To catch a hilsa: Fading dreams in slow flowing rivers


Fishermen in Khulna can barely catch any hilsa from nearby rivers now. This photo captured recently shows a frustrated fisherman looking at his catch.

Pradip Mondal was ready for the silver rush. He had spent Tk1.5 lakh to build a fishing net.

He also took the help of three other fishermen to cast the net. This came alongside the daily Tk500 needed as fuel for their boat.

It was a pretty penny altogether, but the Kazibacha river in Khulna offered a bounty exceeding that. The treasure was in the form of the hilsa fish.

For the last ten days, however, Pradip hasn’t netted a single fish.

In the same period only last year, he was catching at least two to ten hilsa fish per day.
Something, however, had gone terribly wrong. It was the best laid plans of men and mice: the bait was set, but nothing was biting.

Pradip’s predicament is shared by other fishermen in the area.

Fishermen in Khulna can barely catch any hilsa from nearby rivers now. This photo captured recently shows a frustrated fisherman looking at his catch.

A less flowing stream and reduced depth of Khulna rivers are causing fishermen to catch fewer amounts of hilsa.

The upstream part of the Kazibacha river is called Rupsa, and the downstream part is called Pashur. The Pashur river meets the Shibsa river through the Sundarbans and joins the Bay of Bengal, taking the name Kunga.

Fishermen said they used to catch lots of hilsa fish in the Sundarbans in Pashur and Shibsa rivers. However, they barely caught any hilsa from the rivers in the last five years.

One of the reasons behind this was the formation of chars, or sandbanks, at the place where the Kunga river meets the Bay. These chars have affected the flow of the rivers, creating an obstacle for fish swimming to the rivers from the Bay.

The Dublar Char and Dimer Char areas of the eastern forest division of the Sundarbans are located on one side of the Kunga River. The other side has the Nilkamal Wildlife Sanctuary Center.

Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Nilkamal Wildlife Sanctuary Centre Zahirul Islam Jewel said, “Huge chars have formed in the Morjat area of Kunga river, resulting in a decrease in the width and depth of the river. So, hilsa fish are no longer going to the river from the sea.”

However, there is hope on the Bay, where lots of hilsa are available in the part adjacent to Khulna. At present, fishermen are staying in Dublar Char and collecting hilsa from the Bay of Bengal, Forest Department officials said.

Officer-in-charge (OC) of Dublar Char Jele Palli police outpost Nasir Uddin said a lot of hilsa fish are now being caught in the sea adjacent to the Sundarbans.

“The fishermen are staying in Dublar Char with permission from the forest department and catching fish from the sea,” he added.

Fishermen staying at Dublar Char said Swatch of No Ground (SoNG) — the deepest trench in the Bay of Bengal — is 40 kilometres away from Dublar Char. But they are able to catch hilsa fish from some 20 kilometres into the sea from Dublar Char.

Even then, the number isn’t enough.

Asadul Islam, a marine fisherman who leads 20 men to fish from the deep sea, said the Bay of Bengal is now their only hope to catch hilsa fish.

“Ten years ago, we used to get more hilsa where Kunga meets the Bay of Bengal. However, the estuary no longer has the same current as before. So there is no hilsa there now.

Fishermen in Khulna can barely catch any hilsa from nearby rivers now. This photo captured recently shows a frustrated fisherman looking at his catch.

“The major rivers of our country are constantly losing flow. The only source of hilsa will be the Bay of Bengal in the future,” he predicted, adding that they are already getting early evidence of this happening from the areas adjacent to the Sundarbans.

Most of the hilsa fish caught from the Bay of Bengal adjacent to the Sundarbans are taken to the wholesale fish market of Khulna’s Rupsa Ghat and Ghat-7.

Traders buy saltwater fish from there to sell across the country.

Anwar, a trader at the wholesale fish market of Rupsa Ghat, said, “We get no freshwater hilsa in the market now.

“Hilsa is coming to the depot in sufficient quantity. Freshwater hilsa do not end up in the market anymore. If a fisherman successfully catches some freshwater hilsa from rivers, they end up selling them in the village markets,” he added.

The reduced amount of hilsa in the rivers has also caused many fishermen to leave the profession.

There are only 2,000 hilsa fishermen in the district now, according to sources at the Khulna District Fisheries Office. The number was 7,000 just ten years ago.

“The flow of most rivers in Khulna has decreased due to climate change. Hilsa fishes stay in the sea and enter rivers only to release eggs in places with heavy streams. No hilsa will be found in rivers with low streams,” Khulna District Fisheries Officer Joydeb Pal said.

However, the fishermen are catching more and more hilsa each year from the sea adjacent to the coast, he added.

Joydeb also said the authorities are trying to train the hilsa fishermen currently out of work to get them into other professions.

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