As residents of Uttar Madarsa village in Hathazari upazila settle in for the evening, a group of 30 vigilantes gear up to keep an eye on the Halda River to stop the indiscriminate fishing of broodfish.
Two teams of 15 members each patrol a 40-kilometre stretch of the river — from Sattar Ghat to Moduna Ghat — from dusk till dawn.
These teams set off on their mission to save the fish on their own in January last year.
In 2010, the Department of Fisheries had imposed a ban on fishing in the 40-km river stretch that crosses through the Hathazari and Raozan upazilas, to help the natural spawning of fish.
But with little to no monitoring, some locals took advantage and fished in seclusion and at night when no one was around.
As a result, fish yield and variety were both negatively impacted.
The local fishermen joined hands early last year as no steps were taken by the Directorate of Environment, the Directorate of Fisheries and the Upazila Nirbahi Officer to protect the water body.
To expedite the initiative, Integrated Development Foundation (IDF), a nongovernment organisation, came forward to help in mid last year. It equipped the team with three speed boats, torch lights, rain coats and a monthly allowance of Tk 1,000 for each member.
IDF is currently implementing a value chain project on “Conservation of Natural Breeding Ground of Fish and Development Project in the Halda River” under another project of Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation and International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Mohammed Elias, chief of the Hathazari upazila vigilance team, said, “We first started this move to save our own fishing businesses. But the speed boats and other equipment from IDF have helped us do our work more efficiently.”
“My family has depended on this river for generations. When I was young, I saw my father catch at least 50 kilograms of fish spawn every year; I now catch four to five kg a year.”
Fishermen catch fish spawn twice a year and sell to hatcheries that sell to fish farms across Bangladesh.
“Throughout the years, we saw the indiscriminate fishing of broodfish, but as individuals, we could not do anything,” added Elias.
The Halda River is at the centre of their existence, Rousongir, chief of the Raozan upazila team, told The Daily Star. “We have tried for years to save the broodfish, but our efforts finally paid off when we were united in our efforts.”
Since formation of the teams, they have detained one person and seized 12,000 metres of fishing net, he said.
Through years of experience, local fishermen have identified 19 breading holes for the broodfish in the meandering river; the teams keep a close eye on these spots, he added.
“Our motive is to ensure the unfettered movement of broodfish so that they can lay eggs uninterrupted,” Rousongir explained.
In addition to supplying equipment and monthly allowances, IDF plays a bigger role in educating farmers along the river banks on following environmentally-friendly practices.
Mohd Shahidul Amin Chowdhury, a founder member of IDF, said, “We teach farmers how to cultivate their lands without the excessive use of pesticides, so that rainfall does not wash it into the river.”
Manzoorul Kibria, a professor of the Zoology Department at Chittagong University and a director of Halda River Research Institute, said fish yield will definitely see a marked improvement for these initiatives.
“Without involving the community, it is hard to reap the benefits of this initiative.”