Fishermen have never witnessed such scarcity of hilsa in the past as they are witnessing this year. Experts point to pollution, climate change and a host of other factors

28 July, 2023, 09:00 am

Last modified: 28 July, 2023, 09:05 am

Fewer numbers of hilsa are caught this season. Photo: Rajib Dhar


Fewer numbers of hilsa are caught this season. Photo: Rajib Dhar

Usually, in July, fishermen like Jamal Mahajan, Ali Asgar and Dulal Farazi, spend the busiest time catching hilsa, from an abundance of it in the sea, rivers and estuaries. And then they wholesale it at Tulatuli fish landing station in Bhola. 

But this year is different. 

“We used to send eight to 10 large baskets of hilsa to Dhaka from this ghat every day. This year, we could send a mere two to three baskets to Dhaka, after fishing for two to three days,” said fisherman Dulal. 

Fishermen at Chowkider Ghat under Daulatkhan Upazila shared similar frustration. “We have never witnessed such scarcity in previous years. The cost of operating a fishing boat has become higher than the return [income from selling caught fish],” lamented fisherman Abdul Hai. 

Photo: Rajib Dhar

Photo: Rajib Dhar

Photo: Rajib Dhar

Despite the government suggesting an increased production of the national fish following year-long conservation initiatives, fishermen – particularly around the Meghna estuary and the Sundarban areas – have been saying that they are catching fewer numbers of hilsa this season. 

In their lifecycle, the transboundary hilsa migrate from marine water to rivers in Bangladesh during the peak monsoon for spawning and breeding.    

Hilsa researchers speculate the availability of the fish has come down this season because of the weak monsoon with less rainfall. Moreover, the changed navigability of the rivers, water pollution and illegal netting of jatka (premature hilsa) might have also impacted the availability of the hilsa in the water.    

Mollah Samsur Rahman Shaheen, president of Khulna Kendria Matshyajibi Samiti (an association of fishermen in Khulna), expressed his concern over the scarcity of mature hilsa at the Dubla point (an island of the Bay of Bengal), which is considered the most suitable place around the Sundarbans for catching hilsa.

“In recent years, the water seems more polluted. The water flow has also changed from its traditional direction. I guess the reasons behind the scarcity are multifaceted,” Mollah told The Business Standard. 

The fisheries department has not yet figured out the total yield of hilsa this year, as the season is still underway. But the Department of Fisheries (DoF) officials continue to claim that the net yield of the hilsa has not decreased; rather it remains mostly static, with a small increase for the last couple of years. 

“We are not seeing any decline in the yield of hilsa,” said Masud Ara Momi, a fisheries officer at DoF Headquarters designed to oversee hilsa management. She cited some statistics which have already been made public. 

In fiscal 2021-22, at least 5.66 lakh tonnes of hilsa were captured. In the previous two years, the amount was 5.65 lakh tonnes and 5.50 lakh tonnes respectively. In fiscal 2018-19, the yield of hilsa was 5.32 lakh tonnes.      

According to Momi, there remains more hilsa than the captured amount. As the government supports sustainable yield for the coming seasons, the fisheries department imposes periodical restrictions over netting fish so that some mother hilsa live for the future. 

To boost the yield of hilsa, the fisheries department launched Tk246 crore-worth Hilsa Development and Management Project in 2020. A 16% growth of annual hilsa yield is forecasted by the time the project will reach its expiration in June 2024.  

However, the growth rate in fiscal 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 were 3.3%, 2.68% and 0.25% respectively, hinting at the poor growth of annual yield. 

Renowned hilsa researcher Dr Anisur Rahman, former Principal Scientific Officer and Director at Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute’s riverine centre, Chandpur, believes that overfishing in the name of meeting the target [such as Hilsa Development and Management Project] reduces the exploitable stock of the fish in the next season. 

“Setting a target is not bad when it energises the conservation campaign. At the same time, we should give priority to maximum sustainable yield, which is also a proven conservation effort,” Anisur explained.   

The fisheries department is now discouraging overfishing of both adult hilsa entering the rivers and of those weighing below 700 grams.

Hilsa fish in Bangladesh is extracted from three main sources – the sea, rivers and estuaries around the Sundarbans. 

In fiscal 2021-22, the hilsa yield from the sea was recorded at 3.21 lakh tonnes, a bit higher than 3.13 lakh tonnes in the previous year. On the other hand, fishermen captured 2.44 lakh tonnes of hilsa from the rivers in fiscal 2021-22. The amount was less than 2.5 lakh tonnes in the previous year. 

Additionally, the hilsa yield in the Sundarbans area dropped to 687 tonnes in fiscal 2021-22 from 743 tonnes in the previous year.

Recent studies by the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI) reveal some reasons behind the low availability of hilsa in the rivers, which include water pollution in the upper Padma and Meghna rivers, changes in hilsa migration routes, decreased water flow from the Ganges and unplanned river training.  

The present Director and Principal Scientific Officer at BFRI’s Chandpur-based riverine centre Dr Md Amirul Islam said that some crucial tasks like water pollution control and river training are not overseen by the fisheries department. 

The former Director of the same centre, Anisur, recommended that the government take proactive actions against the factors that risk migration, spawning and breeding of hilsa. 

He, however, said that the scarcity of hilsa in rivers at present was mostly due to natural causes, instead of pollution. “Because of changing weather patterns, the peak monsoon witnesses less[er] rainfalls.

According to Bangladesh Meteorological Department’s meteorologist Dr Muhammad Abul Kalam Mollik, this peak monsoon (July) witnessed only 41% of average 523 millimetre rainfall till July 26.   

“I hope there will be plenty of hilsa in the rivers with increased rainfall during the full moon in August,” Anisur said, requesting fishermen to wait for that momentum. 

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