Overfishing drives West Bengal’s hilsa fishers up the creek

Trawlers docked at harbor
The Quint
West Bengal
Overfishing drives West Bengal’s hilsa fishers up the creek

On the eve of Maghi Purnima, while marine fishers were preparing for Ganga puja on West Bengal’s Sagar Island, everyone was talking with a sense of foreboding. Abdar Mallik, secretary of Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society, said, “Bajar bhalo na, Goto teen bochor ilish aschhena,” (Translated: The market is not in a good state. As a result, we haven’t been receiving any hilsa here for the last three years).

The decline in the production of hilsa, a species of fish related to the herring, on the Indian side of the Bay of Bengal has been a rising concern in the recent past. Researchers claim the hilsa population has been destroyed by over-exploitation in the northern part of the Bay, threatening the livelihoods of over 26,000 fishers in West Bengal.

Satellite image of Bay of Bengal
Satellite image of northern Bay of Bengal / Courtesy: ISS/NASA

Unsustainable Fishing Practices

In a recent study, scientists questioned the sustainability of hilsa fishing practices in the northern Bay of Bengal region. They suggested that an excess of licensed fishing trawlers are responsible for the declining hilsa stock. From the estuary of the Ganga to deep in the Bay of Bengal, about 15,000 trawlers are hovering in the migratory path of the hilsa as the fish approaches the river to spawn and on its way out, the study found.

It also revealed that between 2002 and 2015 the number of boats engaged in fishing increased by 25 percent, at the same time that the hilsa catch dipped by 13 percent.

“In spite of the ban on nets with mesh holes less than 90mm, such nets are used most of the time. A very large number of juvenile hilsa are caught regularly. Apart from this, hundreds of nets, each around 1 to 2km long, block the mouth of the estuary. How will the fish enter the river?” asked Debasish Shyamal, district president of Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum.

The damage is twofold: The possibility of getting mature hilsa in the future is reduced, and it also hampers the reproduction of the fish.

Shyamal further explained, “West Bengal has 158km coastline, a comparatively smaller coastline than others but the production rate is higher than other coastal states. Government is always pushing to increase production numbers without thinking of the environmental consequences. In 2012 hilsa production in the state was 8,510 tonnes. According to fisheries department data, 14,203 tonnes of hilsa were caught in 2016. As a result, trawlers [get] involved in destructive fishing practices to increase production numbers.”

Bottom trawling is prohibited up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline, but small fishers allege that trawlers start trawling just 1km from the coastline, thereby threatening the livelihoods of traditional small fishers. Moreover, trawler owners claim they do mid-level water trawling, but in reality it is similar to bottom trawling.

Professor Sugata Hazra, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University further elaborated:

“In the case of Tamil Nadu, after 12 nautical miles from the coastline you will [reach] deep sea. But in the northern Bay of Bengal, after 12 nautical miles the water level is shallow, as this area falls under the delta region. So, trawlers shouldn’t do fishing within 30 nautical miles from the Bengal coastline to stop habitat destruction of marine biodiversity.”


Fishing boats on the shore
Boats geared up for fishing near Haripur Beach in East Medinipur district of West Bengal / Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri/ The Quint

Ban Without Surveillance

In order to increase production of hilsa and other fishes, every year the Fisheries Department of West Bengal issues notifications to control fishing. According to a circular, from 15 April to 31 May, fishing is prohibited in the sea and adjoining areas.

Moreover, a special ban is imposed specifically for the conservation of hilsa during 15 September to 24 October. This system was initiated for the undisturbed breeding of hilsa. Besides fishing, selling, transporting and hoarding of hilsa, less than 23cm long is prohibited.

However, Shyamal from the Dakhhinbongo Matsajibi Forum said, “This is just an eyewash from the state fisheries department.”

In the absence of government surveillance, juvenile hilsa fishing goes on. Shyamsundar Das, secretary of the trawler owners’ association under the United Fishermen’s Association, denied all allegations against trawlers and dismissed the claim of overfishing.

“How do you define overfishing while the government has not yet put any limitation per trawler?" he asked.

Chandranath Sinha, West Bengal's Minister of Fisheries, said, “Overall, the fisheries department has successfully implemented the fishing ban during the spawning period across the coast. Few fishers from Odisha used to catch juvenile fishes and then export it to West Bengal market.”

He further explained that the state government continuously conducted awareness campaigns among fishers about the ill impact of overfishing.

“The state has notified [them of] the ban, but there’s no surveillance on ground," said Professor Hazra. "Bangladesh has a strict winter ban during September-October. There are many instances that they [Bangladesh] burnt nets and all fishing equipment [of] those who ventured into fishing during this period. Our government must take such steps to minimise the destruction."

Fishermen in West Bengal port
Nowadays, most labours working on trawlers come from Jhargram, West Medinipur district, say traditional fishers alleging that fishing space is gradually occupied by those from other livelihood backgrounds. / Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri/ The Quint

Disproportionate Subsidies

With the fishing space so crowded and the catch uncertain, respecting restrictions on the size of the fishing net or the ban on catching small-sized hilsa becomes a real challenge. The state fisheries department started a livelihood scheme in 2013-14, but there have been several difficulties in implementation.

"The department has started data collection about the number of fishers who depend on hilsa for a livelihood, but the data is not yet available," said Mallik, from the small fishers’ union of Sagar Island. The lack of data has led to uneven distribution of benefits, he alleged. "Even vending units given to the panchayats were distributed to those who are not engaged in hilsa fishing at all.”

Earlier, there was a savings cum relief scheme for fishers where individual fishers contributed Rs900 (US$12) and state fisheries departments and the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB) contributed the same amount.

“This scheme is not active anymore. The state says the central government isn’t giving their share,” said Shyamal. Moreover, there is no subsidy available for small fishers in the state. “Trawlers get modernised jetties, toilets and free ice inside the harbour, but there’s nothing for Khuti [fish landing centre] fishers. How will we [small fishers] survive during the ban period?” he asked.

Hilsa fish in Kolkata market
Huge quantities of hilsa fish have reached Kolkata market. Demand for hilsa in Bengali cuisine is always high / Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri/ The Quint

The state fisheries minister claimed, “All fishers in the state get Rs2 per kilogram of rice throughout the year. If anyone is left out of the list we will definitely include them.”

Many fishers in South 24 Parganas allege that benefits announced by the government do not reach all sections. “The trend that we are seeing is most fishermen migrate out of Bengal to Andhra Pradesh and Kerala for better livelihoods,” Abdar Mallik said.

Moreover, researchers claim there has been an overall decline in natural fish stocks in all of the major transboundary river systems across India and Bangladesh, impacting traditional small fishers.

The Bangladesh government has responded by introducing an extensive hilsa management action plan to increase hilsa production not only by conserving the juveniles but also by protecting the brood fish during breeding seasons by imposing a ban on fishing and restricting net mesh sizes. The Bangladesh government also offers vulnerable groups feeding programmes during the ban period.

Professor Hazra said that approach provides lessons for India.

“If the state government support fishers with alternative schemes during the ban period like Bangladesh does, we can successfully conserve hilsa as well as the livelihoods of fishers,” he said.

Tanmoy Bhaduri is Kolkata-based independent journalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It has been adapted from its original version for reposting here.

Banner image: Trawlers returned from deep-sea park at Petuaghat fishing harbour in East Medinipur district. Researchers claim the number of boats engaged in fishing increased by 25% between 2002 and 2015 / Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri/ The Quint

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