Coronavirus serves up a surplus of hilsha in the market this Baishakh | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 09, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:33 AM, April 09, 2020

Coronavirus serves up a surplus of hilsha in the market this Baishakh

The rapid spread of coronavirus in Bangladesh has shattered traders' hopes of a sales bonanza of hilsha fish marking the celebration of Pahela Baishakh, the first day of the Bangla new year.

The government has already imposed restriction on gathering on the first day of the Bangla calendar year 1427, slated on April 14, with the view to flattening the curve on the lethal pathogen that has infected more than 1.4 million globally and claimed 83,568 lives.

Typically, sales of the much-cherished fish begin to surge two-three weeks ahead of the Pahela Baishakh. But this year has been unlike any other -- in recent memory.

"It's less than a week to Pahela Baishakh and there is no query or advance orders for hilsha this year," said Narrotheam Das, owner of Partha Enterprise, a fish trader at Karwan Bazar, one of the biggest wholesale kitchen markets in Dhaka.

And he is not banking on a change in scenario either given the stringent movement control order that is coming into play by the hour as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases escalate by the day.

The fish, loved by people of all walks of life because of its distinct taste, has become an integral part of celebration of the biggest cultural event, Bangla new year, particularly among the urban middle-class, in recent decades.

And many traders store the fish in cold storages to profit from the clamour for hilsha ahead of the festival.

"There will be no business this year," said Mohamamd Mostafa, owner of Emon Enterprise, which has stored 12 tonnes of hilsha to profit eyeing the Pahela Baishaki demand.

People are not coming out of their homes unless they must.

"Where is the mood of Baishakhi celebration?"

Now Mosfata, who gets his supplies from areas such as Noakhali and Barishal, where the fish are caught from rivers, are banking on a return of appetite for the delicacy once coronavirus is snuffed out.

No estimate of sales of hilsha marking the celebration of Bangla new year's day is available.

In his guestimate, Mosharof Hossain, general secretary of Five Star Fish Traders Association of Karwan Bazar that handles nearly 300 tonnes of fishes daily, said Boishakhi day sales might be one-fifth the total annual sales of hilsha domestically.

He echoed the same as others about the most depressing market condition.

"The market has been almost out of customers for the last one week," he said, adding that owners of nearly half of the 500 stores here have remained shut.

But on the bright side -- and for those who have been intrepid enough to step out of their houses and venture into the kitchen markets -- the price of hilsha, which normally blows up around this time of the year, has remained subdued over the past fortnight.

The price of four pieces of hilsha -- weighing more than one kilogram each -- is now Tk 4,500-Tk 5,000 at the wholesale level, according to Hossain.

"Because of coronavirus effect, the price is unlikely to increase ahead of the Pahela Boishakh."

And they are sitting on surplus of the fish, which is native to the region.

"There is a good stock of fishes in the cold storages. Besides, we have also seen good catches of hilsha this year compared with previous year," Hossain said.

The main hilsha catching season begins in May and ends in the first week of October.

And catches of the fish have increased in recent years thanks to the government's restriction on hooking young hilsha, termed jatka, for eight months, ban on catches in five breeding grounds for two months, curb on fishing in seas for 65 days as well as two-day restriction on catches during breeding season.

Hilsha catches rose 79 per cent in a decade to 5.33 lakh tonnes in fiscal 2018-19, showed data from the Department of Fisheries (DoF).

The national fish accounted for 12 per cent of the total annual fish production of 42.76 lakh tones in fiscal 2017-18.

It also accounts for nearly 1 per cent of the country's GDP and 20 lakh people, including fishermen, are involved in its trade, according to the DoF.

"This year, we had catches in months never seen before," said Syed Mohammad Sohel, a fish trader at Jatrabari, another major wholesale hub in Dhaka city.

As a result of increased production and declining demand for coronavirus, the prices of the fish have been low: he sold a hilsha weighing one kg for Tk 700 yesterday.

Previously, that fish would be going for Tk 3,000, Sohel said.

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