UK's Darwin Initiative funded project strives to reduce threats to hilsa fish

News, 19 January 2015
Senior Bangladeshi officials, researchers and IIED staff have met to review a project that aims to restore hilsa fish stocks and create a sustainable fishing industry in the country. The UK-funded project uses economic incentives to improve fisheries management and secure the livelihoods of fishing communities.

Government officials and researchers discuss the future of hilsa management on 19 January (Photo: Essam Mohammed/IIED)

Today, officials from the Department of Fisheries of the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock welcomed a meeting with researchers to discuss the future of hilsa management. Called 'Ilish' in Bengali, the hilsa is of national importance to Bangladesh as one of the country's main staple foods.

The researchers, from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) have been working in partnership with the Department of Fisheries on a research project (see note 1), funded by the UK's Darwin Initiative, which aims to reduce threats to hilsa fish and biodiversity in the Lower Meghna region.

Once abundant in the Bay of Bengal and hundreds of rivers in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar that feed it, the Hilsa fish declined steeply in numbers since the 1970s, largely because of overfishing.

In 2004, after pressure on the fish species – which is popular throughout South Asia – had grown, the Government of Bangladesh declared four coastal areas as hilsa sanctuaries, in which fishing is illegal during the fish's breeding season.

The Department of Fisheries has made commendable efforts to ensure sustainable management of hilsa fishery in Bangladesh, compensating the nearly 200,000 affected households with 30 kilogrammes of rice each and for the last ten years.

Dr Essam Yassin Mohammed, a senior researcher with IIED, explained: "Unlike in many other countries that resort to command-and-control measures to manage their fisheries resources, the Government of Bangladesh has introduced a rare example of compensation scheme to alleviate the short-term cost of fishing restrictions borne by poor fisher communities. What makes it even rarer is that the government developed and funds the scheme without any external assistance."

However, as the hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) fishery employs nearly half a million full-time and 2.5 million part-time workers, making up around a quarter of the Bangladesh fisheries sector it is vital that this industry has a sustainable future which supports the people involved and allows fish stocks to recover.

The research team, in partnership with the Department of Fisheries, have identified some critical knowledge gaps that need to be filled through rigorous research (see note 2).

At the request of the director general of the Department of Fisheries Dr Md. Arif Azad, the team organised a briefing meeting with senior officials from the department, to share knowledge generated through the research since its inception.

Mohammed added: "So far, the main lessons we have learned while carrying out our research is that there is a need to align the preference of the fishers with the actual compensation that is provided. The cost-effectiveness of the scheme could also be improved by simplifying the lengthy, complex and costly targeting and distribution processes.

"Further efforts should be made to effectively target the most vulnerable fishers, and if fish stocks are to continue recovering, we should take notice of the results of our assessment of the reproductive cycle and habitat of hilsa. We hope the research findings will inform the design of the compensation scheme so that it delivers near maximum social and ecological benefits."

At the briefing session, Dr Azad said: "Hilsa is the national fish of Bangladesh. It is part of our identity. The government is investing its own resources to manage hilsa fishery sustainably. We are pleased that IIED, BCAS and BAU are working together through the financial support of the UK's Darwin Initiative to enhance the effectiveness of our economic incentive mechanism.

"We are the pioneers in the use of a direct economic incentive-based fisheries management and we would like to inspire other countries across the globe to introduce the same mechanism."

Mr Zahid Habib, director of the government-sponsored compensation scheme, who was also at the briefing meeting, emphasised that: "The economic incentive-based hilsa fishery management is a unique approach we introduced to induce behavioural change of fishers to ensure the livelihoods of fishers are improved and hilsa fishery is sustainably managed.

"Our initiative is very dynamic. We will therefore continue to work closely with the IIED, BCAS and BAU team to take on board their recommendations and further improve our programme."

When asked about his hopes for the future of this project, Mr Liaquat Ali, senior fellow with BCAS, said: "The ideal outcome is that our work with IIED, BAU and the Department of Fisheries will lead to a resilient and healthy hilsa fishery. This should include a recovered fish stock, a sustainable compensation scheme and improved livelihoods for the fishers."


For more information and interviews, contact:
IIED: Dr Essam Yassin Mohammed ( [English]
BCAS: Mr Liaquat Ali ( [Bangla and English]

Katharine Mansell
Media and external affairs manager

International Institute for Environment and Development
80-86 Gray’s Inn Road
London WC1X 8NH, UK.
Tel: +44 (0)20 3463 7399
Fax: +44 (0)20 3514 9055


Notes to editors

1)      The project is funded by the UK Government's Department for Environment and Rural Affairs Darwin Initiative and runs from April 2013 to March 2016.

2)    The research project aims to enhance the effectiveness of the government sponsored compensation scheme through:

  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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?"
  • 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. 

IIED: The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development.
Bangladesh Agricultural University: Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) is the premier seat of higher agricultural education and research in the country. The university was established as the nation's only university of its kind in session 1961-62 on the basis of recommendations made by the Commission of National Education and the Food and Agriculture Commission in 1959. The university formally came into existence on 2 September 1961. The missions of Bangladesh Agricultural University have been to develop the art and science of agriculture for the wellbeing of mankind, and to educate agriculturists of high standards of scientific, managerial and professional competence in harmony with the environment, and to share knowledge and skills with world partners.
Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies: The Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) is an independent, non-profit, non-government, policy, research and implementation institute working on Sustainable Development (SD) at local, national, regional and global levels. It was established in 1986 and over 25 years and has grown to become a leading research institute in the non-government sector in Bangladesh and South Asia.

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