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A Shift from Shrimp Farming to Crab Farming




Sea level rise and worsening storm surges are making life increasingly precarious in southern Bangladesh’s low-lying deltas, flooding homes and filling fields with salty water that keeps rice from growing.  Many former farmers have switched to raising tiger shrimp—now Bangladesh’s second biggest export after garments—in earthen ponds.  But even the shrimp are now dying in many areas, hit by viral infections, local people say.  Instead, as waters continue to rise, women in the region have hit on a new, tough and flood-friendly harvest—mud crabs.


In a village where most land lies ten feet or less above sea level, flanked by major rivers on either side, flooding is an ever-worsening worry for residents of Joymoni.  Subrat Chandra Gayen, 50, a resident of Joymoni, said nearly 80 percent of families have had to give up on rice farming, which once provided food and an income for most people in the area, including the women who sowed, harvested and threshed it.


The loss of income has driven some farmers—particularly men—to migrate and look for work in cities, while many families raising shrimp have fallen into debt after taking high-interest loans from shrimp traders that they are now unable to pay back, local people say.


Crabs, however, may help solve a big share of the problems, the village’s women say.  Khadija Begum, 43, now does a brisk business buying and releasing batches of baby mangrove mud crabs into a shallow pond she has rented for $48 a year from a local landowner now living in Dhaka, the capital.  The tiny crabs, their shells still soft, are caught in local creeks by fishermen.  She feeds them small amounts of waste fish once a day, she said, and within two weeks they are six times their original weight and have developed hard brown shells.


Begum catches them, ties their legs with jute string or straw and packs them carefully into large bamboo baskets, which she sends her husband to sell at the Buddhamari local market, two kilometers away.  From there they are transported to Dhaka and flown live to major importers in China, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong, she said.


Fish traders grade her harvest.  Crabs with broken claws are worth less, but those with clumps of bright orange-yellow eggs on their bellies—a delicacy in Southeast Asia—bring prices up to $26 a kilogram!


Begum and her husband’s earnings from crab sales now add up to between $780 and $840 a year, she said.  The money has helped them send their eldest son to college in Khulna—a source of huge pride.


Since 2011, Bangladesh’s fisheries department, working with non-profit organizations and targeting poor women, has been encouraging farmers with salt-damaged fields to take up crab farming.


Unlike shrimp farming, crabs can be raised in small ponds and demand less upfront investment, said Muhammod Zulfikar Ali, mayor of Mongla Port municipality.  Returns are also quick and, at the moment, higher than those for shrimp and with lower disease risk, he said.


Bangladesh’s crab export figures are indicative of the industry’s growing momentum.  According to the government’s Export Promotion Bureau, crab exports have climbed from $7 million in 2011 to more than $23 million in 2016.  Twenty percent of the country’s current harvest is coming from backyard pond farmers in the country’s coastal Satkhira, Bagerhat and Cox’s Bazar districts, according to government data.  To further boost the industry, the government fisheries department is now trying to establish crab hatcheries.  Currently, most young crabs are caught in the wild, and catches have been falling with growing demand.


Some experts, however, warn that crab farming may not be enough to sustain families in increasingly risk-prone southern Bangladesh.  “Although crabs farms can be a lifeline against climate impacts they will only aggravate this unsustainable high-salinity” situation, said Pavel Partha, a researcher with the Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK).


Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for the charity ActionAid, said local peoples’ ability to adapt to the changing conditions was limited.  While visiting Joymoni, he said, “The way the sea is rising this place is going to vanish in the next 20 years.”


Source: REUTERS (Thomson Reuters Foundation).  Feature–As Floods Rise in Bangladesh, Crab Farming Helps Families Tread Water.  Manipadma Jena, edited by Laurie Goering.  March 18, 2018.


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