Bangladesh: protecting the Hilsa from overfishing


IIED has launched a new project that aims to reduce overfishing of the hilsa fish in Bangladesh.

Fishermen in Bangladesh collecting the day's catch (Photo: Espen Rasmussen/PANOS)

The Hilsa fish, called ‘Ilish’ in Bengali, is of national importance to Bangladesh. It’s one of the country’s main staple foods.

But increased demand for the fish, which is popular throughout South Asia, has led to pressure on the fish species. Not only is the Hilsa in trouble, but so are the 3 million fishermen, fisherwomen and fishery workers who directly or indirectly depend on the fish for their livelihood.

Bangladesh has recognised that something needs to be done. The government has already declared four areas as sanctuaries for the fish. In return for not fishing in these areas affected fishing communities or households are rewarded with sacks of rice or provided with microcredit to start up small businesses to replace the lost income. This is an example of how economic incentives can be used to conserve fish resources.

However the scheme is not without its flaws. Knowledge gaps highlight the need for further research into the effects the sanctuaries are having on hilsa stocks, and also how the scheme is reaching and affecting those people who depend on the fish for a living, particularly the poorest and most marginalised fishing communities.

IIED has launched a project that aims to fill this gap by redesigning the system that rewards people who help to protect it. Working in partnership with Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and Bangladesh Agricultural University and in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries of the Government of Bangladesh, we will work with affected communities and ecosystems to learn about what is working and what is not, and to find ways to improve it.

The approach

The research team aims to generate information to inform the decision-making process through:  

  1. Ecological and socioeconomic assessments. Ecological baseline assessments will aim to better understand the current complex marine biodiversity and how the ecosystems function, and will encompass biological, physical and chemical characteristics of the fish and their habitat. The current socioeconomic characteristics of the fishing communities will also be analysed to better understand how people are making a living from fishing. Social baseline assessments will include identifying key stakeholders to be interviewed to find out their preferences for how they will be compensated for not fishing, and the types of compensation they prefer.
  2. We will assess both the technical and institutional capacity of relevant government authorities and communities. Once the assessment is completed we will identify the necessary institutional structures that need to be in place to ensure that a properly functioning payment mechanism is sustained after the project ends.
  3. We will design equitable benefit distribution systems that aim to both fairly and equitably distribute payments and conserve biodiversity. This component of the research project will shed light on “who gets what and why?”
  4. National hilsa conservation fund The government earns an average of $630 million – a considerable sum – from hilsa exports annually. Earmarking tax revenue for the scheme and/or an additional levy on exports through private sector engagement will also be explored in order to ensure the financial sustainability of the compensation scheme.