Increasing attacks cost lives and livelihoods, and cripple the fishing industry.
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury for Khabar South Asia in Dhaka
After she heard the terrible news of her son’s murder at the hands of¬†pirates¬†on March 25th, Ayesha Khatun, the mother of fisherman Enamul Haq, 24, could not forgive herself for sending him to sea.
“He did not want to go, but I insisted. How could I have done this? I have lost everything now,” Khatun, of Shekherkil union in southeastern Bangladesh, told Khabar South Asia.
Some 15 years earlier, her husband Rashedul Haq was also killed by pirates while fishing in the Bay of Bengal.
But she took¬†the risk¬†of sending her oldest son because of the pressure of supporting her family of four, including Enamul’s two younger siblings, on her daily income of Tk 50 (US$ 0.65).
Enamul left March 25th with a three-boat fleet carrying 33 fishermen. Pirates attacked the same night, nearly 25km into the Kutubdia channel. Three survivors managed to jump into the sea and swim to shore.
The bodies of 21 fishermen have been recovered; Enamul and eight others are still missing.
Kamal Uddin is one of the three who escaped. “I will switch my profession. To date, the sea was the only source of earnings for us. But I would prefer life over this income now,” he told Khabar.
A growing menace
Though it has existed along Bangladesh’s coastal rivers and bay since the nation’s inception in 1971, piracy has risen alarmingly over the past few years, according to the District Fishing Trawler Owners Association (DFTOA), which is pressing for a swift government response.
Between January 2011 and November 2012, pirates attacked more than 1,000 fishing boats, abducted over 3,000 fishermen, killed 45 and collected more than Tk 100m ($1.28m) in ransoms from fishery owners in the two coastal towns Chakaria and Maheshkhali alone, according to the DFTOA.
The rising menace has made many fishermen and trawler owners reluctant to tread the waters near the coast, the association’s president Mujibur Rahman told Khabar.
The crisis is affecting the economy, he added, as coastal fishermen contribute 25-35% of the nation’s total catch. Already, there has been a significant decline during fiscal year 2012-2013.
“During this time last year, fishermen had caught 108,000 metric tonnes of¬†hilsha¬†(Bangladesh’s national fish),” Rahman said. “But this year, the number is dwindling at around 38,948 tons.”
Local officials say pirates have infested a nearly 100km area from Saint Martin to Kutubdia, establishing their presence on the¬†Bay of Bengal¬†and nearby rivers.
Bashkhali fishery owner Rafiq Majhi told Khabar most fisheries and trawler owners “have to pay protection money to pirates. But it gets rather tedious as there are so many different gangs lurking at the bay, and they all want a share.”
Coast Guard response
Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Abdullah Yusuf told Khabar the Bangladesh Coast Guard (BCG)developed a plan¬†to address the problem in conjunction with the Bangladesh Navy.
“Our DG visited Kutubdia and Bashkhali, where he discussed the crisis with victims, local administration, law enforcement officials and other stakeholders on April 9th,” he said, referring to the BCG Director General Rear Admiral Kazi Sarwar Hossain.
“We are hopeful that a visible action against the pirates will go a long way to mitigate the problem.”
Commodore Shafiqur Rahman (Ret.), Founding Director General of BCG, said the 1,000-strong force needs better equipment and more than its current fleet of 11 vessels.
“Eight of these vessels are 30 years old and so are not seaworthy during the monsoon season (March-August) at the bay,” he told Khabar. “Two-way communication devices like walkie-talkies etc. [used] between administration, fishing boats, police and BCG, can be effective in battling piracy.”
Increased co-ordination among law enforcement officials, BCG and local administration is also needed, he said.