The empty mouths behind Bangladesh’s Hilsa success

It has been more than 10 years since the Bangladesh government has introduced a ban on Hilsa fishing to ensure proper breeding and the protection of Jatka or juvenile Hilsas.

The much-coveted ban, ensured twice every year, has hiked Bangladesh’s Hilsa produce to a whopping annual average of 387,211 tonnes, 65% of the global Hilsa catch.

Fishing is banned from March to April in all Hilsa sanctuaries except for Andharmanik River. The ban is imposed a second time from November to January in the Andharmanik sanctuary to protect Jatkas.  Another ban is enforced from October 7-28 to save Hilsa spawning in all roaming areas.

Just before the ban was enforced in 2007, it was a mere 290,000 tonnes in comparison to the 496,417 tonnes in 2017. Bangladesh has pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of turning the dwindling produce of Hilsa to something that now brings in one percent of the country’s overall GDP.

 [Images by: Probir Kumar Sarker]

The success is based largely on the restraint practiced by around half a million fishermen, who are directly dependent on Hilsa production for their livelihood, and the other two million, who are dependent indirectly.

And the Bangladesh government, to ensure that the fishermen do not suffer during the moratorium, had introduced a compensation package of 40 kilograms of rice for each of the fishing households so that they can survive during the ban period to protect Jatkas.

The compensation for the ban to protect Hilsa spawning is 20 kilograms of rice. But still, there are numerous media reports every year showing that the fishermen are violating the ban. A good number are fined and handed jail terms.

Bengal Delta set out to find out what is driving the fishermen to violate the ban risking their freedom and scant earnings and uncovered from different sources in different coastal districts including Barisal, Bhola, Faridpur and Manikganj, a tale of mismanagement and partisanship.

Kashem Majhi, a fisherman from Tulatoli area in Bhola, one of the largest Hilsa yielding spots in Bangladesh, admitted to Bengal Delta that they were promised 20kgs of rice through the Union Parishad as compensation.

“But none of us have received it yet,” he said on the 12th day the moratorium is in place. However, he told that the authority has assured them to delivery the rice tomorrow (Friday).

He continued that even 20kgs is “negligible” as compensation, but it could have made “some sense” if they got it in time. “Right now, all we have are assurances. What will we feed our families?”

“I need it now, when I don’t have an income due to the ban. I won’t need it a month later, when I will be able to fish again. “On one hand, they tell us to refrain from fishing and on the other, fail to keep their promise. In the end, they send us to jail for trying to feed our families. This is unfair.”

Mostafa Majhi, another fisherman who also hails from same area, pointed out a completely different aspect: “The government has introduced a card for keeping track of fishermen eligible for the compensation. “However, the card was given to many of the local influential instead of the real fishers. The Union Parishad gave the cards to their own people.”

Executive Director of Centre for Natural Resources Study (Cnrs), M Mokhlesur Rahman, told the Bengal Delta that they have had similar experiences in the field.

“On one hand, the fishermen are day-earners, so it is really difficult for them to be out of work for even a day. On the other hand, the compensation package is rather dismal compared to their needs.”

“But what is worse, is that the fishermen are not even getting that because of pilferage,” Rahman said. “For instance,during the previous ban, fishermen were supposed to get 40kgs of rice. But they only got something like 30/35kgs.”

Masud Ara Momi, Assistant Director of Fisheries Department, said, “The allegation of not getting the compensation in time is true to some extent as the coastal areas are remote. It takes a lot of time for the goods to get there.

“But according to our reports, 90 percent of the compensation has already been distributed. Some 10 percent is yet to get it.”

She also sidestepped questions regarding the volume by saying that the government has to act within its means.

She pointed out that although the moratorium to protect Hilsa spawn has been in place for several years, “The government has announced the compensation in the last two years simply because it could not manage the resources before that.”

Momi admitted that the compensation package was rather “negligible”, but pointed out that this year, the Disaster and Relief Ministry allocated 20kgs of rice for 400,000 fishermen dependent on Hilsa, expanding the coverage from 380,000 fishermen last year.

Dr Anisur Rahman, Chief Scientific Officer of Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute said Hilsa conservation will not work properly unless the compensation package is meaningful for those deprived due to the ban. “They must have an alternative to sustain themselves.”

Considering the crisis, the government is in the process of setting up a Hilsa Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF) for better conservation, introducing alternative livelihoods to the coastal fishermen.

Anisur Rahman, said this trust fund would help secure alternative livelihoods for about 2.5 million fishermen.