Supply of Ilish or Hilsa, Kolkata’s staple fish, is at an all time low

Catching juvenile fish means wiping out a generation and this has been going on for the last six-seven years.

 |  4-minute read |   03-08-2017
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It’s raining cats and dogs in Bengal. Pipinghot Khichidi is on Bengali platter sans its partner—ilish maach bhaja (fried Hilsa fish). The hot Jodi of the monsoon is missing. Where have the illish gone?

It was the financial year 2012-13. West Bengal suddenly saw a 67 per cent dip in Ilish (Hilsa) supply. The preceding fiscal had just been unimaginably good: an unprecedented 29,331 tonnes of Ilish (Hilsa) in the Bengal markets and consequently a long Hilsa season of mouth-watering delicacies — ilish bhnapa, doiilish, ilish bhaja in the Bengali kitchen.

The plunge from 29,331 tonnes to 9,532 tonnes within a year’s time took everyone by shock. While scientists were pondering over physiological, environmental and other sundry reasons behind the supply going down, diplomats had something else to worry about. The year — 2012-13 of poor supply saw zero export from Bangladesh. The previous year, however had seen 5,210 tonnes of Padmar Ilish, the tasty variety of fish, coming to Bengal in crates.

Swimming back in time to September 2011, it was also the year, which was to see two countries — India, Bangladesh being netted together over the Teesta Water sharing pact. There was bonhomie in anticipation of the deal and Bangladesh was all set to welcome the Indian guests with a sumptuous Hilsa spread.

The then Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh was all set to fly to Bangladesh with Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, in tow as getting the latter on board to sign the agreement was crucial. But Mamata pulled out at the last moment citing that the Teesta water sharing pact would be conflicting in the interest of the state.

The agreement could not be signed and the Hilsa lunch thrown in honour of the guests could not be relished. As speculation went rife as to how would Sheikh Hasina digest the ditch, within months it came to be known that Bangladesh would not export Hilsa to Bengal.

New hopes were rekindled in 2016 when Mamata Banerjee won the Assembly election and Sheikh Hasina sent her 20kg carton of Hilsa as a symbolic gesture that the silver beauty from across the border would perennially land on Bengal’s platter, provided there was no lock-jam over Teesta water deal. Since then, the Teesta water pact has got mired into new controversies and Hilsa from Padma never came officially.


Hilsa or the silver crop of the waters started falling after the 2.24km Farakka barrage with 106 lock gates came up across Ganges in Farakka in Murshidabad district in 1975. The barrage was constructed for diversion of 40,000 cusec water at Farakka to downstream Hooghly for flushing out the siltation, but it in turn destroyed the Hilsa corridor.

Prior to the barrage, Hilsa would migrate beyond Farakka to Rajmahal, Bhagalpur, Ara and Samstipur in Bihar, Allahabad in UP and Agra in Delhi to spawn and lay their eggs in upstream Ganges.

“The route got dammed and Bihar and Agra got deprived of a reasonably huge catch of 30,000 tonnes a year. Even Bengal was at the receiving end as Hilsa, known for being choosy about the place of breeding was looking for estu aries with reasonably good flow of fresh water and a deep draught,” said fish research scientist and former professor and head of marine science in Calcutta University, Amalesh Chaudhury.

Hilsa requires a minimum 20 meters depth of water for migration. “Where is that depth in the estuaries of Hooghly? Heavily silted and on top of that untreated sewerage, chemicals, industrial pollutants and discharge of unused fuel by the 14,000 fishing trawlers, going for Hilsa catch, are messing up the river mouths and the estuaries of the Sundervans delta.

According to Bijan Maity of Kakdweep Fishermen Welfare Association such is the pressure of fishing that even the ban on Hilsa fishing in the breeding months — late August to October, was forgotten. The crisis precipitated after 2014 when the Central Inland Fisheries allowed fishing boats to venture out from June 15th, which happens to herald the onset of monsoon and the peak migratory season for Hilsa for laying eggs in Bengal.

Catching juvenile fish means wiping out a generation and this has been going on for the last six-seven years. Talking of the crisis, Maity rued that such is the situation that this year the fishermen couldn’t even catch 10 per cent of what they fished last year. “Last year we could supply at least 15- 20 tonnes daily to the Kolkata market. This year, getting three tonnes is becoming a challenge,” said Maity. As a result, Ilish keeps eluding the Bengali tastebuds.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: Your horrorscope for September, 2016


Romita Datta Romita Datta

The writer is Associate Editor, India Today.

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