(MENAFN - IANS) By Saibal Gupta
Kolkata, July 18 (IANS) The spiralling prices of petrol and diesel in the last one year is not only taking the famous hilsa fish out of the reach of the middle-class Bengalis, but it is also having a far-reaching effect on the population of this 'silver queen of the river'. The steep hike in the fuel cost is inhibiting fishermen from going into the deep sea and they are forced to catch the smaller juvenile hilsa that stay in the shallow water near the coastline, endangering the species altogether.
According to the more experienced fishermen of the Sagar Kakdwip area from where most of the hilsa comes to Kolkata and the suburban markets, a year ago the fishermen used to go at least 475 km to 500 km into the sea but now due to the high fuel prices they don't go more than 225 km to 250 km into the sea. This is keeping the bigger fish out of reach.
Hilsa, a sea fish, moves into rivers to lay eggs before returning to the sea. Shoals of young hilsa, too, make their way back to the sea. It is during this return journey that the younger ones are getting caught in fine nets laid close to the shoreline.
"The bigger fish that move deep into the sea stay out of reach and the fishermen have to depend on the younger ones that are below 500 gm," said Rabin Das, who owns a number of trawlers.
Catching hilsa under 500 gm was banned in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar nearly three decades ago to protect the fish population that was depleting fast due to indiscriminate fishing. While Bangladesh has been extremely successful in enforcing the ban and reviving the hilsa population in its waters, India and Myanmar have also had some success.
But with diesel prices increasing by over 30 per cent over the past 12 months, the fishermen are forced to stay along the coastline. The situation is such that last week, the fisheries department raided and seized one tonne of juvenile hilsa from a trawler that had returned to Kakdwip. The fishermen admitted they had fished in shallow waters close to the shore.
A small estimate will help to understand the situation. A year ago, a round trip for deep-sea fishing by a trawler cost Rs 1.5 lakh, including the salaries and food for 15-16 fishermen on board.
"We would use 1,200 litres of fuel for a 15-day trip and the expense came to around Rs 84,000. Now just 800 litres of fuel costs us Rs 75,000 and since other expenses have also increased, we are fishing along the coastline," said Rabin Das.
"The fishermen are forced to indulge in illegal fishing, else they cannot match the cost. We are trying our best to prevent them from catching juvenile hilsa. We've distributed leaflets and carried out awareness drives to prevent fishing during the hilsa breeding period. But they are using fine bottom nets instead of grill nets that make it difficult for the juvenile fish to wriggle out," a senior official of the fisheries department said.
"We have tried to educate fellow fishermen to desist from fishing in troubled waters but persuading them has become more difficult following the massive rise in fuel prices. Whatever might be the situation, this illegal practice needs to be curbed irrespective of the pulls and pressures the fishing industry may face," Secretary of Kakdwip Fishermen's Association Bijon Maity said.
"The fishermen are destroying their own future. We have to recognise this as an ecological crime and act tough like Bangladesh does. Otherwise, hilsa will soon become extinct," he added.
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