Hilsa is the national fish of Bangladesh. The hilsa shad (Tenualosa ilisha) is a highly productive migratory species found mainly along the coasts of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It migrates into freshwater rivers to spawn and is heavily fished over the marine, brackish and freshwater phases of its life. Hilsa generates employment and income for millions of people in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar and the fishery is worth over US$ 2 billion. Despite this, hilsa remains a subsistence food item for many poor coastal communities. Total regional (Bangladesh, India and Myanmar) catches showing increasing trend and approaching 400,000 t, while catch rates are declining in both Bangladesh and India for the non-motorized fisheries, both in the inland and coastal areas. Recent assessments using surplus production models indicate a decline in overall abundance of hilsa to below 50% of virgin biomass, indicating that overfishing is occurring. The regional hilsa stock is overfished; and pollution and loss of essential riverine habitats through siltation and water diversion is further reducing fish numbers. Widespread use of small-mesh gillnets is leading to a juveniles being caught, especially in riverine areas, and this is reducing the parent population for the next generation and contributing to the population decline. The larger mesh gears used in the estuarine and marine areas are less of a concern.
The BOBLME Project is supporting countries to implement an ecosystem approach to fisheries management of shared fish stocks (transboundary) in the Bay of Bengal. At present there is no coordinated regional management approach for the hilsa stock. Only Bangladesh has a national Hilsa Fisheries Management Action Plan (HFMAP).
Hilsa fishery is suffering from serious recruitment over-fishing (indiscriminate catching of jatka, i.e. juvenile hilsa); there is also growth over-fishing (indiscriminate killing of mature female hilsa) and the fishing mortality has increased due to fishing pressure with decrease in size at first capture. Short-term area closures and the establishment of nursery areas for jatka, as part of the Govt.'s HFMAP, seem to be benefiting the fish population. The government has also made a significant effort to provide alternative livelihoods and food safety net coverage for fishers during the closure period.
Bangladesh's HFMAP demonstrates that science and stakeholder‐based management regimes are effective for its sustainable management. For example, incentives provided by the Govt. for greater sustainability in the form of social safety net and financial support to reduce the need of hilsa fishers to fish at particularly important times of the year and in particularly sensitive locations. Thus there is generally a much greater level of specification of hilsa‐specific objectives, decision‐making process, research plans, MCS strategies, and performance evaluation. Performance in Bangladesh is particularly encouraging for hilsa, and many lessons can be learned from this country for wider applicability within the BoB region.
Tri-nation hilsa management plan
The Ecosystem approach for fisheries management (EAFM) framework has three tiers:
i. working groups (including a Hilsa Fisheries Assessment Working Group) to provide technical information;
ii. a Regional Fisheries Management Advisory Committee (RFMAC)- to interpret the information and deliver ecosystem based fisheries management advice; and
iii. a Regional Fisheries Management Forum to deliberate on the advice and make decisions for national actions. The RFMAC comprises members from the 8 BOBLME countries, SEAFDEC, FAO, BOBP-IGO and IUCN.
From these working group consultation meetings it became evident that there is a need for the preparation of a 'Regional (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar) Hilsa Fisheries Management Plans (RHFMP)' with a series of supporting activities to improve gear selectivity, improve habitat protection and increase the knowledge of the impact of hilsa fisheries on the wider BoB ecosystem. Without a regional management strategy and plan hilsa fishery may not be sustainable in the long run. The RHFMPs are to be accompanied by activities that provide an ecosystem‐based approach. Non‐fisheries specific activities to support hilsa fisheries sustenance would be:
i. proper policy development,
ii. information support,
iii. fisheries control and
iv. human capacity development.
|•||Control fishing targeting hilsa to increase stock numbers.|
|•||Protect spawning and nursery areas during spawning and nursing to rebuild the stock by introducing seasonal closures and hilsa sanctuaries.|
|•||Reduce the catches of juvenile hilsa (jatka) by introducing regulations to make 110 mm mesh nets the legal minimum mesh size to be used by hilsa fishers.|
|•||Increase compliance with hilsa fishery regulations through awareness programmes and strengthen monitoring and enforcement capacity.|
|•||Establish dialogue and collaboration with the water management and land use authorities to create a better understanding of fisheries requirements and increase the amount of riverine habitat, water flow and improve water quality. At present linkages between the main agencies that need to be involved in hilsa management (fisheries, environment water management and land use authorities) are weak.|
|•||Establish in-country multi-agency committees to monitor the implementation of the national hilsa management plans.|