Indo-US Alliance of Fish

Always on the hunt for a means to bring India and the United States closer together, I have come upon one commercial link that no one seems to have considered: fish.

More specifically, a subfamily of fish whose Indian subspecies is known as hilsa and the US species as American shad.

For the biologically minded, these are both members of the subfamily Alosinae. This is the herring family, but the shads – the hilsa’s common English name is Indian shad – are the largest members.

But they all share skeletons made of lots of fine thin bones and a spawning pattern of laying eggs in rivers and then spending their adult days in the ocean.

Bengalis in North America often eat American shad as a hilsa substitute. Having had a few myself, I have to admit I can’t tell much difference between the two once the mustard sauce has been laid on.

The trading potential lies in the fact that hilsa is being horribly overfished and is becoming rapidly a luxury food.

Bangladesh, the largest producer of hilsa, saw prices rise to $20 equivalent for fish over one kilogramme in weight this year. Dhaka imposed a ban on hilsa exports, promptly driving up prices in West Bengal and India in general.

The price of large hilsa in Kolkata is already reaching $ 25 and will probably rise further.

India has already begun looking at the possibility of importing hilsa from Myanmar as a substitute. Bengalis have been buying a bony fish from the Persian Gulf but, by all accounts, the bones are there but the taste is not.

However, another possibility is the US. I am not sure about the cost of transport but I suspect the arbitrage levels are now reaching the point that this may make economic sense.

First, the US has shad in plenty. Bangladesh’s entire hilsa harvest is about 350,000 tonnes a year.

Officially, only about 6000 or so tonnes is exported to West Bengal a year – though the actual figure is probably double or triple that once informal exports are considered. In comparison, the US shad catch is in the region of one million tonnes a year.

I suspect it could be more but as Americans don’t eat the stuff, shad fishing is a fragmented local business and not particularly efficient. Only the roe is eaten with much of the rest of the catch being converted into animal feed and worse.

Second, the price of shad in the US is rock bottom given that so few people eat it. You can normally buy it for about $ 3 or 4 kilogramme as fishbait in southern states.

I suspect its probably about $ 1 when it gets off the trawler and if the fishing is made a bit more efficient, the price would fall further.

This would mean a price difference between the US fishing boats and the Kolkata markets of nearly $ 25 a kilogramme or more. One suspects this may make commercial sense.

Mamata Banerjee and Pranab Mukherjee have supposedly already complained to New Delhi about the hilsa crisis.

Will Bengalis accept American shad? Their brethren in the US already have.

Nitpicking will happen. I am from a East Bengali family and I can remember how relatives would say the hilsa from the Padma river was the only one worth eating and all the stuff on the Indian side was unfit for human consumption.

But over the years they came to grudgingly accept that the hilsa from Kolaghat or other places in West Bengal were actually not bad.

I suspect Susquehanna or Chesapeake hilsa will also come to be accepted, if properly marketed.

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