We first met Selim Farazi back in 2015. He sat us in one of his seven fishing boats anchored under the small bridge connecting Gowhorpur and Badurtola in Patharghata, and offered us fresh hilsa fry. The hilsa had just arrived from the sea.
In late 2020, Farazi said he was having a hard time paying back his loans and was forced to sell off five of his boats.
In March this year, as we intended to meet him again, his phone could not be reached for days.
Having reached Gowhorpur, as we asked people around to find his home, they directed us to it but said we would not find him at home.
Unable to pay back his loans, Selim Farazi was absconding.
We, however, met his wife Afroza Begum. She described how series of fishing trips failed to fetch enough fish to recover the cost of sending a boat into the sea, which amounted to her husband's bankruptcy.
Selim Farazi is not alone.
In nearby Gyan Para, and Jintola in Badurtola, many fishing boat owners lost everything, and they moved to Chattogram and other cities in search of a living.
Insufficient hilsa catch led to this situation, fishermen and boat owners said.
"There is no hilsa in the sea this year (fiscal year 2020-2021)," Monnan Majhi, the president of Borguna Fishing Trawler Workers' Union said.
According to the records kept at the Patharghata fish landing station, hilsa yield has been seeing a fall in recent years. This year, it has been the lowest.
From FY2017-2018 to FY2019-2020, the amount of hilsa brought into the landing station stood at respectively 3,617.69 tonnes, 2,793.68 tonnes, and 2,665.76 tonnes.
From July 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021, the total hilsa sold through this station amounted to 987.80 tonnes.
From May 20, the ban period for fishing in the sea began, so this is pretty much the total yearly catch of hilsa that landed in the Patharghata station for the ongoing fiscal year, which is less than one-third of the catch in FY2017-18.
Fishermen, fishing boat owners, and researchers have suggested a number of reasons behind the reduced hilsa yield.
Hilsa stocks feared harmed
Dr Md Yeamin Hossain, a professor of the department of Fisheries at the University of Rajshahi said, hilsa stocks might have been damaged.
"Last year during August-September, a huge amount of brood hilsa entered the estuaries and rivers ahead of the breeding season due to the rush of floodwater towards the sea. Since the 22-day ban on catching, selling, transporting, hoarding of hilsa did not start yet, huge amounts of brood hilsa were caught before spawning," said the professor, who also heads a marine stock assessment project in the Bay of Bengal.
Different government and non-government officials claimed that the extraordinary catch of large-sized hilsa was a result of various measures taken by the government, and they were euphoric, the professor continued.
"I assume that the hilsa brood stock was damaged during that time, and I am fearing that we may experience a reduced hilsa yield for the next two years."
Ineffective ban period
The fishing ban period enforced in Bangladesh does not coincide with that of Myanmar and India, leaving it ineffective, fishers and researchers said.
"There is one sea for Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar. When we are stopped from going into the sea, fishers from the other two countries catch all the hilsa," Monnan Majhi said.
"The 22-day ban is fine, it truly helps conserve brood hilsa; but the 65-day ban is not practical. It is disastrous for the fishers," said Mostafa Chowdhury, president of Barguna District Fishing Trawlers Owners' Association.
Researchers from different universities also suggested that the 65-day ban period, enforced from May 20 to July 23, needs to be readjusted based on further research.
Unabated destruction of larvae and fry
Some fishers use illegal behendi net, gora net, fence net, etc with tiny mesh size to catch shrimp and other small fish.
In the process, various fry, including those of hilsa, get caught in those nets.
"The estuaries and the sea become white with dead hilsa fry as the fishers discard them in the water," said Mostafa Chowdhury.
The nexus of corrupt officials and a part of fishers facilitate the use of illegal nets despite occasional seizure and destruction of the same, fishers said.
Mostafa stressed that this malpractice must be stopped. "There will be no hilsa in the sea otherwise," he added.
These young fishes are also processed and used as fish feed for aquaculture in some cases.
"A rickshaw-van-full of fry earns only Tk3,000 to Tk5,000. They are used in making fish feed once dried, and crores are lost in the process as the fry do not get a chance to mature," said Professor Yeamin Hossain.
Also, in the coastal region as well as in the Padma and Meghna river basin areas, jatka (young hilsa fish) is caught and sold as chapila fish, the professor added.
"The government needs to ban selling chapila during the jatka ban period, and take measures to publicise the differences between jatka and chapila, so that this illegal trade can be prevented," said Dr Hossain.
Experts said that 'catch effort' for hilsa has skyrocketed since last decade.
"32,000 fishing boats ply in this tiny area of nearshore waters. Catch effort includes the catch and storage capacity of the fishing boats. With increasingly powerful engines, and bigger boats and nets, I believe we are way over the limit," Said Mohammad Arju, a marine conservationist and the communications coordinator at ICCA Consortium.
Fishers said that when gill netting failed to fetch enough fish this year, some boat owners started bottom trawling – a method of dragging nets across the seafloor to scoop up everything in its path – leading to unsustainable extraction of fishery resources.
Crisis felt across the coast
The reduction of hilsa yield is not limited to Patharghata, fishers say.
"We, fishers from Bhola to Satkhira fish in the same sea- we are familiar with each other. No one is getting enough fish this year," said Monnan Majhi. "80% of fishing boat owners suffered loss this year," Monnan added.
"We used to catch big hilsa during this season, but there are none this year," said Mostafa Chowdhury in mid-March this year. "Fishers never saw such a hilsa-free sea."
Discrepancy in national-level data
The Department of Fisheries has declined to share data regarding the total amount of hilsa yield in this fiscal year before the data is officially published.
However, despite fishers lamenting the fall of hilsa catch during FY2020-2021, fisheries officials suggested that the yield is okay.
Commenting on this, Mostafa Chowdhury said, "This is not practical. Our experience in the sea does not reflect this. Not this year. People spent crores to build fishing boats, they would not have kept them anchored in the ghat if there were hilsa in the sea," said the boat owners' leader.
"Boat owners arrange a fishing trip spending Tk2 lakh, and get fish worth Tk30,000 only. When this is the case, how many times can one afford to suffer such loss? So, they send no more boats to the sea," Mostafa concluded.
[The interviews used in this story were done over a period of three months before the ongoing ban period began.]