Investing in hilsa fishery as economic infrastructure for Bangladesh

March 2015 to December 2016

Anecdotal evidence suggests that hilsa fishery is a highly valuable asset to the economy of Bangladesh, and the use of economic incentives to manage the fishery has had positive social and ecological outcomes. This project aims to provide evidence by estimating the economic value of hilsa fishery and rigorously assessing the impact of the economic incentive mechanism.

Hilsa catch at Chandpur landing centre, Bangladesh (Photo: Essam Yassin Mohammed/IIED)

Of the total catch of fish produced in Bangladesh each year, 11 per cent is hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha). Around 287,000 fishers depend directly on fishing hilsa for their livelihood and an estimated 2–2.5 million people are involved in activities throughout the supply chain — transportation, marketing, processing, and other post-harvest activities.

Hilsa is the 'national fish' of Bangladesh — it is the fish of choice for most people and is of both religious and cultural importance. 

Once abundant in Bangladesh's 100 rivers, hilsa was widely caught by fishers to sell to local and urban markets. But hilsa production began to decline in the 1970s, reaching an all-time low of just 0.19 million tonnes in 2001-02.

The fall in production prompted the Bangladeshi government to ringfence five sites in the country's coastal rivers as hilsa 'sanctuaries', where fishing is restricted during the breeding season.

To compensate for loss of earnings, the government began providing 'affected' fishing communities with rice and alternative income-generating activities. This compensation scheme is meant to both offset the short-term cost of fishing restrictions, and induce behavioural change by incentivising fishers to change their unsustainable fishing practices.

What will IIED do?

As part of the effort to enhance the effectiveness of the incentive-based management scheme and make the case for an increased investment in the sector, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), in partnership with the WorldFish Centre, will work towards filling the knowledge gap on:

  1. Estimating the economic value of hilsa fishery
  2. Examining both social and ecological impacts of the incentive-based scheme, and
  3. Assessing the profitability, power structures, financing opportunities and systemic constraints along the supply chain.

This work will primarily contribute to the overall objective of the USAID-funded EcoFishBD project. This project aims to improve resilience and governance of the Padma-Meghna river-estuarine ecosystem, and livelihoods of communities reliant on hilsa fisheries. It is managed by the WorldFish Center.

The approach

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

  1. Unearthing the hidden value of hilsa
    It is estimated that hilsa makes up one per cent of Bangladesh's gross domestic product (Wahab et al. 2014). But the true economic value of hilsa fishery is likely to be much higher.

    Because hilsa fishing is largely informal, markets do not easily capture its true monetary and non-monetary values and the sector remains poorly accounted for in national accounts. As a result — despite the government's efforts to promote it — it is rarely given the attention it deserves in policy decisions about economic development, poverty alleviation, food security, conservation or environmental sustainability.

    An explicit understanding of the total economic value of hilsa fisheries is needed to stop the sector being overlooked or underestimated in decision-making processes. To date there has been no study done to estimate the sector's total economic value. Yet such an accurate estimate could equip policymakers with the evidence they need to adequately invest in developing hilsa fishery as an economic infrastructure.

    We will estimate both the use (consumptive) and non-use (non-consumptive) values of hilsa fishery.
  2. Evaluating the impact of the compensation scheme
    Anecdotal evidence suggests that the compensation scheme has had positive impacts both on hilsa population and the livelihoods of thousands of fishers. But there has been no rigorous impact evaluation — and researchers agree that one is sorely needed. A properly designed impact evaluation is particularly important because it shows whether the intervention is working or not, and can be used to inform decisions about scaling up.

    In thinking about how to evaluate impacts, it is important to distinguish between the monitoring of outcomes, which is a description of the factual; and the use of 'counterfactuals; to attribute observed outcomes to the intervention.

    Like many developing world fisheries, Bangladesh's hilsa fishing is characterised by limited data, which means we cannot do a before-and-after evaluation of the compensation scheme. We will therefore use an 'ex-post' impact evaluation technique, such as 'propensity score matching'. We will assess the scheme's impacts in three main areas: 1) livelihoods/poverty alleviation; 2) ecology or hilsa population and biodiversity in general; and 3) local economy – such as food price and labour market distortions.
  3. Harnessing market forces to ensure sustainable financing
    One of the most important factors that will help or hinder the compensation scheme's sustainability is continued financing. In this project, we will use value/supply chain analysis to map key actors (both formal and informal) enabling factors, and systemic constraints such as access to microcredit and other key services. We will also assess power structures and profitability among different stakeholders to identify features that limit net returns by hilsa fishers.

    Finally, we will map direct beneficiaries along the supply chain (including fish processors, exporters, service providers and so on) and explore the potential of introducing a service fee (payment) as an alternative financing mechanism.


Finding evidence for the impact of incentive-based hilsa fishery management in Bangladesh: combining theory-testing and remote sensing methods, Annabelle Bladon, Md. Abu Syed, S.M. Tanvir Hassan, Ahmed Tahmid Raihan, Md. Nasir Uddin, Md. Liaquat Ali, Shahajat Ali, Md. Belayet Hussein, Essam Yassin Mohammed, Ina Porras, Paul Steele (2016) Working paper.

Hilsa’s non-consumptive value in Bangladesh: Estimating the non-consumptive value of the hilsa fishery in Bangladesh using the contingent valuation method, Essam Yassin Mohammed, Liaquat Ali, Shahjat Ali, Belayet Hussein, Md Abdul Wahab, Nathan Sage (2016) Working paper.





WorldFish: an international, non-profit research organisation that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty. Globally, more than one billion poor people obtain most of their animal protein from fish and 800 million depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. WorldFish is a member of CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. 

Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS): an independent, non-profit, non-government, policy, research and implementation institute working on sustainable development at local, national, regional and global levels. It was established in 1986 and over 25 years has grown to become a leading research institute in the non-government sector in Bangladesh and South Asia.