State of fisheries in the Gangetic basin

Inland fisheries form an integral part of the vast gangetic basin. While addressing the issues of poverty, hunger and livelihood in this basin, the picture isn't complete without taking into account the dependence of the population on fishing in these plentiful waters of the basin, from India to Bangladesh. The workshop included a much needed perspective on the state of fisheries in the gangetic basin as well as the interventions which may help alleviate poverty and hunger in the regions which have a very heavy reliance on fishing these waters, particularly Bangladesh.


Situation in the basin today doesn't appear to be very different from what it was in the early 1900s, when India and Bangladesh existed undivided. I dug through some of the accounts on fisheries in the India of 20th century. In 1917 T. Southwell, then Deputy Director of Fisheries in Bengal, Behar and Orissa, in his account The Fisheries of Bengal and Behar and Orissa wrote:

"In 1808 the Government of India deputed Surgeon-Major Francis Day to investigate the effects of the anicuts or weirs on the fisheries in the Madras Presidency. The inquiry was subsequently generalized and extended to Orissa and Lower Bengal, and eventually over the whole of the Indian Empire. The monumental work of Dr. Day represents the first serious attempt made in India towards tlie improvement of the fisheries. The work continued until the death of Dr.Day, in the year 1889. So far as the Provinces of Bengal and Behar and Orissa are concerned, no further work was done on the fisheries until the year 1906.

The deterioration of the fresh-water fisheries has been very marked during recent years, and the factors which have conduced to bring about this result are numerous. Reference has been made to the bad effects which the various irrigation schemes have on the fisheries." 

Of particular importance here is his comment -

 "Throughout India agriculture has been developed at the expense of the inland fisheries without even a passing thought for their well-being, and in this country it is hardly possible for these two industries to develop side by side."

Such was the state of fisheries in Bengal (which comprised of present day Bangladesh and West Bengal of India), and many years later the same is echoed by the presentation made here by Md. Giasuddin Khan  and William J. Collis of The WorldFish Center, Bangladesh. They observe:

 Agriculture Policy contradicts with ‘fisheries’ policy and action plan, which tends to be a policy gap in development of fisheries in Bangladesh.

  • The floodplain area, in Bangladesh has reduced from 9.3 million ha to 2.8 million ha in 50 years.
  • Approximately 1% + of wetlands area is being lost every year.
  • Water resource development interventions’ (inside and outside the country) effect on fisheries habitats
    e.g. Farakka reduces Ganges dry season flow by ~67% 
    e.g. 12,000 km of embankment for Flood Control Drainage and Irrigation interventions for HYV Rice (a water hungry crop) caused thousands of river closures, loss of migration pathways
  • Salinity intrusion as a result of reduced dry season flows and rising sea level has resulted in increased opportunities in shrimp aquaculture and losses in capture fisheries at the same time.
  • Open Water leasing systems leads to unequal distribution of opportunities
  • Weak market systems  (price information, export facility) aggravate the crisis.


The most significant recommendations that they make are:

  • Scientists and development practitioners must consider ‘fisheries and aquaculture’ as a basic part of agriculture; it is ‘food’. Communities rely on several income options to survive – not one!
  • Unplanned human interventions supersede the climate change impact. Much of the crisis in Bangladesh is due to human interventions.
  • All water based rural development appraisals should consider fisheries as a element of analysis for maximization of water use.


In a more detailed  study M. Golam Mustafa and Susana Hervas Avila on Fisheries-Water Productivity: Constrains and opportunities in Eastern Ganges Basin, Bangladesh,  they assess the fisheries water productivity in the Eastern Ganges Basin and its spatio-temporal variation. Download the presentaiton here.

Both of these presenations contributed to the workshop overview of analysisng the food and water crisis in the IGB.  FAO (2005) ranked Bangladesh as sixth largest aquaculture producing country with its estimated production of 856 956 tonnes in 2003 (FAO, 2005). Aquaculture accounted for about 43.5 percent of the total fish production during 2003–4, with inland open water fisheries contributed 34.8 percent (DoF, 2005).

Reported aquaculture production in Bangladesh from 1950. (FAO Fishery Statistic)