To us Bangalees, hilsa isn't just a fish. It's an integral part of our culture and heritage. Be it fried or cooked with mustard, hilsa is a must in Pahela Baishakh celebration. But they aren't anymore safe in our rivers, home to world's 60pc hilsa.
This four-part series focuses on the existential crisis, changing habitat and ways to conserve this mystique fish.
Najmul Alam went to a fish market in the capital's Motijheel to buy hilsa last week, well ahead of Pahela Baishakh, to avoid runaway prices. For him the celebration of Bangla New Year is incomplete without the fish.
But he had to return home empty-handed, as the prices were too high for someone like him from the middle class. The seller demanded Tk 6,000 for a frozen pair, each weighing over 1,000 gram (frozen hilsas are sold at lower prices than fresh catches).
The prices have remained more or less the same this week too, according to market sources.
Skyrocketing prices of hilsa in the run-up to Pahela Baishakh have become a trend for quite a few years now.
Stakeholders attribute the soaring prices to surging demand ahead of Pahela Baishakh against low supply resulting from multiple factors including a government ban (March-April) on catching hilsas in four hilsa sanctuaries out of five.
Traders said production of hilsa this year was low compared to that of previous years, which has also contributed to the price hike.
They said that in previous years, an increase in hilsa export around this time created a fall in supply, which caused prices to soar.
A ban on export of the fish, therefore, has been enforced since July 2012.
After visiting several fish markets in the capital, this correspondent gathered that the export ban has not done much to give buyers a price relief. On the contrary, banking on rising demand against falling supply, traders are charging exorbitant prices for the fish, whether frozen or fresh, imported or local.
However, some traders alleged that hilsa is being smuggled to India and other countries despite the ban.
Hilsa import could come as a relief but importers in Chittagong said high duty and taxes imposed on imported hilsas have not really come to their aid.
INTERNATIONAL PRICES VS LOCAL PRICES
Through email communications, this correspondent collected prices of hilsa in India, the UK, Australia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
According to reports sent by our Delhi correspondent, a hilsa weighing around 1,000 gram is sold at Rs 700 - Rs 1,000 (Tk 873 - Tk 1,248) in Delhi and at Rs 500 - Rs 1,200 (Tk 624 - Tk 1,497) in Kolkata. The prices do not usually fluctuate there.
In Australia, a hilsa weighing between 1,400 and 2,500 gram is sold between Australian $25 - 35 (Tk 1, 473- Tk 2,063), said Nadera Sultana Nodi, a Bangladeshi living in Adelaide.
In the KSA, price of a 1,500 gram hilsa stands at Saudi Riyal 55 or Tk 1,141, according to Zahid Babla, a Bangladeshi migrant worker living in Afif.
COULD RELAXING IMPORT DUTY GIVE PRICE RELIEF?
At present, traders pay 54.5 percent duty and tax, including 25 percent customs duty, to import frozen hilsa.
Some buyers and traders, therefore, said a cut in import duty may serve to increase the supply in domestic markets, providing some price relief to commoners on the eve of the Pahela Baishakh.
"A cut in import duty and taxes will help us bring more hilsa from Myanmar, which will reduce hilsa price," Dodul Kumar Datta, managing director of Chittagong-based Pacific Foods Ltd, an importer of hilsa, told The Daily Star.
Some 4.5 lakh fishermen are directly involved in catching hilsa that accounts for nearly 1 percent of Bangladesh' s gross domestic product, now worth US $150 billion, according to a Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute publication.
Fishermen caught 3.51 lakh tonnes of hilsa in fiscal 2012-13, up from 3.46 lakh tonnes. In addition, traders imported 2,271 tonnes of frozen hilsa mainly from Myanmar in fiscal 2013-14, down from 2,900 tonnes a year ago, according to the Department of Fisheries (DoF).
Datta said hilsas the size of 300-500 gram are mostly imported from Myanmar. Prices of the fish are usually lower in the neighbouring country than those here.
Alibaba.com, a Chinese e-commerce portal, shows that a firm from Myanmar, Min Aye Yar Company, offered a minimum of 25 tonnes of hilsa at a price between US $4 and $8 per kilogram on April 6.
Traders said because of the ban on hilsa-netting, the bulk of the supply ahead of Baishakh comes from cold storages where the fish was preserved mainly in the peak catching season of July-September.
“Most of the supply available now in markets at exorbitant prices were purchased several months ago and kept in cold storages at much lower prices," said Ajit Das, a trader in Barisal.
A one-kilogram hilsa which sold at around Tk 900 during the peak catching season now sells twice or thrice that price, said Ajit, also president of Hilsa Exporters Association.
Anwar Hossain Sikder, president of Dhaka City Small Fish Traders Association, said a section of traders buy fresh hilsa nearly a month in advance for making extra bucks during the Pahela Baishakh festival.
"They stock the fish and begin clearing the stocks a couple of days ahead of the festival," he said.
Syed Arif Azad, director general of DoF, said the fisheries agency does not have any law to fight hoarding of the fish.
"We can only request the private sector not to hoard the fish and hike prices artificially. We requested them last year to refrain from this practice. We have done the same this year too," he said.
Azad opined that consumers' rights protection authorities should come forward to prevent hoarding. "We will again hold meetings with traders to pursue them not to make excessive profit," he said.
CAN THERE BE A PRICE RELIEF?
Asked if import duty would be reduced, Azad said his office wants to protect local fishermen and prevent entry of contaminated fish with various health hazards.
He, however, said import duty can be eased prior to Baishakh for a temporary period.
"But it should be done in a way so that the interests of producers are also safeguarded. There should be a balance between producers' and consumers' interests," he said.
Despite repeated attempts, Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed could not be reached for comment on the issue.
Contacted, Md Nojibur Rahman, chairman of the National Board of Revenue, said the proposal to cut duty on hilsa import for a short period to give respite to consumers ahead of Baishakh merits attention.
"It deserves consideration. But time is too short to consider the proposal now. It [duty cut or waiver] can be a nice gift for all Bangladeshis on the occasion of Baishakh next year. But whatever we do will be done in consultation with all stakeholders," he said.