West Bengal: Its numbers dwindling, Hilsa may get legal protection

Experts predict that saving 1 per cent of these juveniles (weighing less than 500gms) could enhance production by 4000 tonnes per year.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | Kolkata | Published:January 18, 2017 1:12 am

After decades of migration barriers, over-fishing and pollution that have pushed the Hilsa fish to the brink of extinction, the state is planning to include provisions under penal codes that will allow the arrest of anyone buying and selling the variety weighing less than 500gms (also called juveniles).

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State fisheries minister Chandranath Sinha said, “The proposal was floated at a meeting of the fisheries department and we are speaking to the home department regarding the same to bring about provisions in CrpC and IPC. Moreover, we are taking all possible steps to ensure that the population of Hilsa is protected.”

With each monsoon, schools of the migratory Hilsa or Indian Shad (Tenualosa ilisha) swim in from the Bay of Bengal to the network of rivers for breeding. This migration has traditionally sustained the Hilsa fishery.

With the introduction of the provisions, Hilsa will become the first fish variety in the country to get legal protection. Government officials pointed out that presently, the department of fisheries has no punitive powers and the sale of small Hilsa, colloquially referred to as ‘khoka ilish’ needed to be stopped.

It wasn’t until 2013 that a specific notification was brought in by the West Bengal government to control overfishing and conserve the hilsa population. The notification lay prohibitions on catching of the fish using a gill net having mesh below 90mm, prohibited catching, transport or sale of small hilsa. It also declared five hilsa sanctuaries on the Hooghly river from Farakka to Sagar, covering a stretch of 250 km, where fishing has been banned between June-August and October-December.

“But even though these legislations exist, at present the fisheries department is quite toothless. With these provisions and the power to put customers in jails, we can actually control the sale of juvenile hilsa – which has to be stopped immediately,” said an official.

Officials in the fisheries department explained that the need for tough legislation was now more urgent than ever. One official spoke about the river, before 1972 – that saw the commissioning of the Farakka Barrage – where hilsa provided a lucrative livelihood for fishermen in mid-stretch of the river, generating employment for thousands of fishermen from not just Bengal, but also Bihar and UP.

All this has changed. The fragmentation of the river has blocked the migration of the mature fisher, from sea to river for breeding and also the downstream migration of their progeny into the sea. Consequently, hilsa fishery upstream has collapsed.

Assessment of the production trends of hilsa from 1961 to 2013 in the middle stretch of the Ganga by Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) revealed a significant decline in the annual average production from 36 tonness to 0.9 tonnes. Findings by CIFRI reveal that during the period 1998-2012, the average catch of juvenile hilsa (2 to 20grams) from the system was a staggering 85 tonnes per year. Experts predict that saving even 1 per cent of these juveniles could enhance the hilsa production by 4000 tonnes per year.

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