Early this year, in the second week of April, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina briefly took charge of the sprawling kitchen at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. On a state visit to India, she expressed a desire to cook the then President Pranab Mukherjee a delicacy he relishes. The dish in question is steamed hilsa — bhapa ilish in Bengali. Hasina’s entourage had carried enough hilsa to feed the first citizen and to be given as gifts to several Indian leaders during her four-day-long visit.

The love for hilsa connects the two parts of what was undivided Bengal before 1947. This love is perhaps cemented by the fact that Bangladesh and India (mainly West Bengal) account for nearly three-fourths of this fish, of the herring family, harvested in the world. But the fisherfolk whose lives revolve around the anadromous fish — also one of the most expensive and nutritive in the subcontinent — live in penury. A large section of those who fish upstream of the Hooghly river often return empty-handed or with a measly catch. Their income, 70 per cent of which comes from hilsa, is not enough to make both ends meet. According to official records, there are around a dozen hilsa-fishing communities living along the stretches of the Hooghly; predominant among them are Malos and Jele Koibortos, who migrated to India from East Pakistan during the liberation war of 1971.

But the hilsa is in danger. So are the livelihood of around five million people — in Bangladesh and India — whose primary source of income is the prized fish. Overfishing by mechanised trawlers, ecological destruction, siltation and increasing pollution have made huge quantities of the oil-rich species vanish from the riverine landscape and estuaries. A recent documentary film, The Ilish People , made by Nachiket Pangare for the International Water Association, vividly captures their haplessness. “They often have no means to break the shackles of this cyclical poverty,” says Pangare, about the fishermen.

Hilsa fisheries are wrought with challenges. And that has a lot to do with the fish’s life cycle, which is vastly different from others in the Indian waters. Predominantly a marine variety, the hilsa migrates upstream into freshwater for spawning and nursing. Even though the hilsa has been a subject of research for nearly 100 years, there are majorgaps in the understanding of its biology and ecology, which impede proper conservation and designing of good management of the stocks. The migratory routes are not yet properly mapped out, particularly in India, making it difficult to protect breeding sites.

Moreover, some experts say the fish is showing signs of attaining early maturity. “We have seen pregnant hilsa that are hardly eight to nine inches long, whereas the earlier records show the fish attains maturity when they are about 11- to 12-inch long. Clearly they are showing drastic behavioural changes, for reasons rather unknown,” says Pangare. According to him, the reasons could vary from adaptation to climate change to increasing load of chemical pollutants in the river. It could also be an evolutionary tactic to fight off the dwindling of the stocks by attaining their reproductive stage early.

The hilsa has a history of migrating to Allahabad and above in the Ganga river system from Bangladesh. The installation of a barrage in Farakka, Murshidabad district, in 1975 has completely intercepted the Hooghly-Bhagirathi migratory route. Over the last few years, scientists observed that the hilsa migration in the said river system has been significantly low. The monsoon migration commences in July and gradually picks up momentum in August. From September, the magnitude of migration fluctuates highly and shows a downward trend.

Overfishing has been a worry for some time. Mechanised trawlers scoop out even hilsa fries and juveniles (referred to as khoka ilish in Bengali). “There are over 10,000 trawlers operating in the offshore (the Bay of Bengal). These bottom trawlers with nets of smaller meshes capture tonnes of fish — mainly hilsa. As a result, the population of hilsa coming to the Hooghly river for spawning has come down drastically over the years,” says Utpal Bhaumik, a hilsa expert and a former fisheries scientist with the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), a constituent lab of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, at Barrackpore. Presently, most hilsa in India is found in the Bhagirathi-Hooghly component of the Ganga. According to a study by Bhaumik, published in the journal Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management in January this year, the annual catch from the same component fluctuated between 12,733 tonnes and 20,000 tonnes between 2000-01 and 2010-11.

In West Bengal, there are over two million traditional fishermen who fish for hilsa in the Hooghly. “In earlier days, only poor fishermen – who often belonged to lower castes — would fish in the Hooghly But after mechanisation, even the rich jumped onto the bandwagon. They operate mainly in the offshore where they fish up to 30 km into the sea. These people are not only resourceful but also influential and often flout norms,” says Bhaumik. As a result, a ban on capturing fish that weigh less than 500g has proven unsuccessful.

It is not that authorities are unaware of the situation. Despite shortfalls in understanding, they have put in place measures that could help improve the stock. Bangladesh has been more effective in implementing some of these measures. In the case of West Bengal, many of these measures exist only on paper, says an Indian fisheries expert, who seeks anonymity.

One thing both the authorities are religiously enforcing is the ban on fishing for two months every year. “The hilsa catch has been coming down in Bangladesh since 1993. And that was the time it decided to introduce banning on hilsa fishing, during the breeding period. Further understanding of the spawning cycle prompted them to introduce a ban for 22 days during September-October,” says Bushra Nishat, who heads a hilsa project at International Water Association. While India too has strict ban on fishing between April and June, the ban during the spawning period exists largely on paper, observes the Indian expert.

Yet another innovative intervention by the Bangladeshi government was the declaration of hilsa sanctuaries, where no fishing is allowed. The fishermen living near the sanctuaries, in return, are given sacks of rice or soft loans for exploring other income generation options. “Between 2001 and 2003, there was a massive drop in hilsa catch in Bangladesh. Subsequently, in 2005, Dhaka decided to mark out 7,000 sq km in the rivers as hilsa sanctuaries,” says Nishat. India too initiated similar move subsequently, but mostly in a half-hearted manner.

Authorities in both countries are also looking at alternative livelihood options for traditional hilsa fishermen, which has yielded little result so far. “The problem is that most of them have been designed with very little imagination,” says Pangare. “For example, some fishermen were given options such as livestock rearing, whereas none of them own land. In some other cases, they have the choice of taking up toy or doll making, which also don’t pay well. If a fisher family has been earning, says, ₹10,000 a month, the option available should be something that generates similar levels of income... More often than not, income accrued through alternative options is so low that they go back to their traditional occupation,” he adds.

Nishat, however, is hopeful. The hilsa conservation measures of late have started paying off, she says. Last year, Bangladesh had a bumper hilsa catch. Similarly, “it is raining hilsa in India this year,” says Nishat. There are also reported sightings in other rivers, hitherto unknown to have hilsa population. Teesta is one such example.

The question that begs an answer, however, is who benefits from a bountiful harvest. Pangare says, traditional fishermen he met in Bangladesh during the making of the film told him they didn’t benefit much from the rich haul. Do the middlemen pocket all the profit from increased catch or are they cornered by industrial fishery firms? The answer could be anybody’s guess.