One day a professor of our university was talking about hilsa fish while delivering his lecture in the class. He told us that hilsa is not only available in Bangladesh but in some other countries as well. “However, as soon as it crosses the border of Bengal, it seems to lose its real taste (flavor),” the professor said, implying that hilsa fish which grows in the rivers of Bangladesh are much tastier than those growing in the water of other countries. Was it an exaggeration or a fact? Well, I did not know about it at that time. But after going to the local fish market, I have often heard people asking the fishmongers whether the hlisa selling there had been brought from Barisal or Chittagong, or if the fish had been netted from Padma or Meghna, and many such questions. So, people turn so meticulous and often judge like connoisseurs while buying hilsa fish in the market. Later, I have known that the taste of hilsa fish varies depending on different regions, so from where they are netted is a considerable fact.
Well, hilsa fish is really a special fish for the Bengali people. This silver fish is not only our national fish but a natural gift for us as well. At present, Bangladesh is the highest grower of hilsa fish among the eleven countries where this fish is available, and the rate of its production is on the rise here. The importance of this silver fish lies not only in its being an appetizing food item of Bengali cuisine but also in the substantial economic and cultural significance it bears.
There is a Bengali proverb ‘Mas-e Vat-e Bangali’ (Bangladeshis are fond of rice and fish). This refers to our convention or habit of eating fish with rice. Indeed, Bengalis in general relish fish; but when it comes to eating hilsa fish, people’s choice is quite common and unanimous. It is also associated with our thousand-year-old culture and tradition. On different occasions, people buy hilsa fish for preparing many appetizing dishes and eat that food items with great enthusiasm and satisfaction. For example, having ‘panta-ilish’ is the traditional way to celebrate Pahela Baishakh, the first day of the Bengali New Year. It is customary for the people to have fried hilsa with ‘Panta Bhat’ (fermented rice) on this day. In our country hilsa fish is also used as a gift during a wedding ceremony. On the day of ‘Gaye Holud’ (a wedding event), the family of the groom presents a pair of hilsa fish to the family of the bride. And when special guests come home, they are often entertained by the hilsa fish.
Well, hilsa is considered the tastiest item among the Bengal culinary delights. There are numerous ways of cooking hilsa fish. And it is said that Bengali people can cook hilsa fish in more than 108 distinct ways applying their indigenous culinary arts. One of the most popular Bengali cuisines is ‘Shorshe Ilish’, a dish of smoked hilsa fish cooked with mustard-seed paste.
Usually during monsoon, a huge number of hilsa fish is found in the rivers of Bangladesh. School of mother hilsa fishes gather in the rivers during this season. At this time, hilsas are mostly available from 1200 to 1300 kilometers upstream of the river and up to 250 kilometers away from the coast. When hilsa fishes come to the rivers from the sea and swim in the river, they are said to get even testier (after washing away their saltiness in the river-water).
World Fish, an International fish research organization, says that hilsa is found in the coasts of Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Iran and in some other countries. However, Bangladesh, a country with rich inland waters and river systems, has huge potential for increasing the production of hilsa fish. According to a report published in a leading newspaper of the country, around sixty percent of the fish is caught in Bangladesh, which amounted to 3.87 lakh metric tons in 2015. It was also reported that twenty percent of the fish is netted in Myanmar, while fifteen percent in India. And the rest are found in Bahrain, Pakistan, Oman, China and some other countries.
As Bangladesh is the chief producer of hilsa and exports a huge amount of it every year, it is really a matter of pride for us that we have recently obtained GI registration for our popular national fish hilsa from the Department of Patents, Designs and Trademarks (DPDT). It is to inform the readers that Geographical Indication (GI) is a name or sign used on products in order to indicate a specific geographical location or origin of the product. GI certifies that the product possesses certain qualities, is made according to traditional methods, or enjoys a certain reputation. Having a geographical indication brings a worldwide reorganization for a product, ultimately benefiting the people directly or indirectly involved in the trade. Studies indicate that that buyers pay at least ten to thirty percent higher prices for a high-quality GI product. Whereas hilsa fish contributes around 1% to the country’s GDP now, it going to contribute to our economy more appreciably in the near future.
It is also mentionable that around four million people in the country are either directly or indirectly involved in catching and trading hilsa fish.
However, about a decade ago, the production of hilsa in our country began to decrease alarmingly. The unavailability of the silver fish in the rivers of Bangladesh, which was chiefly attributed to overfishing, catching mother hilsa during the spawning periods and netting Jatka fish (hilsa less than ten inches) by the fishermen inconsiderately, led to a skyrocketing price of hilsa in the country. At that time, hilsa fish was out of reach for the lower-income people.
Fortunately, our government came up with some effective strategies and undertook a timely action to save the fish that was on the verge of extinction. It started identifying the breeding spots of hilsa since 2002 and kicked off a project to conserve Jatka hilsa in 2004. In addition, the subsequent government slapped bans on catching jatka and mother hilsas in different breeding zones, restricting the netting of hilsa illegally. It also took initiatives to raise awareness among the fishermen and dissuaded them from catching hilsa during ban. And the executive magistrates conducted mobile courts from time to time in order to punish people who were catching, selling, transporting, storing or exchanging hilsa fish during the ban. On the other hand, government also provided the professional fishermen with some compensation so that they would not have to suffer during the ban. Thus, by performing a series of activities successfully, Bangladesh has almost doubled its hilsa production just within the last 12 years. Now, it is sold in the country at a fairly affordable price and it is even possible for the low-income people to buy a piece of hilsa fish for their family. Here, the role of government’s Ministry of Fisheries & Livestock is really commendable and it deserves an enormous credit.
Finally, it can be said that hilsa is a blessing for the people of Bangladesh, a wealth belonging to every citizen of the country. However, we export our national fish with a view to earning foreign currency. But by doing so excessively, we should not deprive our people of hilsa. The businessmen should not export a major share of hilsa fishes in hope of earning greater amount of money, depriving the people of our country, who deserve the first chance to buy it. So government should always have a hand in the distribution of hilsa. Moreover, they should also carefully deal with the situation so that the poor fishermen do not have to suffer in any way.