"The ilish is anadromous in nature—that is, it swims from the sea up a river to spawn. Ideally, it ought to be caught on its way back to the sea after laying its eggs in fresh water," says S.K. Adhikary of the University of Animal & Fishery Sciences. "But it's usually caught on its journey from the sea to the river. Moreover, the fish's eggs are also much sought-after these days." What's even more disastrous is the indiscriminate catching of juvenile ilish as they make their way back to the sea from September to January. "Fishermen using fine nets and mechanised trawlers catch nearly all the juveniles during their journey to the sea. Thus, the baby ilish has no chance to grow, become an adult and procreate. This is what has led to the sharp decline in the hilsa population over the last few years," adds Adhikary.
The last few years have witnessed a huge surge in demand for ilish—one of the most expensive of fishes to grace the tables of the middle classes, eating out-of-season ilish used to be a luxury. But now, with rising disposable incomes, many more people want to eat ilish all round the year. "This growing demand has led to indiscriminate fishing, which has sounded the death-knell for ilish," explained a senior officer of the state fisheries department. The ban on catching of ilish below 800 grams in weight is hardly ever observed. "It is difficult to implement this ban," Nanda told Outlook. "So now we're educating the fishermen, explaining to them that if they keep on catching the juveniles, in just a couple of years they'll have no more ilish to catch. Unfortunately, many of them get carried away by the lure of immediate gain and ignore their long-term interests."