Whose Blue Economy? Questions of climate, community, and wildlife
Let’s be honest about this; throughout the last three years, I’ve been writing on the theme of ‘Blue Economy’ and its relation or lack thereof with conserving marine and coastal ecosystems, wildlife, and the communities. I mean, I was telling the same story on different occasions to the different audience and of course with new contexts and characters again and again. So, the chance was very slim that, they’re going to be anything totally new in this piece. But there is now, a lot. It’s because in the first couple of months of this year we’ve seen some important developments within the Bangladesh government agencies.
The latest in the series is establishing the Blue Economy Cell under the Energy, Power and Mineral Resources Ministry. The mandate of the Blue Economy Cell includes explorations of off shore fossil fuel and deep sea mining. In contrast to the globally accepted norms and principles of sustainability, the government has taken the position that extraction of marine resources and industrializing the coastal region are the main tenants of building a new economic sector which it describes as a ‘sustainable’ economy.
In these times of changing climate, when a total collapse of coastal ecosystems, declining biodiversity, and dwindling fisheries have left millions of coastal people without nature’s service and benefits and exposed them to soaring sea and salinity; the government’s new approach to Blue Economy is certainly scary. We all know how unsustainable coastal development and the maritime economy is responsible for degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity loss, and let me convince you about how this ‘extractive’ blue economy in Bangladesh will make the situation worse for both the human and wildlife along the coast and in the sea.
Communities suffering from fossil fuel driven economy and industrial food production
Since 2012, I’m traveling across the coastal region very frequently. Let’s take the east coast as an instance. If you travel from Chittagong to Teknaf, either by the beach or through the mangroves and hills, when approaching the sea through Bangladesh’s southernmost localities, stories of vulnerable communities and threatened diversity of life in a densely populated coast will gradually unveil them before you. You’ll pass through water and soil salty enough for destroying agriculture, you’ll meet communities taking boat journeys across the ocean for a ‘paying job’ and finally the hilly roads will take you to the Bay of Bengal where the fishesh are disappearing.
Global warming induced sea level rise and more frequent extreme weather events are already making life measurable here in one of the world’s most densely populated countries. On the hill; shrub, coarse grasses and bamboos have taken place of degraded forests. These hills originally were covered by Dipterocarp forest. Deforestation continues, mainly due to illegal logging and agriculture. Farming for betel-leaf, betel-nut, and banana is dominant in the hills and forest lands. Farming increases the risk of soil erosion on the hill slopes. The hills were extensively drained by creeks and small waterfalls, but now, during monsoon when heavy rainfall continues the saturated hill soils are prone to landslides causing deaths and damage to properties.
Communities living here in the tidal floodplains and low hill ranges are largely affected by degradation of mangroves, beach and dune systems. Mangroves are largely degraded and deforested, the total Chakoria Sundarban forest is gone but the bare mud flats and the inter-tidal zone still provides ground for crab fishing to hundreds of families here. Overall dependence on marine-fishing has decreased rapidly. Bombay duck, Greenback mullet, Gold-spotted grenadier anchovy, Ramcarat grenadier anchovy, Tongue soles, Bigeye ilisha and Pama croaker traditionally formed the main catch. Fishers say it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in nearshore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go too far off shore which they can’t due to lack of the seaworthy boats. Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is also very difficult now.
At least one in every six families here have a member currently working in ‘Melesia’ (as they pronounce ‘Malaysia) as ‘undocumented’ and illegal migrant workers. And of course, they’ve traveled to Malaysia by mechanized boats evading the reluctant eye of Bangladeshi border guards and with the help of Burmese and Thai corps in most cases. Most of the family I’ve encountered is happy in this regard because they say migrant workers are sending home a good amount of money. How they use the money from Malaysia? Back home the family can afford school for their kids or build a new boat with a hope that there are more fish in the sea, which is not the case in the most instance as it turns out. But still, all they have got is the sea.
Unfortunately, the sea is losing the habitats and the diversity of life it used to host. The only coral ecosystem in the Bangladesh’s waters around Saint Martin’s Island is almost lost. Unsustainable fishing and tourism are killing important marine wildlife such as Sharks and Sea Turtles. As we know, the sea turtles and top predator sharks play important role in the marine ecosystem. Cox’s Bazar, once the world longest beach used to see nesting of mother turtles in thousands, now it came down to few dozen annually. The nesting beaches are almost lost to coastal development; the last remaining part of the beach is being encroached by a under-construction road dubbed as the Marine Drive. Threatened species of sharks are being caught indiscriminately, the local population of this top predator of the ocean is not managed as a fishery nor protected as wildlife in Bangladesh. Land and vessel based pollution is rampant which in conjunction with the global warming and ocean acidification has sucked out the dissolved oxygen from a huge part of the Bay of Bengal, as a recent study shows. The study published back in January in the science journal Nature Geoscience reveals a new ‘dead zone’ appears to be emerging in the Bay of Bengal, in waters extending from 100m to 400m in depth.
Better standard of life on the lands largely depends on a healthy sea, so how’ll be living for Bangladeshi people on a dead sea? If we do not change the course of our economic activities, the environmental degradation and climate vulnerability which are common throughout the total coastal region will get worse. An estimated 40 million people in coastal Bangladesh, crammed into the world largest river delta. Under the huge pressure of Ocean acidification and pollution, the sea is not only failing to serve the communities but becoming dangerous and unpredictable also with more frequent extreme weather events.
Unsustainable economy, ecological collapse and climate vulnerability
With less than 1oC of global warming, the loss, and damages from frequent cyclones, floods, salinity intrusions, and droughts are mounting for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people in the Bengal delta. People are losing their lives and livelihoods. On May 27, 2009, cyclonic storm Aila sustained only three minutes but ‘resulted in 190 fatalities and at least 7,000 injuries across the Khulna and Satkhira Districts. Across 11 of the nation’s 64 districts, approximately 600,000 thatched homes, 8,800 km (5,500 mi) of roads, 1,000 km (620 mi) of embankments, and 123,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of land were damaged or destroyed.’ The damage estimated was $295.6 million (2009 USD). The loss and damage of such a scale were for the second time in two years. Just in November 2007, At least 3,447 deaths have been reported from the cyclone Sidr, with total damages came close to $450 million.
This interface of the unsustainable economy, ecological collapse and climate vulnerability could have been avoided if the nations of the world, as well as Bangladesh, followed the approach of Green Economy that is ‘decoupling environmental degradation from development’. But the most striking irony is, the policy makers of the world’s one of the most climate vulnerable country- Bangladesh are still pursuing the process of traditional unsustainable development in the name of ‘Blue Economy’. While the inception and gradual developments of the idea of blue economy testify that it is, in fact, the green economy’s latest version customized for coastal and marine areas, recent developments in the government of Bangladesh shows no indication of this understanding. Things like dirty coal or destructive tourism in critical coastal ecosystems were not even supported by the green economy approach, but the government is now trying to justify a coal-based energy policy and unsustainable coastal mega-infrastructure spree in the name of blue economy.
It is important to note that, ‘blue’ is the new ‘green’ and that not every maritime economic activity is to be considered as ‘blue’. The United Nation’s framework on Blue Economy and the World Wildlife Fund’s Principles for a Sustainable Blue Economy is pretty clear that blue economy is not a synonym for the maritime economy. This hustle and bustle about the blue economy in Bangladeshi bureaucracy started during the time of maritime boundary dispute resolution with neighboring Myanmar and India. After the verdict of ITLOS, exploring offshore fossil fuel and leasing blocks to Big Oils became hassle free. But importance on the extraction of fossil fuel or deep sea minerals or promoting more destructive tourism practices (allowing vessels in the coral ecosystem of St. Martin’s Island for instance) is not a positive gesture for sustainable or at least environmentally passive maritime economy.
For a more nuanced understanding of blue economy approach, Bangladeshi policy makers should take a look at the much-acknowledged book ‘The Blue Economy’. The author Gunter Pauli puts the principle of this approach ‘Nature evolved from a few species to a rich biodiversity. Wealth means diversity. Industrial standardization is the contrary’. As the ocean is the main regulator of our planet’s climate system, the idea means and includes protection of marine ecosystem and diversity of life, so that the oceans, the lungs of our planet can operate normally, and support livelihoods for the global population with its ecosystem services and benefits.
Prospects and challenges for ‘blue’ Blue Economy
The government should follow globally acknowledged frameworks and principles to bring sustainability in maritime economic activities and any other development project in coastal areas. They have got really nice and easy way to do that; that is the leading international instrument to incorporate sustainability as the main mantra of development- the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Total 169 targets under 17 goals are meant to guide the transition of development towards sustainability for next 15 years. Among them goal 14 deals about Ocean, it is titled ‘Conserve and sustainability use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’.
As a goal making exercise, nations and other interest groups came together, discussed new goals and adopted them. It is more or less suitable to act as an ‘accountability standard’ for nations’ journey towards sustainable development. The UN and other inter-governmental bodies will devise strategies facilitate capacity building; mobilize financial mechanisms to help the nations in achieving the targets. Particularly, SDG 14 stressed on increased scientific knowledge and research capacity as well as the transfer of marine technology, which will enhance the capacity of countries like Bangladesh in marine science and technology.
Once scrutinized according to local pretext and needs, Ocean SDG can be standard of accountability for Bangladesh’s own quest towards marine conservation and blue economy. On a national level, Bangladesh needs to scrutinize the targets to set priorities, to determine, on what targets we need to do more work before we may proceed. Considering present scenario and status of Bangladesh’s coastal and marine social-ecological systems the priority areas for investment should be; restoring marine and coastal ecosystems, science-based management of sustainable marine fisheries, significantly reducing land-based marine debris and nutrient pollution and ensuring full access to marine resources to small-scale artisanal fishers. These are the sectors where Bangladesh still is in need for policy and strategy formation before starting work.
National Environment Policy, National Fisheries Policy, Coastal Zone Policy, Biosafety Guidelines of Bangladesh and National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) 2015-2020 should be revamped according to the demand of Ocean SDG. In addition, we need to devise appropriate strategies, policy frameworks and National Program of Action (NPoA) regarding Ecosystem Restoration, promoting community-based cooperative enterprises in deep sea fishing, Fishing Monitoring and Regulation, Bycatch reduction, Marine Debris and Nutrient reduction, Ballast Water management and prevention of Invasive Aquatic Species.
We need to restore marine and coastal ecosystems in appropriate cases and establish sustainable management. Chakoria Sundarban and Coral colonies of St. Martin’s Island are among coastal and marine ecosystems of Bangladesh which are totally degraded and requires restoration works. Due to lack of scientific research and survey, we are not sure about the extent of our marine subsystems which are degraded to the level that they ceased to provide ecosystem service and benefits, hence need restoration. Identifying the subsystem in the bay of Bengal and coastal water and delineating their boundary for further conservation management should be the priority. A NPoA is a good point to start with.
A science-based management plan for sustainable marine fisheries is the second important target to achieve. Assessment of marine fish stock and determining Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) by intensive field investigation is the starting point in this process. Management plans should be triggered by proved Stock and MSY. The amount of discarded bycatch, especially from Shrimp trawling, need to be significantly reduced (at the present the bycatch ratio is 8:1). Bottom Trawling and Shrimp trawling can be considered for an extended temporary ban, given the damage to juvenile fish populations, predator loss, marine mammals and turtles, seabed communities and fin-fishes. Marine Fisheries Ordinance and Rules of 1983 need to be amended to meet the demands of improved management. Coordination between government agencies and private sector should be institutionalized for full observation of Bangladesh Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing.
Protecting reserve in at least 10 percent of marine and coastal area based on scientific information is needed to be achieved also. It’s a tricky one. If one can just decide not to consider ‘based on scientific information’ part, protecting the reserve is then just a matter of declaring a reserve and increase the ‘percentage’ in the paper, which was done before in Bangladesh. To initiate the process of effective reserve protection Bangladesh needs standardization of protected area categories according to IUCN standard. A policy framework for planning, establishing, managing and evaluating the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which will include ‘reserve’ as a category needs to be drafted. Instead of depending on anecdotal reference or legends, the whole process of triggering MPAs should be scientific research.
Significantly reducing marine debris and nutrient pollution demands the establishment of efficient solid waste management, recycling and organic agriculture and less importance on aquaculture. From policy aspect, we have an advantage in this regard as we already have our Marine Pollution Ordinance 1977 and NPoA for Reducing Land-Based Marine Pollution. To adjust with the demand of SDG 14 we just need to amend these instrument to address the requirements of the survey, monitoring and removal of marine debris, reducing micro-plastic pollution by consumer products and other industrial waste, vessel based pollution like ballast water and Invasive Aquatic Species.
Ensure full access to marine resources to small-scale artisanal fishers is the most important part to make the marine fisheries sector more inclusive. Legalization of huge fleets of artisanal fishing boats should be the first priority. An institutional form of coordination between Department Fisheries and Marine Mercantile Department of Department of Shipping to run registration and licensing activity is the first step. In the long term, ways to motivate, facilitate and promote small-scale artisanal fishing cooperatives in deep sea fishing can be an effective process to transfer more access and control to coastal communities over their natural resources.
While SDG is the main mantra of sustainability now, the base-rock of sustainability is ‘going local’. Globally it is evident that management of natural resources is more effective when the responsibility rests on the local community. Participatory research and locally-led conservation efforts should be the guiding approaches for policy reorganization for bringing sustainability in maritime economic activities. To facilitate the transition, not only the resources for climate mitigation and adaptation but the development budget under the government’s Blue Economy initiative also need to be solely invested in restoring and protecting coastal and marine ecosystems.
Photos: © Mohammad Arju