Want to know how to save a fish species? Ask a fisher

When Essam Yassin Mohammed asked a former fisherman in Bangladesh how to protect a fish that feeds millions of people, he learnt about four overlooked factors that intensify threats to the species.

Fishermen along the Meghna Rover (Photo: Essam Mohammed/IIED)

On a hot day in April 2014 I found myself at one of the main fish landing sites in Chandpur, a district of Bangladesh that flanks the Padma River. It's where many of the district's fisherfolk bring their catches to sell at auction.

The place was busy. Women picked out the very small fingerlings from big piles of fish so they could sell them in the market, and men cleaned, sanded and painted big ice boxes to store fish. Two sounds dominated – a carpenter making wooden crates and a rusty ice-crushing machine – and of course the area smelled like rotting fish. Call me weird but I find it soothing. 

Part of my reason for being there was to listen to what local fishers had to say about the Hilsa, a fish species that is arguably the most important to Bangladesh's economy but which faces several threats. The fish's fate will affect millions of people, which is why I am working with partners to identify ways to manage stocks sustainably and equitably.

One of the most interesting conversations I had in Chandpur was with Idris Ali, a stocky and well dressed man with a neatly trimmed orange beard, who community members have recently elected to help manage the landing site.

The wrong battle?

When I arrived at the landing site to meet Ali, one of his associates kindly gave me his seat and another offered me some sort of fizzy drink – which I must admit I enjoyed very much after walking a long way under the smouldering sun to get there. Ali sat down on a weathered, rusty chair by a large manual ice crusher and shouted instructions in Bengali to his subordinates, something he continued to do throughout our conversation. 

I briefly told Ali about our research project, then I asked him an intentionally open  question: "What do you think needs to be done to recover Hilsa stock?" Ali seemed to ignore me and proceeded to shout to his workers for a few seconds. Then he turned to me and, after a long pause, he said: "We are fighting the wrong battle".

The hilsa story

Battle is the right word. The Hilsa contributes as much as 14 per cent of total fish harvest in Bangladesh [PDF] and earns the country up to US$650 million every year in exports. Millions of people depend on Hilsa fishing, processing and trade for their livelihoods, but overfishing, habitat destruction and, arguably, climate change threaten the species. 

In 2003, the government established "sanctuaries" to conserve the Hilsa after two decades of significant catches. Nobody is allowed to catch Hilsa in these sanctuaries during times when the species breeds and spawns. There is some evidence that the population has increased as a result. But such gains carry some, at least short-term, economic and societal costs to households that rely on Hilsa fishing.

I used "short-term" income loss because I know some of you would argue that fishers will benefit in the long run from rising fish stocks. I couldn't agree more. But at the same time, we need to recognise that these households will bear some costs until the stocks recover. 
To compensate them, the government provides the "most affected" households with about 40 kilograms of rice each month for four months, alternative income generating activities such as sewing and rickshaw pulling, and some microcredit.

An expert's view

IIED and partners are assessing the implications of the government intervention to identify ways to improve it, which is why I was keen to learn what people like Idris Ali thought about the fish and its fate.

Ali told me that overfishing is just one of the problems but certainly not the only one. He then eloquently outlined four additional problems to address and speed the recovery of Hilsa stocks. As he spoke he used his fingers to keep a tally of the points he made.

1. A policy paradox promotes illegal fishing. First he told me that, under Bangladesh's Protection and Conservation of Fish Act, if the authorities find anyone using the fine-mesh monofilament net, they will confiscate their fishing equipment and may also impose a fine.

"Where do you think they are buying the monofilament fishing nets?" asked Ali, before pointing out the contradiction in policy, whereby the government bans fisherman from using the nets but permits many factories in the capital to produce them.

2. A Hilsa's home must be clean and deep. "Hilsa are quite beautiful and wise creatures," said Ali. "If the environment is not conducive, then they will migrate elsewhere. So we have to prepare a nice home for them." As a former fisherman and now what I would describe as more of an armchair fisherman, Ali knows what Hilsa fish need from their environment and that's deep, clear water.

He believes that damming, river diversion projects and uncontrolled sand and gravel mining from riverbeds have increased the amount of silt in the river, which has reduced water clarity and depth. His second point, then, was a persuasive case for more dredging in the river banks to remove the silt and deepen the water.

3. Law enforcers need night shifts. Ali was also critical of the way the authorities monitor and enforce the banning period and zone. Most of the policing activities happen during day time, but most Hilsa fishing is done at night. Ali thinks policing activities need to be intensified at night – and not much so during the day.

4. Loan sharks threaten Hilsa fish. Ali pointed his ring finger to introduce his fourth point. To me it was the most striking one. He told me that most of the fishermen are systematically trapped in debt to local money lenders called aratdars or dadons.

The fishermen who borrow money are obligated to hand all their catch to the money lenders who then decide its price. Some of this (up to 50 or 60 per cent) will be used to service the debt and the rest is given back to the fishermen in cash. Even during the fishing ban period, the fishermen are expected to repay their loans so they go fishing regardless of their ban period and zone. Ali sees two solutions: either provide fishermen with alternative microcredit, or encourage money lenders to freeze repayments during the ban period.

In just a short space of time Ali had shared four problems and provided practical solutions. His testimony is a reminder that policymaking must be based on grounded realities and that researchers can magnify local knowledge if they direct their questions to the right people. In the case of the Hilsa, that means talking to a lot more of the men and women who have been catching them for years.