Incentive-based hilsa fisheries management in Bangladesh

Michael Akester
Published: 23 July 2020
Last edited: 05 August 2020
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The hilsa shad (Tenualosa ilisha) is the national fish of Bangladesh, supporting the livelihoods of more than 500,000 people, particularly in coastal communities. The Bangladesh government's Department of Fisheries uses incentive-based management to protect its hilsa stocks. Under the Hilsa Fisheries Management Action Plan, all fishing is banned for several months a year in a number of coastal sanctuary areas, and during these periods affected fishing households are offered compensation in the form of rice to improve food security and replace lost income. Other affected households are offered training and support to diversify their income sources. Used in conjunction with adaptive co-management and activities to raise awareness around sustainable fishing practices, this distribution of benefits aims to incentivise compliance with fishing regulations and improve the socioeconomic condition of fishing households.


South Asia
Scale of implementation
Freshwater ecosystems
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Open sea
River, stream
Fisheries and aquaculture
Food security
Health and human wellbeing
Science and research
Species management
Sustainable livelihoods
Unsustainable harvesting incl. Overfishing
Lack of alternative income opportunities
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Lack of food security
Unemployment / poverty
Sustainable development goals
SDG 1 – No poverty
SDG 2 – Zero hunger
SDG 14 – Life below water
Aichi targets
Target 4: Sustainable production and consumption
Target 6: Sustainable management of aquatic living resources




The hilsa shad is of huge economic, social and cultural value to Bangladesh. In the 1970s, hilsa production gradually started to decline, mainly due to overfishing and the degradation of habitat. To halt this decline, the government introduced various fishing regulations including seasonal bans on fishing - both nationwide and in specific hilsa sanctuary areas - with the aim of protecting juvenile and spawning hilsa. Artisanal hilsa fishers generally experience high levels of poverty and vulnerability, and these fishing regulations therefore impose a socioeconomic cost, particularly on those living near sanctuary areas. Capacity for monitoring and enforcement of regulations is also limited. 


The direct beneficiaries of this management approach are households in artisanal hilsa fishing communities across 15 districts of Bangladesh. Indirectly, all hilsa fishers benefit from this management, including industrial operators. 

How do the building blocks interact?

Together, the food compensation and alternative income generation support provide the incentive for compliance with hilsa fishery regulations, by compensating for lost earnings. Ultimately, this approach is expected to lead to socioeconomic improvement of hilsa fishing households and an increase in hilsa abundance.


The incentive-based management approach has had a direct socioeconomic impact on hilsa fishing communities in Bangladesh. At least 248,674 fishing households have now received 20-40 kg of rice per month during fishing bans. A smaller number of households have received alternative livelihood support, which has been demonstrated to lead to significant gains in income and assets.


Research suggests that this management approach has contributed to an increase in hilsa production of more than 100% over the last 15 years, which is indicative of an increase in hilsa abundance. This increase in productivity has further benefited hilsa fishers through an increase in fishing income. While it is difficult to evaluate the additional impact of providing incentives for compliance with fishing regulations, as opposed to using regulations alone, it seems likely that the incentives have contributed to a reduction in sanctuary fishing during ban periods. Awareness-raising activities likely strengthened this impact.


However, evidence of increased productivity is spatially variable, suggesting that adverse environmental change could be masking or outweighing benefits from management in some areas. There is also evidence that food and income support does not always reach the most vulnerable fishers, or sufficiently help those stuck in cycles of debt.


Annabelle Bladon

When the Bangladesh government first started distributing compensation to hilsa fishers in 2004, there was very little community input and therefore limited impact. In April 2013, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) began a four-year project to redesign the approach through rigorous socioeconomic and ecological research and collaboration with the Bangladesh government's Department of Fisheries. IIED partnered with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and Bangladesh Agricultural University, and the project was funded by the UK government's Darwin Initiative.


By establishing trust with high-level government officials at an early stage and working with a diverse group of stakeholders, researchers showed the government how it could improve its approach, making it more efficient, effective, equitable and sustainable. They also demonstrated how modifying the approach could have economic benefits, as well as social and ecological. As a result, the government committed to increasing the coverage of incentives, extending the commitment period, and increasing the amount of support provided to fisher men and women.


The success of this project influenced the joint implementation by the Department of Fisheries and WorldFish of a five-year initiative (2014-2019) funded by USAID, called “Enhanced Coastal Fisheries in Bangladesh (ECOFISH-BD)”. The overall objective of the initiative is to improve the resilience of the Meghna River ecosystem and communities reliant on coastal fisheries in Bangladesh. A key component of these efforts involved supporting women’s access to resources and technologies for livelihood diversification and community resilience improvement fishing ban periods.


Together, these initatives have strengthened the incentive-based approach used in Bangladesh by lessening the hardship imposed on vulnerable fishing communities, and contributed to a significant increase in hilsa productivity across the country.

Contributed by

Annabelle Bladon International Institute for Environment and Development