Lockdown stimulates hilsa fisheryKnown as India’s Salmon, hilsa fetches high prices in cities and is also an export species

Amid the Covid-19 gloom there’s some good news for fishermen in West Bengal, who can hope for an exceptional hilsa yield this year, reports Aneetha NG.

The dip in activity at sea over the past three months due to the Coronavirus-related lockdown has led to expectations of a larger than usual catch. Last year, the season yielded less than 12,000 tonnes, due to factors such as pollution and late arrival of the monsoon.

This year, the over 100-day pandemic lockdown in India has proved to be a bonus for millions of seafood consumers, who eagerly wait for this time of the year and the arrival of the prized hilsa  (Tenualosa ilisha). Fishermen and fisheries associations are expecting this year’s catch to be anything between 32,000 and 35,000 tonnes – three times the average.

Experts point out as pollution in the river Ganga and its tributaries is less this year due to the forced lockdown, it has attracted schools of hilsa to migrate upstream to breed, and a senior official of the state fishery department confirmed that a very good catch is expected this year.

“All the industries were shut because of the Covid-19 lockdown and pollution is down appreciably in the Hooghly river. Given the near-zero commercial activity in the seas and the rivers, no industrial effluents were released into the waters during this three-month hiatus. This has attracted schools of hilsa. Also the rains and other conditions have been very favourable,” this official commented.

He added that fish breeding is common during this season and is bound to pick up pace given the favourable environment. With monsoon having set in across India, many fishermen have ventured out with their trawlers.

Hilsa fish, known as the Salmon of India, is highly appreciated for its quality and taste. The fish is regularly caught in the rivers of Subarnarekha, Budhabalang and Jalaka in Balasore district in Odisha between June and December. Hilsa is exported to cities like Mumbai, Siliguri, and Kolkata from Balasore, as well as being exported to Bangladesh and other countries.

According to an official at the Bahabalapur fishing centre in Odisha, the district had managed to net about 388 tonnes of hilsa in 2018, while the yield had reached only 150 tonnes the previous year.

Hilsa usually fetches around US$2.67 to US$4.0 per kilo in the local market, rising as high as US$16 per kilo when fish is scarce. While only an estimated 10% of the catch is sold in local markets, the bulk of production finds its way to larger cities where prices tend to be around US$15 per kilo.

Last year’s drastic drop in the hilsa catch focused a spotlight on the challenges facing this species.

“Hilsa are sensitive species,” one official commented.

“They live in salt water and swim to freshwater and estuarine waters to spawn. Hilsa love swimming upstream during the southwest monsoon when the rivers swell. The hatchlings go back to the sea and repeat the cycle.”

A large number of smaller fishing boats and larger trawlers are believed to exceed sustainable limits, leading to over-exploitation of hilsa stocks. But this year the picture is very different as the complete lockdown due to Covid-19, lasting exactly three months, has resulted in yields increasing appreciably.

Gorachand Jena, secretary of the Fishermen Association said that hilsa’s characteristics rule it out as a species suitable for aquaculture.

“Given the excess number of boats last year, especially the trawlers, overfishing took place. This resulted in the Association urging the government to set a limit to the trawlers fishing in the area,” he said, adding that as small mesh sizes tend to be used, juvenile hilsa are caught before they reach maturity – resulting in an overall drop in catch.

Experts are of the view that rise in pollution levels last year along the water bodies connected to the Mahanadi river system, an erratic monsoon and a shortfall in rainfall have all resulted in the disappearance of the itinerant hilsa in previous years – but this year the situation has been reversed and hilsa is back on the menu, to the delight of both fishermen and consumers, especially those in Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur districts of Odisha.

Local markets in Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Jajpur and Cuttack have been flooded with hilsa.

Bijan Maity, general secretary of Kakdwip Fishermen Association said the breeding period for hilsa is from mid-April to mid-June, which coincided with a ban on fishermen going to sea. Catching, selling and transporting hilsa of less than 23cm is banned in Bengal. However, this does not stop some fishermen from ignoring the ban and seeking out small hilsa. But this year’s lockdown has also brought this poaching to a halt, contributing to boosting the hilsa stock.

“We have taken adequate measures to ensure that fishermen from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh who accompany the local fishermen on trawlers and venture into the sea under normal circumstances are not allowed this time in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Akhil Giri, Vice Chairman of the Digha Sankarpur Development Authority.

“Only our local fishermen were allowed to travel to the sea.”

Sanitary procedures have been carried out on trawlers and Akhil Giri said that fishing vessels have also begun operating from East Midnapore district, adding that while fishermen suffered massive losses last year, this year they are expecting a heavy catch.

Adult hilsa tends to swim several kilometres upstream to fresh water to spawn, returning to saline water after hatching the eggs in freshwater. The sub-adult hilsa pass back downstream into the sea, a process that takes a few months.

Generally, during low tide, fishermen catch abundant hilsa at the confluence of the Mahanadi and the Bay of Bengal. According to Manas Ranjan Sahu, Assistant Director of Fishery (Marine) at the Kujanga department, the early release of floodwater in the Mahanadi and heavy rain in the coastal belt along with strong eastern wind has already resulted in some high catches. If such weather conditions continue, he expected fishermen to catch even more hilsa in this exceptional year.

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