By Anis Ahmed and Azad Majumder
DHAKA (Reuters) - From time immemorial, Bangladeshis have been passionate about hilsha fish, a strongly flavored, white-fleshed fish known for its mouthwatering smell while cooking -- and a required menu item at New Year's and other family celebrations.
But the dazzling silver creature that was declared the country's national fish upon independence in 1971 now has become a much rarer sight on tables due to rising prices, in large part driven by strong demand from giant neighbor India.
"I loved to eat hilsha when I was a child and later learnt from my mother how to cook it. Culinary excellence is incomplete without this treat," said Nazmin Ara, a Dhaka housewife.
"For us, now it is a luxury item with an unaffordable price."
Traders said a 1 kg hilsha now sells at 1,000 taka ($13.30) in retail markets in Dhaka, double the price of two years ago, although fishermen say the volume of the catch has, paradoxically, risen over the years.
Though the price was always beyond the reach of the poor, middle- and upper-class Bangladeshis ate it frequently, often with rice and baked chili. But now it has vanished from even their tables except for special occasions such as the New Year, meals with people from abroad, and state functions.
Buyers, and many officials, blame the jump largely on higher transport costs from the catch point to the markets and illegal sale of the fish to India, especially to its West Bengal state bordering Bangladesh, an area also passionate about eating it.
Hilsha, also known as "ilish," is mainly a sea species but prefers to lay its eggs in rivers due to no salinity and less current. It is caught in all major Bangladeshi rivers, such as the Padma, Meghna and Jamuna, and their Bay of Bengal estuary.
According to Department of Fisheries, Bangladesh produced 340,000 tons of hilsha in the 2010-11 fiscal year which ended in June, 27,000 tons more than the previous year.
"The transport cost is going higher every day, so we cannot sell them cheaply even if we wanted," said Oli Ullah, a wholesale fish trader in Dhaka's Kawran Bazar Area.
"Also we do not have enough supply all the time. Tons of fish are being smuggled to India, pushing the price up in the local market," he said.
India imports hilsha through legal channels but the illegal exports are much larger, traders say, since it's cheaper and also much less complicated because they bypass customs checks.
The Department of Fisheries said Bangladesh exported 5,376 tons of hilsha to India alone out of their total export of 8,500 tons in the fiscal year just ended. The rest went to the ethnic Bangladeshi markets in Europe and America.
But the actual exports are likely to be much higher due to active smuggling along the river borders between the nations, which are impossible to completely control.
In recognition of the esteem in which the fish is held by both countries, Bangladeshi governments often use hilsha to smooth ties with India, which surrounds its small neighbor on three sides, officials and analysts say.
"Whenever we host a VIP guest from India, authorities here wish to treat them with all varieties of dishes, but hilsha is a must," said a senior government official who requested anonymity. "We are used to hilsha diplomacy."
So entrenched is this custom that hilsha was even on the menu when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka recently, despite the fact that Singh is a vegetarian. It is not known if he tasted it.
Truckloads of hilsha go to India each day. Dishonest traders often register them as non-fish cargo, border officials say.
"You can get it cheaper in Kolkata (the capital of West Bengal) than in Dhaka. It is really annoying and frustrating," said Anwar Sadat, a Dhaka businessman who travels to India frequently and has friends there.
Instead of addressing concerns that the uncontrolled smuggling may lead to a day not too far in the future when hilsha will be completely out of reach for Bangladeshis, the government is instead trying to increase production.
"We have undertaken many motivational programs to stop fishermen from netting baby hilsha and give them a chance to grow," said Jahid Habib, director of the Jhatka Conservation Project. "Jhatka" refers to the young hilsha.
"Around 11,000 fishermen in seven districts of the hilsha zone spanning 7,000 square kilometers have already been provided alternative source of income during the breeding season."
As part of the government's efforts, Jahid said they have banned catching, hoarding, transporting and marketing of hilsha from October 6 to 16, when most of the fish lay eggs.
Although mid-July is the best time to catch hilsa in the Bay of Bengal and the estuaries, fishery officials said the trend is now changing because of rising temperatures and climate change.
"Due to such changes, hilsha is now also caught from November to February," said M. Asaduzzaman, a fishery officer in Charfashion. This increases the market supply in winter, further boosting both legal exports and smuggling -- and tightening the local supply still more, keeping prices high.
Unfortunately, fishermen are not benefitting.
Faruque Majhi, a fisherman in the coastal town of Charfashion, said catching hilsha is no longer profitable since he has to sell it to middlemen at less than the market rate because he cannot take it to city markets himself.
"I have invested 300,000 taka ($4,000) for a net and fishing boat this season, but I have yet to recover the money," he said. "So I cannot help (myself) and sometimes go catch the young fish, though I know it is illegal." ($1 = 75 taka)
(Editing by Elaine Lies)