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Taste of cherished fish eludes many Bangladeshis

Oct 3, 2011, 1:07 a.m.
A vendor sells hilsha fish at Kawranbazar in Dhaka October 3, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

By Anis Ahmed and Azad Majumder

DHAKA (Reuters) - From time immemorial, Bangladeshis have been passionate about hilsha fish, a strongly flavored, white-fleshed fish known for its mouthwatering smell while cooking -- and a required menu item at New Year's and other family celebrations.

But the dazzling silver creature that was declared the country's national fish upon independence in 1971 now has become a much rarer sight on tables due to rising prices, in large part driven by strong demand from giant neighbor India.

"I loved to eat hilsha when I was a child and later learnt from my mother how to cook it. Culinary excellence is incomplete without this treat," said Nazmin Ara, a Dhaka housewife.

"For us, now it is a luxury item with an unaffordable price."

Traders said a 1 kg hilsha now sells at 1,000 taka ($13.30) in retail markets in Dhaka, double the price of two years ago, although fishermen say the volume of the catch has, paradoxically, risen over the years.

Though the price was always beyond the reach of the poor, middle- and upper-class Bangladeshis ate it frequently, often with rice and baked chili. But now it has vanished from even their tables except for special occasions such as the New Year, meals with people from abroad, and state functions.

Buyers, and many officials, blame the jump largely on higher transport costs from the catch point to the markets and illegal sale of the fish to India, especially to its West Bengal state bordering Bangladesh, an area also passionate about eating it.

Hilsha, also known as "ilish," is mainly a sea species but prefers to lay its eggs in rivers due to no salinity and less current. It is caught in all major Bangladeshi rivers, such as the Padma, Meghna and Jamuna, and their Bay of Bengal estuary.

According to Department of Fisheries, Bangladesh produced 340,000 tons of hilsha in the 2010-11 fiscal year which ended in June, 27,000 tons more than the previous year.

"The transport cost is going higher every day, so we cannot sell them cheaply even if we wanted," said Oli Ullah, a wholesale fish trader in Dhaka's Kawran Bazar Area.

"Also we do not have enough supply all the time. Tons of fish are being smuggled to India, pushing the price up in the local market," he said.

India imports hilsha through legal channels but the illegal exports are much larger, traders say, since it's cheaper and also much less complicated because they bypass customs checks.

STRONG DEMAND

The Department of Fisheries said Bangladesh exported 5,376 tons of hilsha to India alone out of their total export of 8,500 tons in the fiscal year just ended. The rest went to the ethnic Bangladeshi markets in Europe and America.

But the actual exports are likely to be much higher due to active smuggling along the river borders between the nations, which are impossible to completely control.

In recognition of the esteem in which the fish is held by both countries, Bangladeshi governments often use hilsha to smooth ties with India, which surrounds its small neighbor on three sides, officials and analysts say.

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