Kolkata: It is the ultimate in Bengali cuisine and Bengalis in both India and Bangladesh swear by the delicate taste of this premium fish. But the hilsa, or ilish as Bengalis know it, may soon disappear from Bengali homes due to man`s greed.
In the past few years, the population of the silvery white fish has been steadily declining in West Bengal`s rivers - all due to human beings upsetting the natural balance.
Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) is an anadramous fish - it mainly lives in the ocean but travels to rivers to spawn. After spawning, it travels back to the sea and is caught by fishermen.
However, over the past few years, fishermen have been catching adult fish as they travel from sea to river. They also catch juveniles (`khokha` in Bangla) on their way back to the sea as well as the fish eggs, considered a delicacy.
The results are there for all to see. "The dwindling population on the Bengal coast for the last decade has made everybody anxious whether the availability will be more or less sufficient or not," Shib Das from the West Bengal University of Animal and Fishery Sciences in Kolkata told IANS.
Not just the fishermen, the consumers too are to blame. Earlier, many Bengalis would not eat hilsa in the season when the juveniles would swim from the river to the sea. But now, most people, especially those with disposable incomes are eating it out of season.
But there are conscientious consumers of the hilsa too. "I myself completely avoided bringing the hilsa for a few years. But consciously avoiding eating or catching hilsa on an individual level won`t help," Paloma Ganguly, a Delhi resident and a hilsa aficionado, told IANS.
Would a blanket ban by India and Bangladesh help in conservation? Overfishing of the Atlantic bluefin tuna has resulted in some European countries now recommending a blanket ban on commercial fishing of the tuna.
But most agree that a blanket ban is not the answer. "Nowhere in the world are people as passionate (and crazy) about a fish as they are in Bengal. Football matches between arch rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will have to be called off if there`s a ban," says Delhi-based food critic Rahul Verma in a lighter vein.
Ganguly feels that "A blanket ban won`t be feasible. Hilsa is a major export item for Bangladesh. I feel that there should be a collective government ban during a particular season when the eggs are hatching and the young are growing up."
Because of its anadramous nature, hilsa cannot be reared commercially. "It is a purely marine species that migrates to fresh water to spawn and then goes back to the sea. Its breeding biology, physiology and migration behaviour are all very complicated. Culturing the fish in manipulated conditions will be very difficult," said Das.
Das feels India could learn from Bangladesh in limiting harvesting of the hilsa. "Bangladesh has implemented minimal size of harvesting very effectively. There are similar regulations by the West Bengal government too; but the implementation and adherence to these by coastal fishermen is not worthy to be mentioned. People`s participation and motivation to conserve this species is still lacking along with the lack of enforcement and vigilance by the institution at both the landing site and marketing places," said Das.
Hilsa always fetches a high price, especially during the monsoons. "The demand is not much in summers. It spikes during the monsoon. So much so that we have to get hilsa from Bharuch in Gujarat and Baleshwar in Odisha," Shivjit Singh of Gujarat Fisheries, a seafood store in Delhi, told IANS.
"An adult hilsa usually weighs up to 1.5 kg and is 7-8 inches long," says Singh. "Juveniles weighing up to 700-800 gm cost around Rs.400-450, while adults weighing 1 kg or more cost around Rs.500-550."
In a doomsday scenario where the hilsa goes extinct, could it be substituted by another? In expatriate Bengali communities in North America, the hilsa is often substituted with the shad fish (a type of river herring).
"No way. There`s nothing that can replace the hilsa. `Jamai Sashti` (a festival when the son-in-law of the house is feted and fed varied fish dishes) will never be the same again if the hilsa goes extinct," says Verma.
"There is really no parallel to the taste of a hilsa... I can`t imagine a world without hilsa," says Ganguly.