Swimming in troubled waters

Declining Numbers

Ten years ago Bangladesh’s rivers were deeper and hilsa plentiful. But silting, dams and pollution pushed the fish into deep ocean and resulted in shifting of their homebase. The Bangladesh fish wholesaler’s loss became Gujarat’s gain as hilsa from the Tapti and the Narmada increasingly feed the Kolkata market.

Some 320 km south of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, Barisal is a major port of call for hilsa. On a good day, 400-500 kg of hilsa is loaded onto trucks, eventually to whet appetites in different parts of Bangladesh— sometimes India. “Till 2005, at least 400 kg of fish would leave Barisal every day for India. During Durga Puja, business was even more brisk. This time, we have not exported any fish to India,” Mohammed Yusuf Sikder, head of Barisal Fish Exporters’ Association.

In 2006, pressured by hilsa shortage in the country, Bangladesh imposed a ban on exports to India. The ban was lifted in 2008 under the South Asian Preferential Treaty Agreement.

Maqsood and Ajit Das Montu, who heads the Bangladeshi Fish Exporters’ Association, believe that the influx of cheap hilsa from Gujarat could affect the lives of nearly a million people in India and Bangladesh who depend on the fish trade.

Ghulam Mohammed Naskar, another office-bearer of the Barisal Fish Exporters’ Association, explained, “The catch in Bangladesh’s rivers is fast-depleting. Fishermen have to plumb the deep ocean for a catch. It’s a perilous venture. Boats and their catch are often held hostage by gangs of pirates.”  

Homeless hilsa
The ocean fish that swims against the tide to spawn in rivers is moving away from Bangladesh. At Chandpur, about 150 km south of Dhaka, Anisur Rahman has a scientific explanation for the predicament of fisherfolk.

Currently senior scientific officer at Bangladesh’s Fish Research Institute, Rahman explained, “In scientific parlance, the hilsa is an anadromous fish. It lives most of its lives in the sea but around the monsoon, when it is time to spawn, the hilsa swims against the tide and goes back to the river where its mother had given birth to it.” He added that the most delectable ones are those that go the farthest upriver. “But there is barely any hilsa left in the rivers,” Rahman said echoing the fishers of Barisal.

The scientist, who has been studying the movement pattern of the silvery fish for more than 20 years, said, “Earlier the hilsa would move from the Bay of Bengal to Bangladesh’s rivers, the Padma and the Meghna, for spawning. It would also take the western route to the Ganga. But Bangladesh’s rivers were known to be more abundant. Now there is more hilsa in the west, in areas bordering Indian waters.”

G C Halder, his colleague at the Bangladesh Fish Research Institute, cites a host of reasons for the declining catch. The Padma river, the source of the delectable hilsa, is getting drier by the year.

When the Farakka Barrage was commissioned in northern Bengal in 1975, the water flow to the Padma was 65,000-70,000 cusecs during the dry season, April-July. An India-Bangladesh water treaty ensured a supply of more than 50,000 cusecs till the late 1980s.

But the treaty was not renewed after 1988 and by the late 1990s, the water flow to the Padma fell to around 30,000 cusecs during the dry season, Halder said citing documents of Bangladesh’s water department. That sounded the death knell of the sweet water hilsa.

Farakka gets in the way

The barrage gets bad press from Indian scientists as well. Kolkata-based ecologist Parimal Ray is one of them. He does not agree with Rahman’s contention that there is more fish in the Ganga in India, because the Farakka restricts its movement.

Ray believes a proper fish pass could have made hilsa migration easy through the barrage. But today the area just below the barrage has become a point of indiscriminate fishing. “This never existed before the construction of Farakka. More than a thousand fishing boats are sometimes seen catching hilsa just below the barrage because it acts as an obstacle against the fish’s migration,” Ray wrote in his book, ‘Ecological Imbalance of the Ganga River; its impact on Aquaculture’.

In Bangladesh, Halder attributes the decline in hilsa numbers to the pollution in the Halda in Chittagong and rivers in Sylhet district. “Not just the hilsa. Rivers in Chittagong once boasted more than 70 fish varieties. Pollution by industries and dams restricting water flow mean there are hardly 10 varieties left,” his colleague Rahman said.

Rahman’s research led the Bangladesh government to impose a ban on jatka (juveniles) fishing between November and March.  “In 2002, we realised Bangladesh could increase hilsa production by nearly 30,000 tonnes if fishermen stopped catching jatka,” he said. But the scientist refuses to take much credit for the idea.

The suggestion was rooted in tradition, he explained. For Bengalis, the hilsa season began around March and ended in October. A theory has it that Bengalis strapped the ilish season with religion to prevent overfishing.

“In the past, we never had ilish between Lakshmi Puja (mid- to end-October) and Saraswati Puja (early-to mid-February). The last ilish would be consumed after a pair of the fish was offered to the goddess on Lakshmi Puja. This bar timed with the period when juveniles swam back to the the sea from the river. It allowed the fish to grow large and procreate. Both Hindus and Muslims adhered to this abstention,” Rahman said.

Ratan Dutta, joint director at Bangladesh’s fisheries directorate, believes fishermen in Bangladesh gave up on the tradition in the mid-1990s.

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