silvery white plump hilsa fishes

Overfishing of the Hilsa Fish and its Impacts on Bengali Culture

Fish is a staple in Bengali cuisine. It is the most important food item after rice, in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, as it is both a source of protein and healthy fats. In addition to that, fishing is the main source of income and livelihood for millions of Bengalis as the region partially borders the Bay of Bengal, and because it is blessed with many rivers flowing through its lands. Fish, therefore, is more than just a source of food. It holds equal economic and cultural importance for Bengalis in both Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

One fish, in particular, the Hilsa (Tunualosa ilisha), stands out from the rest. Locally known as Ilish maach, it is hands down the most preferred fish of Bengalis. Its superior quality, texture, flavour, fattiness and health benefits make it a food item that is always in demand. Currently, it is one of the most expensive fishes in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. In fact, up until 2020, it was considered to be India’s most expensive fish. The fish is so important to Bengalis that it is the state fish of West Bengal and the national fish of Bangladesh.

In today’s post, we will first discuss the reasons that make Hilsa culturally special to Bengalis. Then, we will learn about the ecological issues that threaten the survival of the Hilsa fishes and how that is impacting the Bengali culture. Lastly, we shall see what is being done to solve the issues and what more we, as consumers, can do, to be part of the solution.


About Ilish Maach

Ilish maach, also known as the Silver Queen of the river, is a type of herring that can be found in the stretch of water between the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf. The hilsa fishes found in the Bay of Bengal are of the most supreme quality.

Around 70% of all Hilsa in the world is produced by Bangladesh, followed by India with 15% of production, followed by Myanmar and the Persian Gulf.

The silver and white-skinned fish spend their time in the sea but they travel to freshwater for spawning and breeding. They’re caught as they make the trip to the rivers and estuaries, and on their way back to the sea. This is because freshwater hilsa is more delicious compared to the ones at sea. The fishes, therefore, are mostly found in coastal rivers.

silvery white skinned fish
Hilsa, Silver Queen of the Rivers. Image Credit: Indrajit Lahiri via Moha Mushkil

In India, it’s found in rivers such as the Ganga, Bhagirathi, Hooghly, Rupnarayan, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Narmada and Tapti Rivers. And, in Bangladesh, it is found in the Padma, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Tetulia, Karnafuly Andhermanik, Bashkhali and Baleshor Rivers. Hilsa from the Chandpur district in Bangladesh, through which the Padda River flows, is believed to have the best Hilsa on the planet.

The fish would be tricky to consume for those who’ve never tried it before due to the sheer amount of small and sharp bones that it has but, once they get past it and taste the flesh, they’ll truly reap the benefits of their hard work. The fish meat is succulent, tender, rich and extremely flavourful. The best part is that it is high in proteins and omega 3 fatty acids, which are said to decrease cholesterol and insulin levels.  Overall, it’s a mouth-watering dish to die for.

Hilsa is therefore always in demand, but a good quality fish is hard to find. This is because good Hilsa is only available for one season in a year, which is during the monsoon. As such, the fish is treated as a luxury product and reserved only for celebrations. It is cooked with the utmost love and care and relished while eating.


Cultural Importance of Hilsa to Bengalis

Fish is part of the main course in Bengali cuisine and it is an item that is eaten every day. These days, it is usually served for lunch but, earlier, it was consumed both at lunch and dinner. For most Bengalis, Hilsa is consumed when there is a reason to celebrate or on auspicious days. Those who can afford it, consume it more frequently.

There are over 100 ways to cook ilish maach but, a popular way of preparing it is to steam it in mustard oil and mustard seed paste. The end result produces an aromatic, succulent dish, balanced in flavours that tingle the taste buds because of the spices. The spiciness in this dish can be compared to the kind of pungency wasabi has, but far mellower. The dish is called shorshe ilish bhapa (Steamed Hilsa with Mustard) and is served hot with a mound of white rice.

steamed ilish with mustard paste served with rice
Bhapa Shorshe Ilish. Image Credit: Archana’s Kitchen

The Hilsa, however, is much more than a food item. Ilish maach is also a symbol of the Bengali identity.

The quality of fish that is found in Bangladesh and West Bengal is incomparable to the Hilsa found in other places. So much so, that Hilsa is now a geographical indicator of Bangladesh. Meaning, the characteristics that Hilsa from Bangladesh has, are because of its geographical origin.

Additionally, Ilish maach is seen as a symbol of social status in Bengali society. As mentioned earlier, a good Ilish maach is hard to come by and even if it is available it comes at a high price. The ability to afford such a fish is highly regarded and the family consuming the fish is greatly respected.

The extraordinary taste of the fish has even motivated poets, singers, artists, writers and filmmakers to express their love for the fish through their work. Hence, the fish is even documented in Bengali literature and performing arts.

Bengalis often love bringing up fish in their daily adda sessions. Adda is the uniquely Bengali act of having a long and relaxed chat or discussion with friends. It is an integral part of Bengali culture. A favourite discussion topic that comes up in these adda sessions is to decide if Ilish maach from the Ganga River is better or the Padma river. The answer depends on one’s preference. The ones from the Padma are more moist and sweet, while the ones from the Ganga are slightly flakier.

group of people at an adda session
An ongoing adda session. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Overall, almost every Bengali has had their own memories of the Hilsa, some fun while some heartwarming. The taste of the fish brings back memories of home and family. It could be the memory of eating khichuri (a comforting dish made of lentils and rice) with a piece of ilish maach on the side in the monsoon. Or, of the days before the Partition of Bengal, of a time when Bengal was one. After all, the love for Ilish maach on both sides stays the same.

This only explains that there is indeed a valid reason as to why Bengalis are sensitive about the subject of Ilish maach.


The Use of Hilsa in Cultural and Religious Occasions

As the fish has such high cultural importance, over the centuries, it has found its place even in religious and ceremonies.

Ilish maach is a symbol of fortune and prosperity so, it is a part of many auspicious events. For example, on Bengali New Year or Poila Boishak, some Bengalis traditionally eat a meal of panta bhat (fermented rice) and ilish maach.

bengali new year feast fermented rice and ilish maach
Bengali New Year feast. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Another example is the gifting of a whole ilish at a wedding.

In Bengali weddings, the groom’s family gifts trays full of presents that would be useful to the bride. The bride’s family also presents the groom with trays full of gifts. These gift trays are called tattwa. The contents of the trays decorated and placed in creative ways. Some common gifts are cosmetics, sweets, clothes, dry fruits, shoes and even fish. However, fish is only gifted by the groom’s family to the bride, not the other way round.

On the tray, the priciest fish, which was usually ilish maach would be decorated like a bride with trousseau and jewellery.

By gifting a fresh and expensive fish, the groom’s family establishes a good bond with the bride’s family and extends their wishes to the bride as she prepares for the wedding.

hilsa fish wrapped in bridal wear
Hilsa fish in a tattwa. Image Credit: Wrytin

The Hilsa is also used to offer it to Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth and prosperity on Lakshmi Puja (puja meaning worship). On an auspicious day like this, jora ilish or a pair of Hilsa is offered. The pair of fishes symbolize the commencement of the mating season for the fishes, which begins around the time of Lakshmi Puja.

Offering fish to the Gods and Goddesses is particularly visible in Bangaal cultures. Bangaal is the term used to refer to Hindu Bengalis that were or are the original inhabitants of what is now Bangladesh. Many of them migrated to West Bengal before and during the partition of Bengal in 1947.  In their culture, many religious ceremonies involve offering superior fishes like the Hilsa to the Gods.


Overfishing: A Threat to the Survival of Hilsa

For the past few decades, unregulated and unsustainable fishing practices have led to a decline in the number of Hilsa in the waters.

Earlier, bigger fishes could be found in abundance. Now only a few smaller fishes can be found. Today, a good Hilsa of average size would weigh around 1.5kg and it would cost INR 1800 to 2500 per kilogram (USD$24-33 per kilogram). Catching such a fish must feel like winning the lottery.

Commercial fishermen and trawlers use massive fine mesh nets that they spread in deep waters and scoop up 20 times more fish than what fishermen on country boats or small-scale fishermen would catch.

motorized trawlers equipped to carry tonnes of fishes
Trawlers are responsible for overfishing. Image Credit: BBC

Moreover, due to the small size of the mesh, even younger fish that haven’t had the chance to lay eggs yet get caught. Taking away the chances of repopulating, thus threatening their existence. Plus, in recent years, fishermen have also been catching adult fishes right before they spawn to catch fishes with eggs because Hilsa roe is also a delicacy in high demand. Further taking away the opportunity for the fishes to repopulate.

The fishing community isn’t the only one to be blamed. The fishing community procures what the customers demand, so the consumers are equally at fault. Earlier, Hilsa was only eaten on special occasions and when it was in season. Now, on the other hand, consumers have more buying power with the increase in disposable income, so, they are able to afford the fish, even when they’re out of season.

The high demand for the fish has led to a decline in its numbers, which not only threatens the extinction of the species in the future but, it affects the marine ecosystem and the livelihoods of the fishing community.

In addition to overfishing, climate change and water pollution have also reduced the population of Hilsa in the Bay of Bengal and the rivers that they swim up to. Toxins seep into the water, leaving little clean space to allow proper growth. Problems introduced by humankind are disturbing the ecosystem and, at this rate, the Hila could become extinct.

There may be fishes that are similar to the Hilsa but they are nothing compared to the Hilsa found in rivers that swim up from the Bay of Bengal. Hence, it is irreplaceable.


Measures Taken to Protect the Hilsa

Both West Bengal and Bangladesh have imposed a ban on fishing activities during the breeding season. In Bangladesh, since 2011, there has been a ban on catching, selling, possessing and transporting fish between September and October, as that is when the eggs hatch and grow. In some years, the ban begins in October and ends in November.

Moreover, Bangladesh has declared six stripes of the following rivers as Hilsa sanctuaries:  The Meghna, Tentulia, Andharmanik and Padma Rivers, ensuring the younger fish have time to grow in their natural habitat and to maintain balance in the ecosystem.

In these sanctuaries, fishing of Hilsa is banned for two breeding seasons, one being between March and April and the other between November and January.

As an incentive, fishing communities are given around 20kg of rice per household, for not fishing Hilsa during these periods.  To also compensate for their loss of livelihoods, they are granted small credits to start small-scale businesses. In West Bengal, there is a similar ban put in place since 2013.

Additionally, the ban has put certain restrictions in place. For example, catching, selling, transporting or possessing Hilsa that are smaller than 23cm in length isn’t permitted. A fish shorter than that length indicates that it has never spawned in its entire lifespan.

Nets smaller than 90mm in mesh size aren’t permitted and trawling isn’t permitted within 12 nautical miles of the continental shelf.

Fishermen in Bangladesh repairing nets
Fishermen repairing nets. Image Credit: Firstpost

However, these restrictions are hard to implement due to severe economic losses that the fishing communities suffer upon obeying them. And providing rice is not enough or doesn’t compensate for the expenses that the fishing communities must take for the next fishing season, like repairing boats, buying nets, etc. It is important to note that fishing communities are some of the poorest in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Moreover, the regulations aren’t always feasible as the fishing space is so crowded that restrictions regulating the size of a fishing net cannot be implemented.

These efforts have shown some increase in the Hilsa population, but not enough to assure the survival of Hilsa in the long term.


Impact of Overfishing on Bengali Culture

Overfishing of the Hilsa will result in its scarcity in the future. Prices of fish will skyrocket by the day. What was once abundant and a part of everyday culture already feels like a rare commodity.

We can already see how the price and availability of Hilsa affect Bengali culture. In the Bengali wedding tattwas, for example, the fish used to gift the bride was traditionally Hilsa, but now, it has been replaced by a large rohu fish instead.

Since the Hilsa is interwoven into the Bengali culture, total depletion of the fish would mean that Bengalis of the future won’t be able to experience an integral part of their culture.

fishseller selling fish at a traditional market
Image Credit: Outlook India

To make sure such a case never arises, along with stricter government regulations and monitoring, changes to our consumption patterns must be made. For example, if purchasing just one or two fish suffices, then there is no need to purchase dozens, just because one has the ability to do so. In addition, buying in-season fish would mean people would no longer demand younger fish. So, they can go on to reaching adulthood. And, lastly, it is only respectful to utilize all parts of the fish while preparing it, so nothing goes to waste.


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