The government is going to make an addition to the existing list of five sanctuaries for Ilish (Hilsa) fish – one of the major foreign revenue earning natural resources of Bangladesh.
Dr Md Anisur Rahman, senior scientific officer of Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute, said the new proposed sanctuary would be located in three tributaries of the Meghna River, somewhere between Hijla and Mehendiganj in Barisal district.
He said the proposal has already been sent to the government and is now awaiting a nod from the cabinet.
The Padma River is not only one of the major rivers in Bangladesh but also the biggest breeding ground for Ilish – the sweetheart of Bangali cuisine.
The strip between Shatnol and Char Alexander in Meghna River; the Shahbazpur channel of the Meghna River; the Tentulia River adjacent to Bhola district; and the Andharmanik River near the Bay of Bengal were declared Ilish sanctuaries in 2003-04.
The other major sanctuary is located in Shariatpur district, in the estuary of Padma and Meghna Rivers; this place was given the status in 2010-11.
These are called sanctuaries because catching Ilish in these places are prohibited during the two breeding seasons. For the Andharmanik sanctuary, the breeding season starts in November and ends in January. For the remaining four, the season spans March-April.
At present, the five sanctuaries cover a total riverine area of 350 sq-km; the upcoming one is about 60 sq-km in size.
The national fish of Bangladesh contributes about 12% of the total fish production and about 1% of the GDP.
About 450,000 people are directly involved with the catching for livelihood; around four to five million people are indirectly involved with the trade.
Although mature Ilish is one of the best tasting fish available in Bangladesh, there is also a demand for young Ilish, known as Jatka.
At the turn of the century, production sharply declined because many fishermen, without considering the consequences, started catching Jatka in the high breeding season, eventually causing a shortage of mature Ilish. Production was particularly low in the 2001-02 season.
In the 2003-04 season, the government took a number of initiatives including declaring several sanctuaries and imposing a ban on fishing during the breeding season.
But it also meant that people who depend on fishing Ilish for a livelihood would have to be jobless during the period. So, the government decided to arrange compensation for these fishermen in the form of rice and wheat so that they do not have to catch immature Ilish.
However, having not allegedly got the compensation, many fishermen have been breaching the breeding season ban, said Islam Ali, president of Bangladesh Fishermen Association, at a programme in the capital yesterday.
The programme titled “Darwin-Hilsa project: Economic Incentive to Conserve Hilsa Fish in Bangladesh” was held at the conference room of the Department of Fisheries.
Hilsa management specialist GC Halder suggested that the government should include cash incentives in the compensation package.
On an average, fishermen lose around Tk20,000-Tk25,000 during the breeding season; but they get food grains worth only about Tk2,100 for staying off-water, Halder said.
Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and Bangladesh Agricultural University have been working in partnership with the government on a project funded by the UK’s Darwin Initiative which aims to reduce threats to Hilsa and biodiversity in the lower Meghna region.
Essam Yassin Mohammed, senior researcher of IIED, said: “So far, the main lessons we have learned while carrying out our research is that there is a need to align the preference of the fishermen with the actual compensation that is provided.”
He also said: “The cost-effectiveness of the scheme could also be improved by simplifying the lengthy, complex and costly targeting and distribution processes. Further efforts should be made to effectively target the most vulnerable fishers.”