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As Darwin Initiative funded project “Economic incentives to conserve Hilsa fish (Tenualosa ilisha) in Bangladesh”—jointly implemented by IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development), BCAS (Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies), BAU (Bangladesh Agricultural University) and DoF (Department of Fisheries)—ends with disseminating what they have learnt over the period of last three years, I take this opportunity to pitch in my reflection. Before I start, I must warn that the note should not be accounted either as an evaluation or a prescription since my professional engagement with hilsa fisheries of Bangladesh has been less than 7 months. The scrutiny shared here rather focuses on ‘what should be next’ recollecting Project Leader Dr. Essam Yassin Mohammed’s open statement “…We came here (Bangladesh) with so many questions in mind. And this initiative has not only answered many of those questions, but also uncovered more unanswered questions”.   

Question 1. How long should the incentive scheme be carried out to achieve a behavioural change among hilsa fishermen? 

Question 2. What nature/sort of scheme does ensure fisher community’s compliance to fishing moratoriums?  

These questions are few highlights among many—at least what I took from the regional seminar on ‘Sustainable Management of Hilsa Fishery in the Bay of Bengal Region’—that we need to ruminate in coming years if Bangladesh is to devise a sustainable hilsa fisheries using incentives.

Carrot and stick is a well supported experiment in natural resource management regime where the subject is simultaneously motivated and nudged to adapt with the desired set of norms that perpetuate sustainability in long run. Nonetheless, finding a balance between dangling carrots and waving sticks is challenging, and depends on social, cultural and economic contexts of the resource users in question. Come to hilsa fisheries in Bangladesh, the pro-poor fishing communities have been subjected heavily to this approach since the implementation of Hilsa Fisheries Management Action Plan (HFMAP); while other stakeholders, namely dadondar (creditor) and consumers often remain out of that picture. For example, the quantity of jatka (hilsa fry) seized, the number of prison sentences made, and the total amount fined from implementing jatka conservation activities in 6 months of 2013-14 are greater than 2012-13 and 2011-12 (Islam et al. 2016). Worryingly, the trend of jatka catch is not declining, and only fishermen are being punished as if catching jack is a crime but consuming it is not. The point I want to make here is that if no jatka is being consumed, then why any fishermen would be catching them in the first place despite being pro-poor. SIX different law enforcing agencies have been deployed to push hilsa suppliers (fishermen) out of the market or synonymously, out of their lives; on the contrary, consumers enjoy the privilege of facing little to no charges for buying and consuming when they are the one to determine the demand of hilsa in the market. The stark disparity of actions on different actors is not only resulting supply-chain mismanagement, but also forging an ethical argument against taken actions. My so far experience from different seminars, interviews and discussions at different capacities tells that the practice of ethical consumerism merit substantial attention. So, if policing exists, it should be imposed with equal/respective weight on all responsible actors—both fishermen and consumers in case of hilsa. And, perhaps, managing both supplies (via sticks) and demands (via ethics) of hilsa will offer us a scenario where we will start sensing the imminence of desirable attitude change from both actors.

The three months of monsoon are a special fishing season in the Ganges delta: it is when fishermen try to net the lucrative hilsa, an Indian shad fish that is an icon of Bengali culture. Photograph: Arati Kumar Rao (Taken from The Guardian)

Now, why does the informal money lending system have to be dealt with utmost care to enhance hilsa fishers’ compliance? The seminars and discussion sessions—I participated in last 6 months—ensued a very monochromatic portrayal that pictures dadondar as the main culprit who exploits and entraps poor fisherman with the existing loan system. The pact of this financing system is very informal in nature—fisherman promises to return their catch to creditor, and creditor collects the investment with interest from fisherman’s catch. So, ‘fisherman keeps fishing hilsa’ is the only warranty that creditors check. In my first field trip (November’ 15) in Bhola and Patuakhali, I interviewed several fishermen to get a sense if there is a ticking bomb—stemming from dadondars’ vilifying nature to recover their investment—that could burst into serious tension or conflict between them. But the response I got was rather interesting and an eye-opener as one of them pointed “..they are like our guardians…have been supporting us both on- and off-season for generations”. This unexpectedly amiable reply, contrary to what seminars and discussion sessions suggested, might have resulted from fisher's’ life-long dependency on the creditors for money, or failure to think freely and independently. Or, multiple tiers of fishing moratoriums compelled them to rely on creditors’ loan to support their family, despite having a compensation from government which is inadequate. As the fishermen are being gradually drowned into debts, the circumstance, thereby, encourages them to break laws. During off-season, they risk for fishing; on-season, they use illegal fishing gears to escalate their catch from minimum effort. Plainly speaking, social compliance remains unwarranted and uncertain until marginal fishermen are financially independent—no outstanding debts and sufficient incentives during off-season. I again alert not to draw a conclusion as such claim is not backed up by enough data to make it objective, however the suggestion made here is based on field experience, both formal and informal discussion sessions, interviews, and personal discourse with professionals and academicians.

The above-mentioned suggestions focus not only fishermen, but also consumers and dadondars in their respective spheres to make a concerted effort. On that note, I would like to conclude that Hilsa Conservation Foundation has a dynamic role to play in coming years to make hilsa conservation through economic incentives a success. 

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