Ghoti or Bangal? Epar or Opar Bangla? Where did the ilish on your plate come from? The answer: most probably, Bangladesh. Or even Myanmar.
The king of fish is changing its migration route. Faced with a mesh of nets at the mouth of the Hooghly and a highly silted riverbed, shoals of hilsa are taking flight to Bangladesh.
That is one of the main reasons why the hilsa catch in Bengal’s rivers is drastically declining, pushing up prices, say experts. In 2002-03, the total hilsa catch in the Hooghly was 62,600 tonnes.
Within a decade and a half (2017-18), that came down to 27,539 tonnes — a sheer drop of 56%. During the same period, the catch in Bangladesh increased from 1,99,032 tonnes to 5,17,000 tonnes — a rise of 160%.
"The hilsa stock that congregate in north Bay of Bengal mainly takes three routes for their upstream journey during the spawning season: the Hooghly estuary, the Meghna in Bangladesh and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. But, due to high siltation and virtually unrestricted fishing in the Hooghly, the fish has been changing its migration route and is moving up mostly through the Meghna," says Utpal Bhaumik, retired divisional head of Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute.
Today, about 75% hilsa is captured in Bangladesh, 15% in Myanmar, just 5% in India and 5% in other countries.
"Hilsa shoals cannot enter a river unless the depth is 30-40 feet. But the Hooghly estuary mouth is fast losing depth, mainly because of the Farakka barrage and lack of proper dredging," says Bhaumik.
And then there is the problem of overfishing. "Where there were 3,000 boats just a few years ago, 6,000 fishing boats are churning up the waters now," says Debabrata Khutia, a hilsa fisherman from East Midnapore’s Contai.
Pradip Chatterjee of National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (Inland), says, "Hundreds of nets, each around 2km long, block the mouth of the estuary. How will the fish enter the river?"
"So, for its survival, hilsa are migrating towards Meghna, where the depth of the river is 50-60 feet," says Bhaumik. "Hilsa has its own in-built GPS-like system, called otolith. It guides them to safer waters," he adds.
Dewan Ahsan of the University of Southern Denmark, who has been studying hilsa fishery in South Asia for years, said: "In some cases, I have noticed that the migration routes of hilsa are changing. Fishing nets and submerged sand bars are blocking their usual routes. But I don’t know of any study that provides more details on the issue."
"Hilsa's natural migration route has been affected because of the Farakka barrage, siltation, overfishing and other anthropogenic factors. Earlier, hilsa shoals used to travel up to Allahabad. But now, they cannot cross the Farakka barrage," says Isha Das of Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies. Das was the lead researcher of a study on sustainable fishing limits for hilsa in northern Bay of Bengal.
In 2013, the Bengal government had declared five areas — along different stretches of the Hooghly, Matla, Raimangal and Thakuran — as hilsa sanctuaries. Catching, possessing, transporting and selling of hilsa of a length below 23cm was banned. Hilsa fishing was completely banned between "five days prior and post of the full moon for the period of September 15 to October 24 every year". "But it all remained only on paper. The ban is not being implemented. So, no positive impact of it is visible," says Sugata Hazra of the School of Oceanographic Studies, JU.
"How can a ban be effective unless any penal provision is there? Has anybody been ever punished for flouting the ban? And has the government done anything to support the fishermen during the ban period? So, illegal nets are still being used to catch the fish round the year, even in prohibited areas, and juvenile hilsa are caught and sold as 'khoira' fish," says Bhaumik.
State fisheries minister Chandranath Sinha, however, says, "Nobody flouts the ban. The fishermen are aware enough. Yes, we had tried to incorporate a penal provision, but it didn’t happen because of infrastructural issues. We also have earmarked Rs 1,800 per year for every hilsa fisherman and each of them gets Rs 600 per month when the ban is in force."
But the secretary of the National Fishworkers' Forum, Debashis Shyamal, doesn’t know of anybody who has got the government dole. "I do not know of any arrest or prosecution for flouting the ban either," he says.
"It’s time India and Bangladesh jointly addressed the problem of overfishing, siltation and other anthropogenic factors. Otherwise, both countries will lose in the long run," says Ahsan.