With cleaner rivers after lockdown, Bengal expects big Hilsa harvest

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The 84-day lockdown may prove to be a boon for millions of fish-loving Bengalis, who eagerly wait for this time of the year for the queen of fish - the Hilsa - to arrive from the sea.

Experts said that as pollution in the river Ganga and its tributaries is less this year because of the lockdown, it could attract schools of Hilsa to migrate upstream to breed.

“This year we are expecting a good catch. All the industries were shut because of the lockdown and pollution is down in the River Hooghly. This could attract schools of Hilsa. Also the rains and other conditions have been favourable,” said a senior official of the state fishery department.

HT had earlier reported that for the first time in many years, several stretches of the Ganga including Kolkata were conforming to Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) standards for the quality of river waters. The biological oxygen demand was less than 3 mg/l, dissolved oxygen was more than 4 mg/l and ph 6 to 9. The biological oxygen demand is the oxygen needed by the river to sustain life.

The Hilsa, which usually spend their lives in the sea, migrate into the rivers to breed during this time of the year. If they don’t find good waters in the Hooghly (a tributary of the Ganga) they head for the rivers in Bangladesh skipping Bengal. In 2012 Bangladesh had imposed a ban on export of Hilsa to India. The ban was lifted in 2019.

“Cyclone Amphan, which has left the state devastated, may also boost the Hilsa harvest. Cyclonic storms churn up minerals from the sea bed which would help in plankton production. Plankton being a fish food helps in attracting more fish,” said Utpal Bhowmik, a hisla expert and the former head of the riverine fishery division at Central Inland Fishery Research Institute.

Every year major fishing activities remain suspended between April 15 and June 14 to protect the fishery resources and biodiversity during the breeding season. This year the ban was from March 25 when the countrywide lockdown was announced.

“The extended fishing ban because of the lockdown will surely boost fish production. The fishermen are all ready to venture into the sea within a day or two. The ban has been lifted but the sea is rough because of bad weather. We are just waiting for the weather to clear,” said Abdar Mallik, secretary of Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society, a fishermen forum in south Bengal.

But there is an irony. Fishermen in the coastal districts of the Bengal pointed out that even though they are expecting a bounty this time because of the lockdown, cleaner water and good rains, cyclone Amphan has left them devastated.

“Thousands of fishing boats have been damaged in the storm. We know there is a bounty out there in the sea but there are not enough boats to venture out. Many people have lost their boats,” said Pradip Chatterjee, convener of National platform for small scale fish workers.

More than 8,000 fishing boats have been damaged in the cyclone of May 20, while 37,711 fishing nets have been damaged, according to government estimates. The administration is providing Rs 2,600 to the affected fishermen for damaged nets and Rs 5,000 who have lost their boats.

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