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Scientists roll sleeves to raise fish yield

Calcutta, Jan. 6: Indian scientists are embarking on a project that promises to spruce up the Bengali platter.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is soon to formally launch a five-year, Rs 14-crore research programme with the objective of eventually raising the country’s hilsa production.

“We now depend only on natural stocks for the hilsa harvest. As natural stocks are declining and there are no immediate measures to increase the hilsa population to meet the demand, we have decided to chalk out a comprehensive research programme to improve the catch,” said Anil Prakash Sharma, director of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), Barrackpore, on the sidelines of the Indian Science Congress.

The project, which will involve seven ICAR institutes and Visva-Bharati, will for the first time study the hilsa’s natural life cycle and feeding habits.

“Filling the gaps in our understanding will give us an opportunity to explore the possibility of hilsa farming,” Sharma said.

The catch of the silvery fish, a delicacy in Bengal, has plummeted from 60,000 tonnes a year in the 1970s to 10,000 tonnes in recent years. The reasons, Sharma said, range from loss of habitat because of dams to indiscriminate fishing. Bangladesh’s hilsa yield, however, has increased.

The project is perhaps the most comprehensive study ever undertaken on a fish species in India, said V.R. Suresh, project coordinator and principal scientist at the CIFRI.

Although a marine fish, the hilsa enters freshwaters to breed. It is said that it would earlier come all the way to Varanasi up the Ganga but things have changed after the Farrakka Barrage came up in 1971, Suresh said.

European studies on the salmon (which too breeds in rivers despite being a sea fish) have shown that offspring tend to go to the same river where their mother had bred.

“We need to know whether the hilsa too has similar homing targets. A team led by Samir Bhattacharya at Visva-Bharati will study this aspect,” Suresh said.

“We would also like to know which algae and plankton the hilsa feeds on. This would help our scientists create artificial feeds that can be used at hilsa farms.”

Suresh said the Central Institute of Fisheries Education in Mumbai would study the hilsa’s physiology. The National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources in Lucknow will undertake genetic and genomic studies.