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Taming the king of fish: adapting Hilsa to aquaculture

Norway-India-Bangladesh consortium for Hilsa aquaculture in South Asia
Project leader
Michael Phillips
1 May 2012
30 Nov 2012
The Ganges–Brahmaputra River Delta is the world’s largest delta, stretching across Bangladesh and West Bengal in northeast India and supporting a population of over 250 million people. Of all the fish in these tropical delta waters, the Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) holds a special place in the hearts and in the diets of people living in the region. The Hilsa is known locally as Macher Raja Ilish, or Hilsa the “king of fish” and has the honor of being the national fish of Bangladesh. Maintaining good supplies of wild Hilsa is an ongoing challenge in the face of threats from overfishing, habitat destruction and degradation, and the voracious appetite of an ever increasing population. Hilsa aquaculture may be one of the solutions.
The Norway-India-Bangladesh Consortium for Hilsa Aquaculture in South Asia project aims to lay the groundwork to kick-start a much-needed Hilsa aquaculture industry in the Bengali region. The project is drawing upon the considerable expertise of WorldFish and the Norwegian food research institute NOFIMA, to research and plan the way forward for the development of a Hilsa aquaculture industry. The project is working closely with national agencies including the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) in India, the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI), and the Bangladesh Department of Fisheries (DoF), to ensure that the planned developments take into consideration local expertise and respect the social and cultural importance of the Hilsa to the Bengali people.
Although attempts have been made to adapt Hilsa to fish farming techniques, the ability to mass produce seed and grow the fish to harvest size has remained elusive. Unlike most tropical farmed fish, the Hilsa is a migratory species, similar to the Atlantic salmon that has become a star of the global aquaculture industry over the last few decades. Hilsa adults lay their eggs in the fresh waters of the delta tributaries. The juveniles migrate downstream into the salty waters of the Bay of Bengal to mature for a year or two before embarking on their own journey upstream to spawn. The Hilsa are captured during their migrations downstream as juveniles, and also when they travel back upstream as adults.
A concerted research effort is needed to develop strategies for culturing the migratory Hilsa fish in commercial fish farms. Over six months, the Norwegian Research Council–funded project is bringing together a dedicated research consortium of scientific experts from international and national fisheries institutes for this purpose.
The first stage of the project will identify current knowledge of Hilsa biology, ecology and fisheries in the Ganges delta. One of the main areas for investigation is how previous attempts at growing Hilsa using artificial breeding technologies, have performed. By drawing upon knowledge available in the scientific literature and other published sources, combined with a small number of field visits, the project is establishing a thorough understanding of Hilsa biology and migratory patterns. Lessons learned from aquaculture of similar species in China and North America will also be assessed. Importantly, the key gaps in knowledge for Hilsa will be identified to direct research efforts in the future.  
The second stage of the project brings together consortium partners for a four day workshop in Dhaka to assess the potential for Hilsa fish farming in the Ganges Delta region and plan the way forward. The workshop will present all available information collated through the initial review stage and culminate in the development of a cooperative research plan for future research activities. Through a coordinated research effort, the consortium will be best equipped to develop the tailored culture conditions required for Hilsa aquaculture.
The final stage of the project solidifies the partnerships and future cooperation within the consortium by producing an agreement of research activities and responsibilities for each member. Potential funding agencies and investors, as well as environmental and social impacts will also be addressed, to ensure that the development of Hilsa aquaculture is both successful and sustainable.
By examining all available evidence on whether Hilsa can be produced in aquaculture, and by establishing a research consortium to address research gaps, the project is laying a firm knowledge foundation for the development of Hilsa farming industry in the region, for the people of Bangladesh and India, as well as neigbouring Bay of Bengal countries such as Myanmar.