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Dhaka Tribune

Ilish export: Global demands grow, questions rise at home

  • Bangladesh exports ilish to India for Durga Puja
  • Locals question high ilish prices
  • Bangladesh leads global ilish supply
  • Int’l supermarkets highlight Bangladeshi ilish
Update : 27 Sep 2023, 09:06 AM

In line with previous years, the government is exporting ilish to neighbouring India ahead of Durga Puja, the largest festival of Sanatan Dharma, commonly known as Hinduism.

This year, a decision has been made to export approximately 4,000 tons of ilish as a token gesture.

As of Tuesday, around 173.7 tons of ilish have been exported to India in three days through the Benapole land port in Jessore.

However, many have criticized this move due to the high price of ilish in the local market. Questions arise as to why prices of ilish, the national fish of Bangladesh, remain elevated despite these exports, especially when the quantity heading to India is limited. 

Many also wonder if ilish is being exported from Bangladesh to any other countries. 

Leading global supply, engaging millions

Research reveals that, besides Bangladesh, ilish can be found in 10 other countries worldwide. 

Notable nations among these include India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Thailand, where ilish is present in modest quantities. 

According to the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI), approximately 75% of the world's total ilish production originates from Bangladesh. 

The unique taste and aroma of Bangladesh's national fish significantly stand out compared to ilish from other countries. 

Nearly 700,000 people in Bangladesh are directly involved in ilish fishing.

Additionally, around 2.5 million people are indirectly engaged in related activities, such as net and equipment manufacturing, ice production, transportation, distribution, sales, and other sectors.

Ilish production, export and impact on market

According to official data, ilish production in the 1999-2000 fiscal year stood at 219,000 tons, which increased to 567,000 tons in the 2021-22 fiscal year. 

The BFRI says that currently, the peak sustainable yield of ilish is 702,000 tons.

File image of ilish. Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu/ Dhaka Tribune

However, sources from the Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association (BFFEA) indicate that Bangladesh annually produces nearly 600,000 tons of ilish. 

From this, an export of 4,000 to 5,000 tons has a negligible impact on the market but generates foreign exchange worth Tk350-Tk400 crore. 

Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi collaborated with it as well, mentioning that the annual ilish catch exceeds 600,000 tons. 

“On average, about 2,000 tons of ilish are caught daily during the peak fishing season,” he said. 

“Thus, the export quantity is even less than the ilish caught in three days, ensuring no significant market impact,” he added. 

Tracing ilish habitats in Bangladesh 

Information indicates that ilish can be found 1,200-1,300km upstream from the estuary and 250km from the coast in Bangladesh. 

As ilish travels (70-75km a day) from the sea towards freshwater rivers, releasing salt from its body, its flavour enhances.  

Presently, ilish is found in 100 rivers and canals across 38 districts, including the sea, estuaries, and coastlines.

Six coastal districts of Bangladesh are renowned as ilish sanctuaries. These include:

  • 100 kilometres of the Meghna River, from Shatnol in Chandpur to Char Alexander in Lakshmipur.
  • 90 kilometres of the Shahbazpur branch river, from Madanpur Char Ilisha to Char Pial in Bhola.
  • Nearly 100 kilometres of the Tentulia River, from Vheduria in Bhola to Char Rustom in Patuakhali.
  • The full 40 kilometres of the Andharmanik River in the Kalapara upazila of Patuakhali.
  • 20 kilometres between the Naria and Bhedarganj upazilas in Shariatpur and Matlab upazila in Chandpur.
  • Approximately 82 kilometres of the Meghna River, covering Hizla, Mehendiganj, and Barisal Sadar upazilas in Barisal.

More than just tasty

According to nutritionists, every 100 grams of ilish contains 1,020 kilojoules of energy. It comprises 18 to 22 grams of fat, 22 milligrams of vitamin C, 14.4 grams of protein, 2.4 milligrams of iron, and 10.83% of omega-3 in total fatty acids. 

Ranked by WorldFish, ilish stands second in omega-3 nutritional value, following salmon.

Beyond its nutritional benefits, ilish is globally popular for its distinct taste and aroma.

Ilish in international supermarkets

Ilish can be found in supermarkets across the US, the UK, and various European countries, often through expatriate channels. 

While searching online, some shops were also found displaying advertisements for ilish, most notably highlighting its origin in Chandpur.

A US seafood seller, Wegotmeat Farms, sells ilish on their website. Photo: Bangla Tribune

However, these descriptions frequently follow up with the declaration “Imported from Myanmar”.

Based in Dublin, US, the seafood seller “Wegotmeat Farms” lists a price of $25 for a 2-pound (907 grams) ilish on its website, underscoring its import from Myanmar.

A similar description of ilish is featured on the UK-based supermarket website “Grocee”. 

A UK-based supermarket website, Grocee, sells ilish on their website. Photo: Bangla Tribune

The fish is described as a popular choice from the Indian subcontinent, notably sourced from Chandpur, Bangladesh. 

It is further highlighted as the national fish of Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, and it is mentioned that it is exported globally. 

Experts believe such descriptions might be a marketing strategy, given there is no opportunity for Bangladeshi ilish to be exported via Myanmar.

However, on the matter of export permits, government officials have made it clear that aside from India, no other country receives ilish exports from Bangladesh.

They emphasize that only a nominal quantity of ilish is permitted for export to neighbouring India as a gesture of goodwill during Durga Puja, and there are no commercial motives behind it.

Govt approval for ilish export for Durga Puja

Sources reveal that, with the major Hindu festival Durga Puja around the corner in October, Kolkata-based traders in India had expressed a demand for 5,000 tons of ilish.

The Fish Importers Association in Kolkata submitted this request to the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission in Kolkata on September 1, which reached the Ministry of Commerce on September 4.

In response to the request from the Fish Importers Association in Kolkata, the Ministry of Commerce granted permission to export 3,950 tons of ilish to India for Durga Puja.

This export permission was given to 79 enterprises in Bangladesh, each of which is authorized to export up to 50 tons of ilish.

Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Commerce issued a notification granting the export permission, which will remain effective until October 30. 

This means that the approved enterprises have until then to execute the exports to India.

Exporters have been advised to complete all overseas shipments by October 11, as the Ministry of Fisheries on September 20 announced a 22-day ban on ilish fishing from October 12 to November 2 to ensure safe spawning conditions for mature ilish.

This year, the ministry has set eight conditions for the ilish export. 

Notably among them are that the customs authorities will physically inspect the approved goods for export, all export documentation must be submitted to the Ministry of Commerce upon shipping completion, exports cannot exceed the approved quantities, the permit is non-transferable, and sub-contracting of ilish exports through intermediaries other than approved exporters is not allowed.

Ilish export queries raised

Last year, on the occasion of Durga Puja, the Bangladesh government granted permission to export a total of 4,600 tons of ilish to India. The Ministry of Commerce issued this permission in two phases to 115 institutions. 

However, many of those approvals did not proceed with the export. The Ministry of Commerce wants a thorough understanding of this issue this year, seeking exact data on ilish exports.

On the matter, Commerce Secretary Tapan Kanti Ghosh mentioned that they are closely examining why exports were not undertaken despite having permission.

"Once we gather all the necessary data, we will understand who could not export ilish and why, despite having the necessary clearance. We have been careful this year in granting permissions," he added.

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