Looking north for trans-boundary Hilsa cooperation
For the last few years, the fisherfolks of Assam are getting to catch Hilsa for a few weeks in a year. This indeed is a gift to our northern neighbours from the fisherfolks downstream, who restrain from fishing during those weeks, as we abide by the closure to protect the breeding Hilsa schools.
Assam government still doesn't have any regulation to manage Hilsa, but the West Bengal government does. So, a good portion of the Hilsa caught is Assam also ends up in West Bengal.
Last year's newspaper reports from Assam suggests that due to this increased catch, the usual Hilsa prices came down to around 230 Rs per kilos, which usual can be up over 1000 Rs per kilo. Yet, the cumulative amount of this catch is insignificant compared to the annual catch in Bangladesh, which still accounts for 50%-60% share of global Hilsa catch.
We can see from the data of the Department of Fisheries of the Government of Bangladesh that the Hilsa caught in Jamuna-Brahmaputra in 2016-17 was 412 metric tonnes only, which was 151 metric tonnes in 2015-16. This was fraction of a percent in the corresponding year's national annual catch of Hilsa in Bangladesh. But for Jamuna and Brahmaputra rivers, this was 180% and 148% growth respectively. It's not even confirmed whether this includes the data of the Hilsa caught during the fishing closure, 'illegally'.
Due to insignificant share in the total catch, Brahmaputra-Jamuna region is not at the centre of attention for Hilsa management. But it still is a big issue for the fisherfolks in Bangladesh's North Bengal and India's Lower Assam.
My work gives me the opportunity to go and talk with fisher folks in Kurigram district in the north. There, I see a mixed expression from the fishers about this re-found availability of Hilsa in their waters. They don't hide that they fish during the closure and their logic is simple, the fish is not available rest of the year! And we are talking about many thousands of fishers here.
These fishers know about the fishers in Assam as these communities are historically inter linked. They know that the fish schools eventually pass on to upstream communities. This creates a demotivation effect known as 'tragedy of the commons'; a situation in which over extraction happens in open access natural resource pools in the fear that someone else will eventually harvest even if it is not caught by one.
Government of Assam already has a two-month closure on fishing in Brahmaputra River for more than three months, starting usually from March-April. Closure during Hilsa spawning may be counted as an additional burden on their fishermen. Yet we have seen consultations going on about protecting Hilsa in the spawning season.
It clearly indicates that we need to think about mutual benefits between the upstream and downstream communities; not just between India and Bangladesh, but also between communities in the northern part of our country and the southern ones. It's a big challenge, but any overlooked problem only gets worse if not resolved on time.
In the age of Sustainable Development Goals, when all countries agree to leave no one behind, it is important to do justice with the marginal fishers of Bangladesh and India. Undoubtedly, we now need to move forward to integrated management of our river fisheries across borders.
To start with, the fisherfolks themselves in both the countries need to be onboard in debates and discussions. Especially if we are willing to see a participatory and community managed river fishery across borders, that will continue to serve us with Hilsa and other delicious river fish, for many more years.
The writer is country coordinator for a regional initiative of Oxfam