The Minister for Fisheries and Livestock of the Government of Bangladesh, Mr Mohammad Sayedul Haque, opened a meeting this week hosted by the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) and the UK’s International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), where scientists from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar are calling on their countries for a shared plan for sustainably managing the hilsa fishery.

 

 The hilsa fish (called llish in Bengali) is one of Bangladesh’s staple foods and supports the livelihoods of 3 million people in Bangladesh alone. But hilsa migrates across the Bay of Bengal and more than 90 per cent of the global catch is shared between neighbouring countries Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.

 Increased demand across the three countries for hilsa is putting pressure on the species, say scientists at the end of a three year research programme funded by the UK’s Darwin Initiative that has been looking at ways to conserve this vital hilsa fish resource. The research programme carried out by BCAS, BAU and IIED in partnership with the Department of Fisheries of the Government of Bangladesh shared the results of its findings in a report presented at the two-day meeting in Dhaka.

 “Fisheries resources across the bay of Bengal are being degraded and overexploited at an alarming rate” says Dr Essam Yassin Mohammed of the IIED, “One of the rare examples of both mismanagement and restoration of fisheries using an economic incentive-based mechanism is Bangladesh’s most important single-species fishery: hilsa.”

 Government officials, fisheries managers and scientists, donors, and members of civil society groups from the three countries came together to work out the most effective ways to respond to these findings and manage a plan for better sustainability of the hilsa fishery. This will build on the work of the Bangladeshi government to find the right economic incentives for fishermen to fish sustainably and keep their livelihoods.

 Mr Haque said he believed that the meeting “will implant the seed of hope on hilsa fishery to feed the future generation of this region” and he gave assurance “that all possible measures will be taken by the Govt. of Bangladesh for collaborative cooperation among Bangladesh, India and Myanmar for sustainable development, conservation and management of hilsa fish”.

 Dr Khin Maung Soe, former Director of Research and Development at the Department of Fisheries of Myanmar, also highlighted that the hilsa fishery in Bangladesh hit bottom rock just shy of 2,500 metric tons in 2015/16 — relative to almost 16,000 metric tons in 2006/7. Dr Soe mentioned that a similar approach to that of Bangladesh could perhaps be trialled to find an alternative model to the traditional command-and-control approach to hilsa management. Only then, he said, “hilsa population can recover and become abundant and affordable for all, not just the wealthy few.”

 The participant from the West Bengal State of India, Dr Utpal Bhaumik, reminded the participants of the seminar that hilsa is a commonly shared resource and of the concerted effort to enhance sustainable management of hilsa fishery in the region. While a similar model of incentive-based scheme may be piloted in India, the challenges associated with identifying genuine fishers and freeriding would be difficult. He said that he is hopeful that a number of lessons from the findings of the Darwin Initiative hilsa project would be transferable and could be utilised to inform the introduction of a similar scheme in West Bengal State.

 

Dr Arif Syed Azad, Director General of the Department of Fisheries, on his part expressed his gratitude for the support provided by the Darwin Initiative for bringing three of the most prominent fish producing countries in the world to initiate transboundary hilsa fishery management and other marine and riverine resources.

 

As well as a crucial chance to share learning from the project and between the stakeholders, the seminar provided the much needed platform for all parties to agree the need for and begin to design an initiative for transboundary hilsa management. The lessons learned by each of the three nations will be taken forward as a regional plan, which IIED, BCAS and BAU look forward to supporting in the future.