Hilsa, our national fish, is a symbol of Bangali tradition and glory. This much-beloved fish is unsurpassed in taste and smell. The fish is also vital to the country's economic growth, job creation, and fresh meat supply.
Hilsa, as a single species, accounts for the majority of the country's fish production (12.22%). The production of hilsa in 2019–20 was 5.50 lakh metric ton, with a market value of around Tk22,000 crores.
Nevertheless, hilsa production decreased alarmingly in 2002–03 due to indiscriminate killing of jatka and mother hilsa, unrestricted use of current nets and estuarine set bag nets, declining river water flow, climate change, and above all, environmental pollution.
Some government and non-governmental initiatives have led to increased hilsa production in recent years. To maintain this success of hilsa growth, jatka and mother hilsa must be protected. For those who do not know, hilsa smaller than 10 inches or 25 centimetres is called jatka.
Naturally, after the mother hilsa lays her eggs in the river, it becomes a larva and grows into a jatka, and later into a big hilsa. A mother hilsa can lay anywhere between 2.5 lakh and 23 lakh eggs.
Thus, if a single mother hilsa is caught, we may lose up to 23 lakh larvae that could be recruited. Fishing for brood hilsa and jatka reduces the production of hilsa and income for fishermen. It is, therefore, crucial to conserve Jatka and brood hilsa for the sustainability of hilsa production.
Government initiatives to increase hilsa production include the establishment of sanctuaries, the prohibition of jatka catch for eight months of the year, the prohibition of fishing during the breeding season, and the observance of Jatka Conservation Week, the ban on fishing at sea for 65 days, and special combing operations.
There are six hilsa sanctuaries in the Padma-Meghna Basin in the country (five of which are closed for fishing in March-April, except Andharamanik), with a total area of 432 km. Fishing is prohibited in the Andharmanik river sanctuary of Patuakhali from November to January.
The six sanctuaries are located in Barisal, Bhola, Patuakhali, Laxmipur, Chandpur, and Shariatpur districts. In addition to these sanctuaries, the ban also applies to all rivers from March to April. During that period, the government banned the procurement, transportation, stocking, marketing, trading, and exchange of jatka all over the country.
Furthermore, to increase the production of hilsa, catching jatka is prohibited from November to June of each year. On the basis of the lunar calendar, catching, storing, transporting and selling hilsa is prohibited for a total of 22 days every year during the main breeding season.
Harvesting of all types of fish and shrimp in the Bay of Bengal is prohibited for 65 days between 20 May and 23 July each year to promote the breeding and conservation of marine fish. The government has set the minimum mesh size of the hilsa net at 6.5 cm to avoid jatka catches.
Simultaneously, Jatka Conservation Week is observed every year by the government to protect hilsa. This program is usually observed in March or April. Each year, special combing operations are conducted to eradicate the current nets, estuarine set bag nets, and other illegal nets that threaten marine life and fisheries.
Conservation and successful management of fisheries resources, however, require the participation of people who depend on them. Enforcement doesn't work alone.
The ECOFISHBD project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), started working on establishing adaptive co-management activities for the Meghna River ecosystem and its dependent communities in 2014.
Here, co-management is the conservation and management of fisheries resources with the participation and efforts of various governmental and non-governmental organisations and the people dependent on fisheries resources.
Participatory management has been strengthened as part of co-management in coastal rivers such as the Padma, upper and lower basins of Meghna, Kalabadar, Andharamanik, and Tentulia.
The results of the co-management activities helped to build the capacity of other stakeholders, including government and non-government agencies, as well as to engage relevant actors in communication and networking activities across the country.
As part of these activities, a particular focus has been placed on reducing overfishing, promoting robust riverine and coastal fisheries management, and strengthening the capacity of fishers to diversify their livelihoods.
Thanks to all these integrated activities, the total hilsa production has increased from 5% to 11% since 2016, which increased to 5.5 lakh metric tons in 2020. In addition, both the abundance and size of fish have increased.
This success, however, was largely driven by a key concept. With the participation of the local communities, community fish guards were formed so that the fishing families that were involved in hilsa fishing could now act as safeguards for hilsa conservation.
Community fish guards are voluntarily helping government agencies by guarding the sanctuaries day and night to protect hilsa. A total of 330 hilsa fishermen from 15 upazilas in Bhola, Barisal, Patuakhali, Chandpur, Laxmipur, and Shariatpur in the coastal hilsa-rich districts of Bangladesh have been appointed as community fish guards. Like in previous years, the government has declared a complete ban on all kinds of fishing activities in six sanctuaries.
Fisheries officials have been instructed to involve community fish guards as assistants to the Department of Fisheries in the protection of hilsa and jatka. Fish guards will receive incentives or honoraria from the "Hilsa Conservation and Development" Fund.
Community fish guards are working in the designated area during the ban and providing information to law enforcement agencies, including the Fisheries Department. These guards have been working since 2016 to protect hilsa and other fisheries.
Members of the community fish guard are trained in co-management activities, jatka and mother hilsa conservation, hilsa sanctuary, hilsa conservation policy and fisheries law, the implementation of assigned duties and responsibilities, the role of the department of fisheries and law enforcement agencies, and the mechanism of liaison with them. They have received identity cards, trousers, towels, umbrellas, aprons, shoes, and flashlights.
Governments stepped up the management of hilsa fisheries through jatka conservation programs, such as training hilsa fishermen in alternative income-generating activities and providing support through VGF (Vulnerable Group Feeding). Over 1,20,000 people directly benefit from alternative income generation activities in the hilsa sanctuary area, with over 22,000 fisher families.
Certain key steps must be underway to ensure the long-term sustainability of hilsa fisheries. Participation of all stakeholders is fundamental to establishing a co-management system for marine fisheries. Community fish guard activities that involve the fishers' community need to be strengthened. Fish guards should receive incentives or honoraria on time.
Furthermore, fishermen should be provided with alternative income-generating activities based on their needs. Women should be involved in decision-making and co-management activities. Hilsa Conservation and Development Fund should be managed sustainably. Data collection, analysis, and various reports should be well-planned and highlight key outputs for future guidelines and recommendations.
Dr Md Hadayet Ullah is Scientist, WorldFish Bangladesh. He can be reached at M.H.Ullah@cgiar.org
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.