Troubled Waters: This hilsa season in Bangladesh has been good, but only for trawlers heading to the sea

River hilsa is said to be tastier than those caught from the sea. The livelihood of thousands of fishers in Bangladesh depends on the former. But, of the 500,000 tonnes of hilsa caught this year, 80 per cent has come from trawling in the sea. A large chunk of fisherfolk and traders are struggling for survival.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: October 10th, 2020

During the peak hilsa season, the workers are busy at Hilsa Ghat. They take home a decent earning. Pic: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Dhalchar, Bangladesh.

Every year, during prime hilsa season, which begins in May and goes on till mid-October, tens of thousands of fishers flock to Dhalchar, an estuary on the coast of Bangladesh, about 270 kilometres (km) from the national capital of Dhaka, where a ghat is named after the hilsa. This alone is proof of what an important role the hilsa (ilish in West Bengal, India), the national fish of Bangladesh, plays in the life of those who live by the sea. 

Bangladesh has 19 districts by the coast. Of these, 16 are adjacent to the sea. More than half a million people in these districts are involved in fishing, and most of them are dependent on the hilsa. 

Why do people take all this bother for the hilsa, which can grow up to two feet in length and weigh up to three kilogrammes? Because, though bony, its incredible flavour and buttery texture, enhanced in river hilsa rather than sea hilsa, make up for everything else. 

Large-size hilsa has arrived at the ghat in Dhalchar, Bangladesh. The workers smile.
Pic: Rafiqul Islam Montu

In West Bengal, India, they are a vital part of pujas, and in Andhra Pradesh in India, a local saying goes that one can even sell precious jewellery for good hilsa (called Pulasa in Telugu).

During the hilsa season, Dhalchar estuary in Char Fasson upazila of coastal Bhola district buzzes with activity, day and night. A good catch means that the fisherfolk in Bangladesh can live the rest of the year comfortably off. A bad season means they get caught in an endless debt trap. 

Gaon Connection visited the ghat in Dhalchar island union, which takes about two hours by trawler to reach from the mainland, to see the process. Even though there are less than four days for the hilsa season to get over this year in Bangladesh, thousands of fishing trawlers were anchored there and the fisherfolk heading to the river hoped against hope that things would turn around and they would finally get a good catch. 

During the peak hilsa season, the workers are busy at Hilsa Ghat. Pic: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Ironically, this year, the hope was that because of the protracted lockdown for COVID-19, the rivers and seas would be cleaner and the quantity of hilsa bigger and better, size-wise. That has happened, but has not benefited all — only those heading to the sea. 

As per the government, the hilsa catch is increasing every year. In the 2019-2020 fiscal, 523,000 metric tonnes of hilsa was caught. Already, in this season, 500,000 metric tonnes have been caught. But, why are fishers still unhappy? 

“Almost eighty per cent of the hilsa that has come in is from the deep sea. Those fishing in the river have caught very little,” Ershad Faraji, president, Bhola District Small Fishermen’s Association, told Gaon Connection. Also, the number of fishers heading to the sea has increased every year, but the catch has not kept pace. So, the share of hilsa per fisher has come down drastically, he added.

Designated people are in charge of preserving the hilsa caught. Hilsa is stored in a specific place in the trawler. Pic: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Hilsa lays eggs in fresh water and grows there. Then, it travels to the sea where it grows in size. For the main season, it travels back to the river, and this is where its taste is said to be enhanced. This year, it did not come back to the river. The reasons being attributed to it include silt accumulation in rivers and pollution of the Buriganga River in Dhaka that has spread to parts of the Padma and Meghna.

And so, the fishermen headed 40 kilometres (km), some deeper, into the sea to catch the hilsa. But, this year has not been very good for fisherfolk. The small and medium fishermen have returned with very little hilsa or none at all. The big trawlers have managed to land a decent catch. 

The rivers Meghna, Tentulia and Baleshwar have not seen much hilsa. Even the much-feted Poddar ilish (the river Padma is called Poddar), which commands a premium, is in short supply. 

Workers bring hilsa from the trawler to the trader’s container. Pic: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Thirty five-year-old Tayyab Ali, a fisher from Dhalchar Island, had set nets three times in eight days. “I got hilsa worth only three thousand three hundred taka [Rs 2,840]. How will we manage? I will suffer a loss of at least one lakh taka [Rs 86, 118] this year,” he told Gaon Connection.

Forty seven-year-old Bashir Uddin, another fisherman from Bhola Sadar had invested Taka three lakh and sixty thousand [Rs 3.01 lakh] this year. “So far, I have only earned about sixty thousand taka [Rs 51,671]. I don’t know how to make up the deficit. I borrowed investment money from a moneylender. At the end of this year’s hilsa season, my debt burden will increase further,” he rued.

Hilsa season and fishing bans

Usually, the hilsa season begins on May 1 in Bangladesh. There are two fishing ban periods in a year, including the upcoming 22-day ban that starts from October 14. This is to allow the hilsa to thrive and grow in size. Fishers will be able to catch the hilsa even after the October ban, which concludes on November 4. However, by then, winter is in the air, and hilsa is not commonly found.

In the first ban, between May 20 and July 22, hilsa can’t be caught in the sea. Fishers can fish in the river though. From July 23, hilsa can be caught in rivers and seas. Other than these bans for grown hilsa, in March and April, there is a ban on catching small hilsa, called jhatka. During the fishing bans, the fishers are looked after, and provisions supplied to them by the Bangladesh Government. But, this assistance is not enough and not all of them receive it.

Before heading to catch the hilsa, trawlers flock to the ice mill dock. The hilsa caught is stored in trawlers with this ice. Pic: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Hilsa demands hard labour

At sea, life is tough. The sea is choppy, there is no time to rest. Depending on the size, trawlers have anywhere between six and 22 fishermen on board. There is a lot of camaraderie, but danger lurks in the dark waters. Sometimes, a fisherman falls into the water, never to be seen again. Hilsa demands hard work and sacrifice. 

Sometimes, the trawler is full, sometimes half-empty, sometimes just empty. When the net is drawn up, along with the catch, the fisherman’s future is also at stake. A good catch will ensure his loans are paid and that months of preparation were not in ruin.

There is an entire ecosystem that revolves around the hilsa, the national fish of Bangladesh — thousands of coastal fishermen bring the catch to the shore, but there are an equal number of people who are invested in the catch. Traders, called aratdar, invest millions of taka in the hilsa trade. Fishermen take loans from them to repair the nets, others need the money to repair their boats and trawlers and keep them in peak condition. The deal is that fishermen who have taken money from the aratdars have to give the hilsa to the specified trader. 

It’s late night, but the fishers have no rest. They pull the net, guided by a solar light.
Pic: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Exports to India form a huge part of the market. But, to rejuvenate the hilsa population, its export was stopped in 2012. However, from the last year, the Bangladesh government has been allowing exports for Durga Puja as a goodwill gesture. In 2019, about 500 tonnes were exported to India. This year, hilsa export of 1,450 tonnes has been allowed to India. 

But, this may not provide much succour to the hilsa fishers of Bangladesh, as reports said that the lack of purchasing power in a post COVID-19 world has seen people cut down on hilsa purchase in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. 

Sharif Saudagar, a hilsa trader from Dhalchar Island and Prince Babu Goldar, a hilsa ghat trader from Tulatli Hilsa in Bhola Sadar upazila both said that it was going to be difficult to recover the investment. 

The hilsa is revered for a reason — it keeps families afloat down the supply chain. Everyone waits for the trawler bringing the silver-coloured fish. If there’s enough hilsa, there’s a crowd. Everyone’s pockets are full, their faces happy. If not, the smile falls.