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Hilsa, the pricey but notoriously bony fish beloved by Bengalis, has been caught in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand for the first time in three decades after the gates and fish locks of Farakka barrage were changed to allow the upstream migration of the fish that lives in the seas but spawns in the rivers.

Hilsa or ilish, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s favourite gift to Indian leaders, depleted after the Farakka barrage was constructed in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal and nets were put on the Bangladesh side, preventing upstream movement into Indian rivers.

However, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), the nodal body for cleaning the river Ganga, changed the gates and fish locks on the Farakka barrage to help the fish swim upstream.

NMCG is catching the fish downstream of Farakka barrage, acclimatizing the fish and, after their artificial breeding, tagging the seeds and releasing them upstream.

The early signs of the hilsa catch are encouraging though the numbers are very small.

“Fishermen from Ballia, Patna, Bhagalpur and Sahibganj reported that since last three decades, they had never caught hilsa, but were surprised to catch the hilsa of 150g to 250g," NMCG said in a statement to Mint. Tagged hilsa has been caught as far as Munger in Bihar and Ballia in Uttar Pradesh.

Hilsa was found in the Ganga near Kanpur and Agra during 1882, with the species recorded in Delhi during 1877, according to the NMCG statement.

The fish vanished from the Ganga because of reasons such as the construction of barrages across rivers that obstructed its migration to reach its natural breeding ground, overfishing, pollution, reduced water flow and high sedimentation.

According to the NMCG statement, during the mid-1960s, hilsa was said to be a lucrative catch in the river Ganga. During 1955-72, the average catch of hilsa at Allahabad was 48.42 tonnes, while at Buxar, it was 140 tonnes.

Hilsa is rich in Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are considered good for the human brain and heart, according to NMCG.

“We also work on restoring Ganga’s aquatic life. Can you believe that the NMCG is working to ensure that Gangetic hilsa shall remain in Ganga? We are identifying why Gangetic hilsa numbers have come down, and are working on ways to artificially propagate it upstream of Farakka," Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat said.

“The work has started now for the last one-and-a-half to two years or so. The results are coming. They are visible. But, it will still take a long time. We have changed the trend. What was depleting, it has stopped and gone towards increasing. It is a very good sign," Shekhawat said.

The government’s flagship 20,000 crore Namami Gange programme was approved by the Union cabinet in 2014 for making river Ganga pollution-free and conserving and restoring it.

“The problem is Bangladesh has put a ‘zero net’. The natural breeding used to take place on Bangladesh’s side, and the fish swam upstream. First, this stopped because of the ‘zero net’. Second, the fish lock on our Farakka barrage through which the fish could swim was not operational for the last 10-20 years," said Shekhawat.

“We are changing all gates, including the fish locks. Around 70% (of the gates) have been changed. We are also changing fish locks so that fish have an opportunity to swim (upstream) naturally. Till the time these activities are completed, we are catching hilsa downstream of Farakka, acclimatizing them and, after their artificial breeding, tagging the seeds and propagating them so that they swim upstream and multiply. We are getting excellent results," Shekhawat said.

“Realizing the importance on conservation of hilsa in river Ganga, NMCG took up an initiative on hilsa fisheries improvement in river Ganga with focus on middle stretch, from Prayagraj (in Uttar Pradesh) to Farakka (in West Bengal) in collaboration with ICAR-Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (ICAR-CIFRI), Kolkata, during 2019-20 and 2021-23," NMCG said in its statement.

A total of 344 projects worth 29,990 crore have been sanctioned in the Ganga basin, according to the Union Jal Shakti ministry. Of these, 147 projects have been completed, with the rest in different stages of development.

The objectives include a target of 30,000 hilsa brooders ranching upstream of Farakka in river Ganga, artificial breeding of river hilsa and juveniles rearing and establishing migration patterns through Floy tagging, e-tags and sensors for identifying the breeding location and declaring conservation sites, according to NMCG.

The fish commands a very high price, which is partly because of its low availability.

“According to a local market survey in West Bengal (Kolkata), hilsa price was at 1,400 to 3,500 per kg, while in Odisha (Chilka), the price was 900 to 1,800 for a size range of 400gm to 800gm. The wholesale delivery price for hilsa (500gm to 1,000gm size) in Karnataka (Bangalore) was 700 to 1,200 per kg," NMCG said.

“Among all the Indian states, West Bengal consumes most of the hilsa that are caught in India and imported from Bangladesh," NMCG said.

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