A fish moves west

By: Kaushik Das Gupta

Ten years ago Bangladesh’s rivers were deeper and hilsa plentiful. But silting, dams and pollution pushed the fisher into deep ocean and resulted in shifting of their homebase. The Bangladesh fish wholesaler’s loss became Gujarat’s gain as increasingly hilsa from the Tapti and the Narmada 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. It’s just a month to the pujas. We have not exported any fish to India,” Mohammed Yusuf Sikder, head of Barisal Fish Exporter’s AssociationIn 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. But the Bangladesh government decided to put a price to the country’s prized catch. It fixed the minimum price of hilsa weighing between 600 gm and one kg at US $6 per kg, that between a kg to 1.5 kg at US $8 and that weighing over 1.5 kg at US $12. “Most Indian importers who prefer the bigger variety do not want to buy fish at that price. Things were much better in 2005 when we sold hilsa at US $2-5,” Sikder explained adding that he has barely exported any hilsa this year.

“We have asked the government to bring down the prices to the 2005 level. The government gives incentives to shrimp exporters, we should get some as well,” Islam said hollering for tea and waving away fishermen asking for money.

Kolkata, Gujarat and Mumbai

In Kolkata, Syed Anwar Maqsood, secretary of the West Bengal Fish Importer’s Association, talked of changing trends. “We still get 60-70 per cent of our ilish from Bangladesh, but things are changing,” he said. About 10 years ago, more than 80 per cent of hilsa came from across the border. But Bangladeshi hilsa has become expensive.

For Shaukat Aziz who runs Chand International, a firm in Mumbai that exports fish to Kolkata, this means boom time. “Hilsa from the Tapti river at Bharuch sells between Rs 300 and Rs 400 per kg in Kolkata markets. Fish from the Narmada is priced about the same,” he said. Hilsa was not a major item on Chand’s list till even five years ago. “Our turnover from hilsa has doubled in the last three or four years,” he said.

It’s a development that Maqsood does not quite like. The Gujarat hilsa tastes bland, compared to the plump and oily Bangladeshi variety. But then the businessman takes over the fish connoisseur.

Moneylenders and pirates                              

Maqsood and Ajit Das Montu, who heads the Bangladeshi Fish Exporter’s 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. It’s a sentiment that Islam appreciates.

Shankarlal Das, Barisal correspondent of Bangladesh’s leading Bengali daily Prathom Alo, tried explaining the cacophony. “Most fishermen have little say in the prices. It’s moneylenders like Islam who rule the roost,” he said. Das, who has been writing on hilsa for five years, said when fisherfolk borrow money, they commit their catch to the moneylender at prices he sets.

Samaad and Faqir Das have seen abduction of fishers by pirates from up close“Yes, that’s my business. I give them money when they need it the most. They need money to make nets, repair boats and they have medical costs,” Islam explained grimacing as a trawler drew into Barisal almost empty. The scowl turned into a sympathetic glance once Abdur Samaad, the trawler’s leading boatman said they had escaped a jalodashyu (pirate).

Ghulam Mohammed Naskar, another office bearer of the Barisal Fish Exporter’s Association, explained, “The catch in Bangladesh’s rivers is fast depleting. Fishers 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.” Samaad said the ransom could range between Tk 50,000 and Tk 3 lakh. He has seen abduction at close quarters. In 2008, Faqir Das, his fellow boatman and neighbour in Mohipur, around 30 km from Barisal, was abducted. “He was blindfolded and taken to a forest, probably in the Sunderbans. Fisher people pooled money, organised dadan from the moneylender and managed to pay the Tk I lakh (Rs 63,000) ransom.

The pirates treated Das well and even gave him a certificate on a betel leaf, saying he had paid the ransom. But they did not return the catch,” Samaad said.

The story seemed familiar to Shankarlal Das. Trawlers with such illicit catch sneak into the ocean borders with India and offload their fish into Indian vessels. The contraband fish then makes its way to Diamond Harbour, about 50 km from Kolkata, Das elaborated. A Bangladesh fisheries department official who did not want to be named said such traffic got a spurt after the export restrictions. But added, “If the export curbs were not in place, people in Bangladesh would not get any ilish. There are too many Indians who want it.”

Money transactions of the illicit trade are done through hawala networks in Kolkata, Dhaka and Chittagong, Das said, explaining the operation goes on under the supervision of representatives of the big fish merchants and investors. Prathom Alo’s correspondent believes, “Patrol teams of Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guards lack speedy vessels; very often they can’t tell a fishing trawler from that of smugglers and 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 fisher people like Samaad.

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.

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 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. Before the barrage was constructed, the fish would swim upstream as far as Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, Ray said.

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 fishers in Bangladesh gave up on the tradition in the mid-1990s. “In mid-1990s, there was an influx of fine fishing nets from Thailand. Fish net manufacturers took to nets with a mesh of 1.5-2 inches (38-51 mm) with alacrity. They were perfect to catch juveniles; even children could use them. We gave a local name for the nets, current jaal. Factories mushroomed in Dhaka’s outskirts,” Dutta said.

The factories were banned in 1999 but they continue with impunity, the fisheries official said. “They are patronised by powerful people,” Syeda Rizwana of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association said. Rahman though believes that the ban on jatka fishing is working. The catch has increased by nearly 6,000 tonnes. But he also said that fishermen net 10,000 to 15,000 tonnes of jatka a year. Vendors carrying basketfuls of wan and thin ilish at Dhaka’s Karawan Fish Market prove him right. The fish sells for Tk 150.

Bans in West Bengal

Juvenile hilsa is good business across the border as well: people in West Bengal call it khoka ilish. In 2006, the state’s government banned the catch of hilsa weighing less than 500 grammes. The state’s fisheries minister Kiranmoy Nanda claimed, “Our officials raid wholesale markets.” But an official of the department, who did not want to be named, said, “The khoka, priced at around Rs 250 a kg is the only ilish that common people can afford; that fuels illegal fishing. In 2006, the fisheries department decided that teams would raid markets at regular intervals but nothing came of it.”

Sarbani Basu, a Kolkata school teacher, does not mind the khoka ilish. “It tastes sweeter than Gujarat ilish.” Her sister, Jayanti, though gets nostalgic about the days when Bangladeshi hilsa was a feature of a monsoon day meal.