Hilsa is the most sought-after fish in Bangladesh. Every year during the rainy season, a feast here seems incomplete without it. But soon Bangladeshis might well have to spend monsoon days forgetting this delicious item since the population of hilsa — the country’s national fish — is fast decreasing in its river system and coastal areas. The ongoing hilsa season has been seeing a poor netting of the fish for around two months. More than 1,000 fishing trawlers in different coastal districts are now engaged in catching hilsa in the sea and different rivers after a 65-day ban on hilsa catching that ended on April 30. But the catches are much less than expectation. May to October is generally considered the hilsa catching season in Bangladesh. Usually, fishermen catch abundant hilsa after the yearly 65-day ban on netting hilsa is lifted. The peak season of hilsa catching is now going on. But most of the trawlers that sailed to the hilsa catching points are either returning empty or with poor catches. The dwindling production of hilsa has affected the fish markets in Dhaka and other districts. A one-kilogramme hilsa is now selling at Tk 2,500 or more in the capital’s fish markets. But the worst sufferers of this situation are the hilsa fishermen and their families.
Hilsa is by far the most important fish in Bangladesh, as a key source of both nutrition and livelihood for millions. The government has invested heavily in its conservation in an attempt to boost production. Fishermen here cannot net hilsa twice a year — once in March-April and then in October — so that mother hilsa and jatka (hilsa less than 10 inches long) can be protected. However, fishermen continue to report declining catches these days. The hilsa banning projects taken by Bangladesh cannot guarantee a complete success if neighbouring countries including India and Myanmar do not join the exercise of banning hilsa catching for a certain period of time. It is often reported that Indian and Myanmar fishermen net hilsa when a ban is observed by their Bangladesh counterparts. A complete ban on hilsa fishing in and around 10-kilometre radius of the breeding ground at least during October-November should be enforced. During this period, designated hilsa fishermen need to be given adequate compensation by the governments. According to fishermen, an average amount of hilsa is being caught in the deep sea. On the other hand, fishermen are not getting enough hilsa in rivers. This might make us think that hilsa are migrating from rivers to deep sea areas due to river pollution and siltation. A recent study has identified several factors contributing to the depletion of the hilsa fishery, including increased salinity in coastal rivers, low water flow in the country’s major rivers, the construction of dams upstream and downstream of fishing areas, increased river siltation and river pollution from human settlements, industries and agriculture.
Over half a million fishermen in 16 of Bangladesh’s coastal districts are involved in fishing hilsa. Saving hilsa means saving these people and their families. The government should stand by this large number of people with well-researched initiatives. They should be provided with alternative income-generating activities based on their needs. And an investment should be made on hilsa research so that this popular fish does not become extinct from our rivers.