It’s long been known that many people depend on the world’s single largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, for their livelihoods, as the forest naturally provides resources including fish, crabs, honey and timber. In order to maintain a balance between resource extraction and forest health, the Bangladesh Forest Department has been issuing fee-based permits to harvest resources from specific areas of the Sundarbans, except during the period of June, July and August, the annual wildlife breeding season.

Still, some fishers have been using poison to catch fish year-round, even during the banned period, which damages forest ecology and the health of those who eat the fish caught with poison.

Considering these damages to the world’s single largest mangrove forest and human health, the Bangladesh High Court issued a verdict responding to a writ petition to stop the heinous practice in September 2021.

However, the practice is still ongoing, as Forest Department officials have failed to stop it.

Abdul Alim, a resident of the Sundarbans’ southwestern periphery in Khulna district, explained the poison fishing process: “They use engine-led boats to enter Sundarbans. They use poison; it is a kind of syrup. If anyone spills some drop in the water body, within a few minutes, fishes, crabs and other aquatic species crawl on the shore to save their life.”

In this way, fishers can catch a good amount of fish in the shortest possible time, he said, adding that those involved in using poison for fishing usually use engine-led boats so they can move quickly to escape, without anyone catching them.

The Sundarbans spread across the Bay of Bengal, in both Bangladesh and India. According to the Bangladesh Forest Department, the 6,017 square kilometers (2,323 square miles) of Sundarbans situated in Bangladesh shelters about 210 species of white fish, 24 species of shrimp, 14 species of crabs, 43 species of mollusks and one species of lobster.

“[Poison fishing] is a serious concern for the biodiversity of the forest. It adversely ruins the life of all kinds of species in the forest. The government took initiatives earlier to stop the practice under the Forest Act, but no one followed the rules. Strong syndicates are working in those areas who are powerful, and no one can stop them. This is very much unfortunate,” said Shafiqul Islam, Department of Marine Science and Fisheries, University of Chittagong.

Mihir Kumar, forest conservator of Khulna Circle, in the Bangladesh Forest Department, does not deny this. “We don’t deny it’s not happening, but our effort should also count,” he said. “In March this year, we arrested three people while catching fish by poison. We filed a case under the Forest Act. Our efforts to stop the heinous practice are going on.”

In most cases, the fish caught with poison are dried in remote areas inside the forest before they are taken to the local market as dried fish, as local fish traders usually refuse to buy those from fishers, said Abdul Alim.

Other live fish are sent to different urban areas where nobody knows the source of the fish, he added.

The fish caught using poison are also sold in the markets, posing serious health concerns. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, consuming poisoned fish can create different abnormalities in human health, including gastrointestinal, neurological and cardiovascular, with primary symptoms including nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea and headache.

“This is very dangerous for health,” Shafiqul said. If you don’t know a fish is caught by poison and eat those fish, it will slowly affect your organs. In the long run, many diseases will occur only by consuming this poisonous food; that is, shrimps, crabs and other fishes.”

Factors behind illegal fishing

According to a recent study, more than 1.7 million people from eight upazilas (subdistricts) comprising 76 villages are immediately adjacent to the Sundarbans boundary. As people’s proximity to the forest increases, their dependence on its natural resources increases substantially, and around 78% of households within 2 km (1.2 miles) of the forest boundary rely on the Sundarbans for their livelihood.

As agriculture is not profitable in this region due to increased soil salinity, climate variability and frequent river flow changes, the locals’ main livelihood comes from harvesting resources from the Sundarbans.

The dependent community typically changes its reliance on the forest with the seasons because all resource collection from the Sundarbans is seasonal. Nevertheless, fishing has emerged as one of the prime sources of livelihood for the local forest-dwelling population, and unemployment has forced them to violate rules and regulations, according to the study.

This article was first published on Mongabay.