net profit.
Sources said several hundred families in the Lalpur village have been engaged in producing dried fish for a hundred years. Fish are dried on platforms on the east bank of the Meghna river in the village.
Some of the villagers buy fish, supplying them to dried fish merchants, while others process the fish to properly dry it.
Mainly local fish species are turned into dried fish here. Common examples are puti (olive barb), shole (snakehead murrel), taki (spotted snakehead), and tengra (batasio).
Aside from local varieties, saltwater fishes are also dried in Lalpur village.
Currently, the price of dried shole fish is Tk700-1,600 per kg, while taki fish is Tk300-350 per kg, eel is Tk700-1,600 per kg, and tengra is Tk400-700 per kg. Prices vary according to size.
Locals spoke about the existence of more than 350 traders who own small, medium and big dried fish enterprises in Lalpur village.
Small and medium traders in the village borrow money at high interest rates from NGOs, while the larger ones borrow from banks to grow their businesses.
Due to a sluggish trend in business caused by the pandemic, most of these traders have been unable to repay their loans.
Dried fish sellers said October to March is considered to be the peak season for their trade.
During this period, fishermen catch plenty of fish, so the entire village goes into a frenzy of collecting and drying fish.
Merchants stock up some of the dried fish produced during this season to sell them during the rest of the year.
However, since dried fish cannot be preserved for than three months, most of the stocked fish have perished this year.
Sukamal Das, a local merchant, said he did not make much profit even when times were good. He was a small trader who, unable to access loans from banks, had no recourse but to borrow money from NGOs.
He said, "There are dried fish worth around Tk10-12 lakh in my stock, for which I will suffer a loss of Tk3-4 lakh. To sustain our business, we need easy loans from banks."
Sumon Das, who has been involved in this business for 14 years, said, "I will not be able to sell last year's dried fish even at half their actual prices due to the coronavirus crisis. This will cause me a loss of Tk10-12 lakh."
"To make things worse, we cannot buy fresh fish to produce more dried fish this year as I have no money," he added.
Echoing Sumon, dried fish trader Nikhil Das said he will not be able to buy fresh fish this year due to a shortage of capital.
"I, along with many other traders like me, can overcome this crisis only if we get loans from banks," said Nikhil.
Iqbal Hossain Bhuiyan, manager of Brahmanbaria Head Branch of Sonali Bank Limited, said there is a provision to provide loans at 4% interest for traders affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"If the affected traders contact us, we can promptly lend them money against the required collateral," said Bhuiyan, who is also the president of Brahmanbaria Bankers Forum.