"The hilsha fishery provides one per cent of Bangladesh’s GDP, so the fate of the fish is of national importance," says project leader Dr Essam Yassin Mohammed of IIED.
"But the hilsha is a fish in trouble. It is popular and affordable to even low-income families but as more people catch more hilsha, scientists fear the fish population could collapse."
The hilsha (Tenualosa ilisha) fishery employs nearly half a million full-time and 2.5 million part-time workers. In 2005, after pressure on the fish species had grown, the Government of Bangladesh declared four coastal areas as hilsha sanctuaries, in which fishing is illegal during the fish’s breeding season. The government compensates the nearly 200,000 affected households with 30 kilogrammes of rice each.
"This is a rare example of a scheme that provides direct incentives for fishery conservation and, with improvements, it could provide valuable lessons that are relevant worldwide," says Dr Mohammed.
Research in 2012 showed that flaws in the scheme reduce its value for either conserving fish stocks or supporting the poorest fishers whom the ban affects. These flaws reflect gaps in knowledge on both the functioning of complex marine ecosystems, and socio-economic characteristics of the fisher communities.
IIED, the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and Bangladesh Agricultural University — in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries of the Government of Bangladesh — will work with the affected communities to assess the current scheme and then use ecological and socio-economic studies to find ways to improve it. The UK Department for Environment and Rural Affairs will fund the work through its Darwin Initiative.
"An improved payment mechanism that better targets the households affected by the ban can reduce threats to the fish species and help to reduce poverty by maintaining a source of food and jobs for the poor," says Dr Mohammed.
"To do this we will work with the communities themselves, in a participatory process, so that their knowledge, experience and needs are central to the new design."
Options include changes to the type and timing of compensation, to who receives compensation, to what the compensated fishing households need to do.
Another idea, whose viability the researchers will assess is a Hilsha Fish Conservation Fund. This could take some of the US$630 million a year in tax revenue that the government gains from hilsha exports each year and spend it on compensation and other means to conserve hilsha stocks.
IIED in partnership with BCAS and BAU coordinated a workshop in Dhaka last week to launch the project with representatives of the government of Bangladesh, fishing communities and research centres.
"The incentive mechanism can help achieve both social and ecological objectives," said Uzzal Bikash Dutta, Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock.