tale of the hilsa trade
The magical taste of hilsa fish needs no introduction. We Bengalis are very familiar with the joy of eating this silver wonder. Hence, your mood, without any effort, lifts when you see hilsa on your platter. And in no time you start munching away! But have you ever thought about what it takes to bring that fish onto your table?
The trade of hilsa is an invigorating one. It's a series of stories involving numerous people. Therefore, sit tight, as Star Lifestyle takes you on the long and fascinating journey of the hilsa.
"Hilsa fish spend their lives in two places: rivers and seas. Hilsa are born in rivers. However, they travel to the seas and spend most of their lives there. But they return to the river for spawning and fertilisation. Afterwards, they return again to the sea," informed Dr. Zoarder Faruque Ahmed, Professor of the Department of Fisheries Management, Bangladesh Agricultural University.
Interestingly enough, the taste and smell of the hilsa from rivers is far superior than that of the sea.
"The fat of hilsa is the main thing that makes it tasty. The food the fish consume in the sea is not very rich, hence the hilsa, in turn, will not be very tasty, even if the hilsas have fat on their body. The fat absorbed in their body by eating the nutrients of the rivers is what makes the hilsa tastier, because the nutrients found there are far more superior," said Dr. A.K.M. Nowshad Alam, Professor of Fish Processing and Quality Control, Faculty of Fisheries, Bangladesh Agricultural University.
Therefore, one may claim that the reason behind the superior taste of Padma hilsa is largely due to the higher quality of nutrients available for the fish there.
But now, let's get down to business. Let's start from where it all begins: catching the fish.
Firstly you need a trawler; a fishing boat complete with all the necessary equipments. Some businesses even have really huge trawlers with cold storage facilities on board. But sometimes trawler owners may not have the skills and expertise required to catch fish.
This is when you decide to lease your fishing boat. The lessee specialises in catching fish and knows all the tricks and tactics. And he's not alone. He has subordinates working under him. These subordinates work under the chief fisherman.
This trawler lessee will of course have to pay for the lease. The terms of leasing depend on many things such as size and capacity of the boat, the facilities it provides, and the duration the lessee needs it for.
“A trawler may be leased out for a night, or even more. Sometimes, fishing boats stay out in the waters for several days and nights, tirelessly looking to catch a satisfactory amount of fish,” informs Md. Labib Billah, Managing Director of Dominion Fisheries Limited.
But wait, does the lessee have the money to take a lease from the trawler owner? Some do, and they are ready to sail and go fish hunting. But numerous lessees don't have that money. What about them?
Now it's time for another entrant to the distribution chain. People call him “daadon data”. He is sort of an investor; someone who finances the trawler lessee.
“The daadon data is the person who will give money to the fisherman. He will pay for the lease, the wages of the workers, and all other costs of the boat the fisherman has to bear, plus a profit for the fisherman,” Labib says.
In return, the fisherman must submit to him all the fish he catches.
No matter how jolly and happy the whole arrangement sounds, the fishermen, the unsung heroes of the trade, are deprived of their fair share of the pie, with their sad stories and little claims lost amidst the vastness of the sea.
So, the trawler owner earns by leasing out his boat and the lessee/fisherman makes a profit from his “daadon data” after deducting all expenses, such as the money paid out to his workers who helped him catch the fish, which is the livelihood of these hard-workers.
Now, the “daadon data” has all the fish with him. The roles of the trawler owner, the fisherman and his workers are over.
However, like in many other industries, one entity can surely play two or more roles in the whole process in the supply chain of hilsa (e.g. you may not lease your trawler, instead you may have your own company that will catch fish and trade directly, something in business we call vertical integration).
Anyway, the fish are now at a shore with the daadon data, far, far away from your dining table.
And there are quite a few shores in our country. The biggest hub is Chadpur Ghaat. Some other major bazaars sit in Barisal, Teknaf, Cox's Bazaar and Bhola, etc.
The arotdar (wholesaler) will now try to bring the fish a bit closer to you. Who is this wholesaler? He is, as a matter of fact, the “daadon data” himself.
“Most 'daadon data's are wholesalers too. But if a daadon data is not one, he'll simply sell his fish through a wholesaler, giving him a sales commission,” Labib informs.
Alternatively, some wholesalers will take a different route and export the fish.
The wholesaler sells the fish to traders through holding auctions (we'll come to that).
Our beloved hilsa is now in the possession of these traders. They will now transport them into various wholesale markets of the country.
The traders bring the fish very early in the morning, at about 5 am. Karwan Bazaar, New Market and Showarighat are three major wholesale markets in Dhaka. While you are sleeping, these places come alive, buzzing with people oblivious to the time of day.
A whole new ball game starts, consisting of another set of players.
Exactly where do you think these traders will occupy space and sell their fish in the wholesale bazaar?
This is where the shop owners of the wholesale markets come into play. As the shop owner, you have the space where trade will take place. In return, you will get a sales commission.
"For every one taka the fisherman gets, 4 paisa will in the shop owner's pocket,” informed Mohammed Anis, a commission agent at Karwan Bazaar.
The traders the sell hilsa to the retailers via an auction.
When you talk about an auction being held, an image of sophisticated people bidding for something extravagant comes to mind for some reason.
The auction of hilsa is a totally different story. Wherever you see a huddle in the wholesale market, you can bet that an auction for hilsa is on.
Why auction, you might ask. Well, for one, this mode, over years of practice, has become a custom and is now part of the culture. Secondly, sellers are few compared to the number of buyers, thus creating a condition where the buyers need to bid the highest to make a purchase.
An auction is an excellent way of gauging demand-supply dynamics. For example, sellers may stand with numerous hilsa behind him. But he won't take then all out at once. He'll bring them out in fours, or in pairs. Then, the bidding will start. He'll notice the price at which it is sold. Is the price higher or lower than the last set of four sold?
The shrewd sellers, amidst all the noises and crowds, continually do mental calculations to estimate the best price to start the bidding at.
It is a complicated game indeed, with a huge number of players.
Another key group which works on the background are the ice-sellers. Whenever you go to these bazaars, you come across many ice sellers, offering huge chunks of ice.
Once the retailers buy the hilsa from the wholesalers, they resell it to you. Now, finally, the hilsa is at your home, where it undergoes cleaning and processing and cooking and then it is finally served. The long journey has ended.
And, once you put the hilsa in your mouth, it is only then that the best part of the whole process starts.
By M H Haider
Special thanks to Md. Labib Billah, Managing Director, Dominion Fisheries Limited, Dr. Zoarder Faruque Ahmed and Dr. A.K.M. Nowshad Alam, professors at Bangladesh Agricultural University.
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed