Why the iconic Hilsa is disappearing from the menu of commoners in West Bengal
Hilsa and the monsoon are as synonymous in the Bengali lexicon as in the kitchen. But Hilsa or Illish, a freshwater fish native to the Bay of Bengal, continues to be elusive to the Bengali commoner. In Calcutta, the retail price of Hilsa reached around 1,500 rupees per kilogram, compared to 1,000 rupees last year. Some of the leaders of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) would have you believe that it is the central government led by the BJP, which suffers from the party’s failure to win the Bengal assembly elections, which is depriving the inhabitants of the state of their Hilsa rice meal. The real reason for Hilsa’s demise and therefore the high price tag, however, is overfishing.
Bengal’s gastronomic greed to savor Hilsa all year round has led to reckless fishing and the recovery of the juvenile fish population before they are ready to spawn. The strong demand for fish throughout the year means that the catch itself has declined over the years, from 15,000 tonnes per season in 2009-10 to just a few thousand tonnes in 2019-20 in the ‘State. As a result, Bengal slipped down relative to neighboring Bangladesh in the production of Hilsa. Bangladesh records a seasonal catch of around 55,000 to 60,000 tonnes.
Surprisingly, some years that saw a very low intake of Hilsa were followed by a bumper harvest, giving scientists hope that if Hilsa could have a full life cycle, production would improve. For example, 2016-17 saw 49,000 tonnes of catches while previous and subsequent years saw around 10,000 tonnes. However, from 2018, the catch could never exceed 14,000 tonnes per season.
Explaining the phenomenon, Dr Debasish De, chief scientist at Chennai Central Brackishwater Aquaculture Institute, explains that while a 10-meter-diameter net had caught 250 pieces of juvenile Hilsa in the past (each fish measured about 5cm long), now it will only catch two. This, he says, proves how well the Hilsa shoals avoid estuaries and well-known breeding grounds.
The movement of mechanized trawlers, with nets of 9 cm or less, wreaks havoc, destroying the food of the Hilsa – zooplankton, phytoplankton – and damaging the ecosystem. The Hilsa are very intelligent. If a shoal has encountered turbulence in its path and if a few of the group have managed to escape, they will somehow manage to avoid the passage.
This year, the fishermen who went into the sea could not intercept a large shoal of Hilsa. While a trawler, on a seven-day trip, could catch 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms of Hilsa several years ago, this year it only brings back about 10 kilograms, says Bijan Maity, president of the Kakdwip Fishermen’s Association in Bengal.
Considering this, only half of the trawlers in the South 24 Parganas district venture out to sea. South 24 Parganas is a famous Hilsa breeding ground. In good times, the district alone would set sail 5,000 trawlers exclusively for the Hilsa catch. The cost of fishing with a trawler amounts to around Rs 15 lakh on the first trip of the season, including repair of infrastructure, cost of diesel, nets, refrigeration and ration for fishermen in edge. In the second and third trips, the cost of setting sail goes down to Rs 1.5 lakh-2 lakh. Fishermen say they can barely recover half the cost of inputs today. If trawlers went up to 500 km in the waters before, the rising cost of diesel is forcing them to travel only 250 km now and complete the trip in less than a week.
“A lot of fishermen have huge debts. Bad catches over the past three years have caused them misery, and now diesel prices have risen, ”says Maity. This year, between June 15 and July 15 (the date of the lifting of the fishing ban), catches from estuaries on the Bay of Bengal side were only 200 to 250 tonnes.
According to scientists, the decrease in the population of Hilsa has a lot to do with the demand for fish throughout the year. After the lifting of the prohibition on the breeding season (April to June), fishermen catch all the fish they can, in total disregard of the mesh cap. Catches of juvenile Hilsa (weighing 300-400 g) hamper the growth and reproduction of fish, which is why the fish population is in decline.
In contrast, Bangladesh, which has strict rules governing Hilsa fishing, is increasing its production. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s 2016 fish diplomacy saw her sending Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee 20 kilos of Hilsa to mark the electoral victory of Didi and his party. Hasina also lifted the ban on exporting Hilsa to India from 2019, but the quantity is capped.