DHAKA (TIP): Bangladesh has arrested more than 900 fishermen and deployed the army to patrol its waterways after introducing a temporary ban on catching hilsa in an effort to save the hugely popular fish.

Some 60 percent of the world’s hilsa are caught in Bangladesh, but indiscriminate fishing has depleted much of the stock, driving up prices and putting the fish beyond the reach of the poor.

Anyone caught catching hilsa faces at least a year in jail under a 22-day ban that began on October 12, the start of the breeding season.

Armed forces have been deployed to patrol 7,000 square kilometres of rivers, estuaries and sea declared a breeding sanctuary. “We are patrolling the rivers day and night. It’s like a curfew,” fisheries department official Iqbal Hossain said from the coastal river district of Patuakhali.

“One mother (hilsa) can lay two million eggs per year. So one can easily understand how big the production will be if the protection drive is successful,” said Hossain.

Hilsa is the most sought-after delicacy for 160 million Bangladeshis and another 90 million Bengalis who live in eastern India.

Bangladesh has introduced temporary bans on catching it before, but they have never been enforced this thoroughly.

“A war is ongoing to keep the mother hilsa safe,” said Jahid Habib, who is campaigning to save the fish.

Bangladesh has already banned fishermen from catching young hilsa at certain times of the year. Five years ago it banned the export of the fish to India.

Some critics said the drive will hit fishermen in the impoverished country. But Hossain said authorities were giving free rice to 32,000 fishermen during the ban to make up for the financial loss.