Wildlife & Biodiversity

Hilsa vanishing from poor and middle-class people’s menu in Odisha

Over-exploitation of fish stocks, construction of dams, use of gill nets and climatic factors to blame

 
By Ashis Senapati
Last Updated: Monday 06 July 2020
Fresh Hilsa is fetching Rs 800-1,000 a kilogram currently in Odisha. Photo: Ashis Senapati
Fresh Hilsa is fetching Rs 800-1,000 a kilogram currently in Odisha. Photo: Ashis Senapati Fresh Hilsa is fetching Rs 800-1,000 a kilogram currently in Odisha. Photo: Ashis Senapati

Over-exploitation of fish stocks, construction of dams, usage of gill nets and climatic factors are causing hilsa, a prized variety of fish, to almost vanish from the menu of poor and middle-class people in Odisha.

Fresh hilsa is currently fetching Rs 800-1,000 a kilogram (kg) and even small-sized fish are being sold for a minimum of Rs 700 a kg in the state’s fish markets. 

One of the main reasons for the decline of the hilsa population is the abundant use of mosquito-gill nets by fisherfolk. Even smaller hilsa get killed due to the use of such nets.

Another cause is indiscriminate exploitation of a large amount of juvenile hilsa, which the fisheries department is contemplating to ban. 

The construction of dams, barrages and anicuts over rivers has created an obstruction in the migration of hilsa, resulting in a sharp decline of the fish, Pratap Rout, the joint director of the fisheries department (marine) of the state government, said.

Industrial pollutants have also increasingly poisoned the hilsa’s home waters. The fresh water flow through the river Mahanadi and its tributaries has decreased, leading to an increase in brackish water in much of its lower course.

Hilsa has a wide range of distribution and is found in marine, estuarine and riverine environments. Its capacity to spawn in the rivers has decreased significantly over the past few years. 

The hilsa’s peculiar behaviour makes it impossible to breed it artificially through aquaculture, unlike other fish.

The adult hilsa swims several kilometres upstream to freshwater from the sea for spawning and returns to saline water after its eggs hatch in freshwater.

The baby hilsa swim back downstream into the sea through the river mouths of the Mahanadi at Paradip, Jatadhari river mouth and other river mouths like that of the Devi river in Puri district and Rushikulya river mouth in Ganjam district, a process that takes place between June and August every year. 

As they move towards the sea, baby hilsa are caught by fishermen using gill nets and other banned items at the river mouths.

This year, erratic and untimely rain in the summer due to Cyclone Amphan and less rain in the monsoon due to climate change have also disturbed the hilsa’s migration routes. But we hope fisherfolk will catch more hilsa in August due to good rainfall, Manas Ranjan Sahoo, the additional director of fisheries (marine) department of the state, said.

The number of hilsa across the state has declined by as much as 70 per cent in the last 30 years. The number of young hilsa arriving in the rivers and sea is significantly down this year, Narayan Haldar, the president of the Odisha Mashyajibi Forum, said.

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