Fleeing ocean storms, hilsa fish race into the Brahamputra – and into fishing nets
By Amarjyoti Borah
DHUBRI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The cyclones that tear through India with increasing frequency often leave devastation in their wake. But sometimes they can also bring benefits, as the fisherman in India's lower Assam districts of Dhubri and Goalpara have discovered.
In October, the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha were hit by the deadly Cyclone Hudhud. The next day, fishermen hundreds of kilometres away in Assam, in India's northeast, noticed the Brahmaputra river teeming with hilsa fish, in far greater numbers than usual.
By catching and selling the much-sought-after fish, poor fishermen and traders were suddenly able to earn several times their regular income.
This had happened before. A year earlier, after Cyclone Phailin struck India, thousands of families dependent on the fishing trade found their fortunes turned when the storm drove huge numbers of hilsa to the Dhubri area from the Bay of Bengal.
"The hilsa fish by nature keeps away from rough waters," said Haren Das, a fishery officer for Dhubri district. "So when cyclones occur, groups of these fish migrate to safer areas, including the Brahmaputra."
Fisherman in Dhubri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that hilsa - related to herring - is normally difficult to catch. But in the weeks following both cyclones, it was as though the fish were attracted to the nets, they said.
10 TIMES BIGGER CATCH
Some fishermen said their daily catch was almost 10 times bigger than on a regular day.
Nur Islam, a 45-year-old fisherman from Dhubri town, usually can catch 100 kilograms of hilsa in a day. After Hudhud struck India, he was able to catch up to 2,000 kilos a day with little difficulty.
"Earlier I never had a bank account because I was never able to make any savings," said Islam. With the fish bonanza, however, "I have been able to save almost Rs 45,000 ($700) and I will deposit it in the bank soon."
Another Dhubri fisherman, Hemchandra Das, said he felt like he had won the lottery. Thanks to the hilsa surge, he was able to make enough money to rebuild his dilapidated home and deposit some savings in the bank.
"Usually, we fish very early in the morning or late in the evening as it is very difficult to catch hilsa during daylight hours," said Das. "But after the cyclone we were able to catch the fish all the time."
For fishing families in Dhubri and Goalpara, the sudden rush of hilsa fish that follows India's cyclones is reason to celebrate. For the people who sell the fish on the retail market, however, it is a complication.
In normal circumstances, a kilogram of hilsa could sell in the retail market for up to Rs. 800 ($12) during festive seasons, when the fish is most popular.
"Usually only some fisherman are able to catch a good number of hilsa that they then sell to wholesalers and retailers, so the fish that lands in the market is very much in demand," said Chandan Das, a fish retailer in Goalpara town.
But in the period after the Phailin and Hudhud storms, the sudden availability of the fish pushed the market price as low as Rs. 100 ($1.50) per kilo. Even at that price, retailers were sometimes left with piles of unsold, rotting fish.
The fish traders lay much of the blame on the fact that there are no cold-storage facilities in the markets. Poorer traders can't afford to buy their own refrigeration units and any traders who can have never bothered, since it is rare for them to have more Hilsa than they can sell.
"Thousands of people living here who are associated directly or indirectly with fishing activities have benefitted from the increase in hilsa after the cyclones," said Haren Das, the Dhubri district fish officer. But afterward, he said, "everything will be like it was before."
(Reporting by Amarjyoti Borah; editing by Laurie Goering)
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