Humans of Hilsa

The last ban season (October 12 – November 2, 2016) to protect spawning Hilsa alias Ilish has gone well. After the ban; catching, selling, transportation and hoarding of hilsa resumed on November 3. The prohibition on fishing was enforced in 7,000 square kilometers of Hilsa breeding grounds in outer and inner coastal districts.

Shoals of mother Ilish start swimming upstream from the sea towards the rivers, weeks before the full moon in October (Ashwin in Bengali calendar), and they return to the sea after spawning Usually 15-day long, the ban has been extended to 22 days this year. While the years of consecutive ban season delivers result now, the king Hilsa is returning to the rivers, but how’s life for the fisher folks?

I traveled to the coastal districts during the ban to meet the fishers- who contributed to this conservation success despite being ultra poor.

Hilsa Fisher 1

On the second day of the ban, Abdul Hamid was busy in sorting out fishing gears at Patharghata landing station in coastal Barguna district. The boat has returned to the sea after the ban ended on 2nd November, but he has not and will not until the next monsoon because at the late sixties ‘he just can’t handle the chilly weather out there’ said fellow fisher folks. In winter, he will work in the field to support his extended family. Hailing from Padma village on the bank of Bishkhali River, Mr. Hamid is in fishing since his early age, but never got any financial assistance or free rice during ban periods, which the Department of Fisheries officials say they distribute among tens of thousands of fishers in 85 coastal sub-districts.

 

Hilsa Fisher 3

At least 900 fishermen got arrested and jailed for seven days to two years for violating the fishing ban across the region. This group of fishermen said people were arrested even while taking the boat to the harbor for repair and maintenance.  ‘What troubles me the most is replacing of an appreciation of the science of the fishing embargo and community motivation with the fear of punishment. Fear is the only driver that keeps the fishermen on the bank during the ban,’ said conservationist Mahatub Khan Badhon.

 

Hilsa Fisher 2

After the last fishing trip of the open season, crews of FV Anukul-2 got back from the Swatch of No Ground in the Bay of Bengal. Fishing in the open season was extraordinary this year with an unprecedented big catch of Hilsa in more than a decade. The catch soared up to half a million tons just before the ban began, said Fisheries Research Institute’s center at Chandpur. This is a huge surge from 1,99,000 tons back in 2002 or even the last year’s 3,87,000 tons. So, the 22 straight days of the last ban was time for some boat-keeping, sorting out the nets and many repairs.

 

Hilsa Fisher 4Kalam Miah, ‘the giant catfish’, as his fellow fisher folks call him, lives on the bank of the mighty Padma in Rajbari district. During the ban on Hilsa fishing, this inner coast fishing community was still in the river with their nets especially made for catfish. Mesh size of their net is so big that average Hilsa can get through, but not their targeted giant freshwater catfishes such as Boal, Aor, Pungus. First imposed in 2003-04 the October ban to protect spawning Hilsa was 15-day long in previous years, in place to an area of 7,000 square kilometers that includes rivers in 27 districts. This year, along with the extended time, it also included the coastal water and the total area of Exclusive Economic Zone in the Bay of Bengal.

 

Hilsa Fisher 5

On last day of the ban, the painter was giving his last touch to the boats. He traveled to this fishing hamlet in the outskirts of Chittagong to ‘decorate’ the boats before they sail again into the sea next morning. The major share of Bangladesh’s marine catch comes from this kind of mechanized and non-mechanized small boats, which last year accounted for 515000 metric tons, 85.86% of the total marine catch. Official estimates limit the number of these mostly artisanal fishing boats within 68,000. Back home in the central coast district of Feni, the painter owns one.

 

Hilsa Fisher 6

With this dinghy and small-mesh driftnet, Mohammad Ismail managed a fortune from Hilsa fishing at Haringhata River in the open season. The price he got over a couple of months before the ban started was ‘over one lakh and ten thousand takas,’ he said. Visiting the neighborhoods with the newly bought cell phone in the pocket was the only ‘work’ he was doing during the ban. ‘No one will observe the fishing ban if the Coast Guard was not there because it’s just impossible to resist the temptation of Hilsa’ said Mr. Ismail.

 

(This photo-story was first published by Daily Sun on November 26, 2016 titled ‘Hilsa Heroes’)

Will Bangladesh and India turn the Sundarbans into a Busy Shipping Lane?

Shipping and navigation through the Sundarban are booming like never before. Unauthorized navigation routes are expanding. The vessels range from the ocean-going mother and feeder cargo ships,  container carriers, tankers, lighterage ships, mid-size bulk cargo and tankers from inland waterways, and trans-boundary cargo ships between Bangladesh and India. Without any sort of environmental management in place, this increasing navigation and shipping are multiplying the risk of accidents/spills and regular pollution in the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Sundarban West Wildlife Sanctuary
Sundarban West Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo © 2014 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

It was a quiet and cool at daybreak in the world’s largest mangrove forest – the Sundarbans – on December 28, 2008; amidst the morning mist, I was heading towards the wildlife sanctuary. I was tired and fell asleep on the deck as soon as the mechanized boat sailed, only to find myself rudely awakened, with a giant cargo ship before my eyes, its siren sound in my ears.

From the master bridge, the cargo crew was shouting toward our tiny boat over loudspeakers. In response, our boatman was desperately explaining ‘something’ with a diverse range of sign languages, it seemed. The fact that we weren’t flying the Bangladeshi flag meant the cargo ship suspected us of being pirates.

In the middle of all this, I somehow managed to locate where we were. That’s when the question hit me: why is there a cargo vessel on the Arpangasia river, deep inside the forest?

Accident or no accident, Sundarbans suffers daily

Now, eight years after that face-off, in these times of controversy and protests against a coal-fired mega-power plant in the impact zone of the Sundarbans, the forest faces a very high volume of shipping and navigation every day. Data from the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority shows a 102% increase in cargo carrying between India and Bangladesh through Sundarban waterways over the past 8 years. In 2008-09, a total of 9,44,422 metric tons of cargo was transported between India and Bangladesh under the arrangement of the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWT&T); and in the last fiscal it was 19,12,526 metric tons.

grain silo in Sundarban
A 50,000 tonnage grain silo under construction in Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) within zero kilometers from Sundarban reserve forest near Mongla port. The proposed Rampal coal-fired power plant sits some 16 kilometers north from the silo. Big industries reportedly bought adjacent lands in the government acknowledged ECA where any activity which can destroy or change the natural characteristics of soil and water are legally prohibited. Photo © 2015 Garth Cripps/ Blue Ventures

The PIWT&T was first signed in 1972 and since then it has been continuing without any interruption. The latest renewal was signed on June 6, 2015. There are eight navigation routes permitted under this protocol, four among those are laid near the Sundarbans.

Officially, the acknowledged routes of PIWT&T are drawn along the northern edge of the forest. However, during my participation in several learning trips throughout the last year, I have found that the vessels use four major de facto routes laid through the river and canals of the reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries. I have encountered vessels deep inside the forest and even in the Sundarban West Wildlife Sanctuary – which is also a UNESCO world heritage site – and on the  Arpangasia, Jamuna and Malancha rivers too. In the first half of 2015, on average of 228 vessels used these routes monthly.

This is because the de jure routes have not been navigable since the late ’90s. On the other hand, data released by the Mongla Port Authority shows a 172% increase in the number of ocean going vessels over the past eight years through the Passur river. In the last fiscal, the total number of ocean-going vessels through this Sundarban stream were 889, while it was only 326 in the year of 2008-09. Exact data of shipping by domestic cargo ships is not available.

The Sela river, which runs through the sanctuaries for endangered Irrawaddy and Ganges river dolphin and along the northern edge of the Sundarban East Wildlife Sanctuary, has been under the spotlight since December 9, 2014, when a wrecked tanker released approximately 94,000 gallons of heavy fuel. The Sela oil spill brought devastating consequence for the mangrove habitat and wildlife. The shocking picture of oil-soaked birds and other megafauna like dolphins successfully drew local and global attention to the danger of non-regulated navigation through a wetland of international significance as designated under the Ramsar Convention also.

Shipping in Sundarban
While the northern waterways are non-navigable, bulk cargo vessel and oil tankers regularly ply the rivers inside Sundarban. Photo © 2014 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

The shipping ministry suspended navigation through the river, with huge press coverage in response, only to silently re-open it after a few days. During four days of observation in four different months of 2015 at the confluence of Sela and Passur rivers,  I have observed on average 17 ships are coming through. The inland shipping authority has not made public any shipping data till date.

The question is, why does the Bangladesh government not spare the Sela river and wildlife sanctuaries by diverting the Mongla-port bound domestic vessels to the original port route – the Mongla-Ghashiakhali channel? It is because the agencies are failing to maintain the depth and navigability of the Ghashiakhali channel in the face of land grabbing by ‘influential’ shrimp businesses and other industries. Apparently, even a directive from the prime minister’s office failed to remove the shrimp farms and evict the land grabbers to permanently reopen the route.

Everyone said the devastation from Sela oil spill is an eye-opener for the responsible authorities, but after more than one and half years, it is clear that it was not. Just months after the accident two other wrecked vessels released tons of fertilizer and coal into the rivers in May and October 2015 respectively.

‘Lot of ships will be coming, carrying so much coal’

Now, with the 1320-megawatt coal-fired power station, a joint venture by Bangladesh and India near the Sundarbans on the anvil, the National Shipping Corporation has started the process of procuring 16 new vessels to carry coal for the power plant. The mega plant will need an estimated 4.72 million tons of coal per year to be imported through Sundarban rivers. Beside combustion of coal in the forest’s impact zone, the power plant is going to aggravate the unsustainable industrialization in the state-acknowledged ecologically critical area near the forest, and it will boost shipping on a larger scale.

Rampal coal fired power plant
The Rampal power plant will need an estimated 4.72 million tons of coal per year to be imported through Sundarban rivers for combustion of coal in the forest’s impact zone.

This coal-fired mega power plant is going to be a deciding factor for the fate of Sundarban. For Bangladesh’s government, it is not about merely building a power plant close to or far from the mangrove forest. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her latest briefing on this issue made it very clear that her government is determined to meet the growing demands of electricity for the country’s envisioned industrialization. And this ‘Bangladesh-India Friendship Thermal Power Plant’ at Rampal is one of those coal-based plants the government has decided to install in different parts of the country to meet the growing electricity demand, she said. The government thinks coal is more suitable than petroleum, natural gas and other fuels in terms of availability and price. Moreover, areas close to the sea are best suited for building coal-fired plants because it reduces the shipping cost of imported coal, she added.

So, even though the government endorsed Environmental Impact Assessment report acknowledges some threats originating from the mega-project, it decided to carry on. The EIA states that the proposed jetty to unload coal in the Sundarbans, and shipping through the forest, will cause oil spillage, air, noise and light pollution.  An influential member of the ruling party and cabinet, finance minister M.A. Muhith recently said publicly that the Sundarbans are surely going to suffer due to this power plant but the government will proceed with the project. ‘A lot of ships will be coming, carrying so much coal. So flora and fauna will be substantially affected,’ said Muhith, who is also the founding president of Bangladesh’s most familiar environmental civil society platform,  ‘Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon’.

Sundarban East Wildlife Sanctuary
Sundarban East Wildlife Sanctuary, close to the proposed Rampal coal-fired power plant. Photo © 2015 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

Given the continuous manifold increase in international, regional and inland shipping through threatened wildlife sanctuaries and reserves, the odds are very high that devastating accidents will happen. Nevertheless, there is no mandatory standard for ship safety features to mitigate the risk of the accident. The forest and environmental authorities are seemingly comfortable with rapidly increasing shipping through the Sundarbans.

More than one decade after signing a MoU with the concerned regional forum to develop and adopt a national contingency plan to respond to oil spills and other chemical leakages, there is no known progress to date. Immediately after the Shela oil spill, the ministry of environment and forest said that they revived the efforts for contingency plan under a UNDP-supported initiative. However, I do not know of any progress made though the project expired. When contacted, the chief conservator of forests, Md. Yunus Ali, said, ‘This task was given to the environment department. They conducted consultations with stakeholders in their office. I am not updated yet about the finalisation of the contingency plan.’

Increased shipping not only multiplies risks from the oil spill, the release of coal, chemical, fertilizer and fly ash by accident; in course of routine operation, vessels discharge ballast water, bilge water, and there is cargo tank washing too. There is also the impact of ship-induced waves on the mangrove ecosystem, disturbance to wildlife and the risk of international wildlife trafficking spreading widely with regular vessel based pollution.

The moving and maneuvering of vessels induce a variety of hydrodynamic changes and physical forces which have an impact on the surrounding flow, alluvial banks, and sediments of the rivers. These impacts potentially harm the environment and can ultimately lead to environmental degradation.

Shipping in Sundarban
International and domestic vessels use rivers and canals in Sundarban without any ballast water management, ship safety standard, and monitoring-surveillance mechanism in place. Photo © 2014 Mohammad Arju/ Save Our Sea

The growth of Mongla port also comes with increasing risk of Invasive Aquatic Species for the delicate ecosystem of the Sundarbans. According to resources available with the international ballast water management consortium, GloBallast; the introductions of alien species by ballast water in the hulls of vessels have negative effects on mangrove habitats. For instance, they compete with indigenous species for space and food.

In the absence of minimum environmental management and preparedness, Bangladesh and India are allowing a high volume of shipping, navigation, and industrialization in and around the Sundarbans mangrove region. Even in the British colonial period, when the 21st century’s new obligation of ‘sustainability’ was nowhere to be heard, the authorities were very careful to avoid using the rivers and canals inside the Sundarbans for shipping and navigation. In the era of ‘golden fiber’ jute trade between the Khulna-Barisal regions and Kolkata, the ‘River Conservancy’ was there in the bureaucratic consideration to maintain navigability of waterways outside the Sundarbans.

‘History of the Rivers in the Gangetic Delta, 1750-1918’, a report prepared by a former chief engineer of the colonial irrigation department, C. Addams Williams,  describes some of the many initiatives to maintain the navigability of the northern waterways of Gorai-Modhumoti river systems. Those rivers still exist, with inadequate water flow, however. For safer trade routes, Bangladesh and India can work together to improve the navigability of northern rivers by simply increasing the upstream water flow and establishing an environmental management regime for Mongla port bound ships though through Passur river.

Originally published on The Wire.

Fossil fuel industry can’t answer why they should be allowed in climate negotiation

Do the fossil fuel companies think themselves as the rightful participant in international negotiations to reduce emissions and fight climate change? Do they have any solution to climate change? If yes, why I cannot find any news report, where an International Oil Company has responded to specific questions on it?

These were the questions in my head last month when I was working for a story on the upcoming 22nd conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The demand of not allowing fossil fuel in any climate negotiation drew my attention.

Since the Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development summit in 2012, a large and growing number of countries and environmental bodies are demanding to ‘outlaw’ fossil fuel industry from climate negotiations.

Particularly, the 21st conference of the parties to the UNFCCC in Paris last year was largely marked by this demand. And, of course, I’ve strong opinion about fighting climate change. Nevertheless, we should not carry a commitment to any cause into our journalism, as ‘the most trusted man in America’ already warned us.

Therefore, I have talked with insiders in many major IOCs about their perspective and got back to the climate activists to see how they rebut the arguments supporting fossil fuel companies’ role in climate negotiations. Then I have formally approached the top IOCs with specific questions.

‘We would not turn to tobacco companies to quit smoking’

This catchphrase by Pascoe Sabido underlies the ‘conflict of interest’ argument against the fossil fuel companies’ role in climate negotiations. Mr. Pascoe, a researcher, and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory was at forefront of civil society mobilization during Paris summit.

I was reminding him that, the insiders in IOCs say, gradual phase-out to low-carbon and renewable needs to be acknowledged and included in the climate negotiations, hence they need to have their voice at the COP 22 and all other future forums.

So, why Corporate Europe Observatory does not think so?

‘‘Firstly, the COP is a place for governments and policymakers to decide how we tackle climate change. It is not a place for those very same industries responsible for causing the problem. We would not turn to tobacco companies to quit smoking, and having their voice represented would only make it harder to quit smoking,’’ Mr. Pascoe says.

‘‘We need a similar measure not just within the UNFCCC but also at national level, as that is where most of the influencing takes place,’’ he says.

Secondly, the problem with gradual phase-out, Mr. Pascoe says, it is just contrary to the science of climate change. ‘‘The solutions proposed by the fossil fuel industry are at complete odds with what science is demanding: that we need to leave more than 80% of known recoverable fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to stay under 2c, let alone 1.5c, i.e. not gradual phase-out.’’

However, during the surge of anti-tobacco legislations in the late nineties when public health advocates began winning policy victories, the tobacco companies never said that they‘d ditch the very product gradually. But the IOCs now are claiming that they are working for a major shift to low carbon fossil fuel and renewable alternatives. So does not the tobacco precedence loose a bit of merit in the case of ‘conflict of interest’ by IOCs in climate negotiation?

‘No’, says Pascoe Sabido, because similar to the tobacco companies the fossil fuel companies are keeping their traditional business models as such. ‘‘The fossil fuel industries have consistently been shown to lobby against tougher climate legislation and measures which would move us towards a zero carbon society. The current approach is to claim that there is such thing as ‘low-carbon’ fossil fuels, through either gas or carbon capture or storage. Both are ways to keep their traditional business models but give the impression of being part of the solution,’’ he says.

So, then I have asked a large number of fossil fuel companies some specific questions to get the other side of the story, formally. Maybe some people will say, in spite of having all the strong argument, evidence, and rationale for fossil-fuel free climate negotiation, it is a ‘false balance’ what I am trying to maintain. Then let it be, I should say.

If the arguments of climate experts and environmentalists are really convincing, then the future of our planet is at stake because of non-effective climate negotiations owing mainly due to ‘undue’ influence of the fossil fuel companies. So, I have found myself intrigued about exactly what these companies, their officials are thinking. Do they really have any argument to put forward?

Another climate summit to distribute Press-kit?

My questions to Saudi Aramco, top five European IOCs, Chevron, and a newly formed ‘climate group’ by fossil fuel companies were as follows, more or less;

1. Since the Paris summit, a number of developing countries and environmental bodies are saying, implementation of the Paris Agreement means reducing emissions from fossil fuel, which is directly in conflict with the interest of fossil fuel companies. So, they are calling for not accepting fossil fuel companies as stakeholders in climate negotiations. How would you like to respond to this argument?

2. Many major climate groups and environmental bodies urge that fossil fuel industry has no interest in ambitious climate policy as outlined in UNFCCC. They say, without any act or initiative, what the companies are now doing is just PR campaign. Are the climate activists wrong? How?

3. Is your company willing to align its polluting business with the agreed goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C? How have you planned to do it?

4. Climate groups say that they do not trust fossil fuel companies about their willingness to fight climate change. Because, for decades, fossil fuel companies have undermined attempts to find solutions to emission and global warming, although the companies knew of the existence of climate change for so long. How have you planned to build the trust?

During a two-week long quest to get elaborate and engaging response from the IOCs, what I have noticed as most interesting is, the companies love to pretend that they were not asked about anything specific.

Rather, in response, most of the companies prefer to cite some paragraphs from their ‘climate policy’, which are already available on their website along with photos of soothing greenery or deep blue horizon to the Ocean.

The case was same with the US-based giant Chevron, which has business in at least 180 countries. It’s corporate media advisor Melissa Ritchie replied that Chevron ‘‘shares the concerns of governments and the public about climate change risks and recognizes that the use of fossil fuels to meet the world’s energy needs is a contributor to rising greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the Earth’s atmosphere.’’ Then came two paragraphs on technology innovation and effective climate change mitigation, but nothing specific about the questions.

Eni, the European oil giant with the presence in more than 79 countries and world’s 11th largest industrial company, informed that they are working on to deliver responses. However, after several correspondences and extended deadlines, it informed that they are postponing ‘comments on the occasion of COP 22’.

Other European companies were briefer in response. However, Saudi Aramco, the company with both the world’s largest proven crude oil reserves and largest daily oil production, was clearly ahead. After several requests to respond, Saudi Aramco said, ‘Our team will be at COP22 and will provide you with the necessary press kit material during the event.’

But I’m already done with all the press kits which actually says nothing. The argument is that you should not be allowed at COP22 or other climate negotiations. Could you please respond  to that? I asked again.

Chairman of Saudi Aramco, Mr. Khalid A. Al-Falih, who is also Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Health, has delivered a much-praised speech at the 2014 UN Climate Summit. Former CEO of Aramco, Mr. Khalid announced the launching of a ‘climate group’ comprising CEOs of 10 oil and gas companies in that summit.

Combined, this Oil and Gas Climate Initiative companies produce over one-fifth of global oil and gas. Are they ready to keep it on the ground, as required for reducing emissions to achieve agreed goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C? Are they willing to change their polluting business? Why exactly they think they are entitled to be in climate negotiations? Do they really have a plan?

After repeated correspondence, OGCI says ‘we are unable to respond to your specific questions right now’.

With hope and Walter Conkrite on my mind, I am looking forward. I really want to explore based on what rationale the fossil fuel companies consider themselves as rightful stakeholders in climate negotiations.

(This piece was originally published by Daily Sun on October 3, 2017)

Photo courtesy: DollarPhotoClub.com.

Environmental management of shipping and navigation in the world’s largest mangrove forest

After the 2014 Oil Spill in Sundarban, we volunteered for an initiative to assess the nature and extents of shipping and navigation throughout the tidal forest. The study was supported by the Mangroves for the Future.  And recently, we shared the findings in a follow-up event.

From observations throughout the year,  one of the important findings was that, not only the ‘approved’ routes, domestic and trans-boundary vessels are using almost all navigable waterways in the forest.

The multi-stakeholder follow-up event was held on December 8, 2015. Below is the web story by MFF.

Conservationists and experts urge for environmental management of navigation and reduction of pollution in the Sundarban waters

Mangroves for the Future’s National Coordinating Body gathers government, civil society and academia to review progress made after the Sundarban oil spill 2014

Location: Dhaka, Bangladesh. 8th Dec 2015

Regular spillage of oils, release of ballast and bilge water from vessels navigating through the Sundarban and increasing industrial development requires sincere attention to be brought under environmental management, in addition to a contingency plan and preparedness for accidents. Speakers emphasized these views in a follow-up event on ‘Sundarban oil spill 2014’ arranged by Mangroves for the Future’s National Coordinating Body and Bangladesh Forest Department on 8 December 2015, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

 

The Sundarban oil spill in 9 December 2014, brought attention of national and international community due to the potential risks posed by it to the world’s largest mangrove forest, which is also a world heritage site and a wetland of international significance as designated under the Ramsar convention. It was the concerted efforts from the Government of Bangladesh, the United Nations, International Development Partners, NGOs, private sector and people living near the oil spill site in Joymoni village of Mongla that enabled removal of a large portion of the debris and the oil immediately after the accident.

Mangroves for the Future Bangladesh supported a small group of conservationist and biologists to observe the status of the oil spill affected areas in the navigation routes within the Sundarban. Observations from those trips were shared in this event.

Dr. Niamul Naser, Professor of Zoology in the University of Dhaka, indicated that, in some spots, microorganisms are coming back in a limited scale, which is a sign of natural healing, but a proper baseline of all life forms in the Sundarban needs to be set to be able to do a proper monitoring of the changes caused duet to anthropogenic stressors like navigation or industrial pollution in the waters, especially to understand the long term impacts on the ecosystem.

Mr. Mohammad Arju, the CEO of Save Our Sea, showed the trends of increased traffic and spatial extent of de-facto and de jure navigation routes  of in country and international shipping through the Sundarban and recommended initiating monitoring of vessels by promoting Automatic Identification System (AIS), ensuring ship safety rules and establishing ballast water management system in collaboration with India.

Mr. Md Amir Hossain Chowdhury shared his experience as the officer in charge of the particular portion of the Sundarban which was affected by last year’s oil spill, especially the ways in which the Forest Department with help from the community people improvised local techniques to soak and remove the oil from the river to avoid mass spread. He also contended that there is a need for capacity development of the officials to manage such accidents and a permanent response mechanism needs to be established.

IUCN Bangladesh Country Representative Mr. Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmed called for setting up permanent ecological plots and do complete biodiversity auditing in regular interval to ensure safety and sustainability of the Sundarban ecosystem.

Md. Yunus Ali, the Chief Conservator of Forests, Bangladesh Forest Department while chairing the event, opined that ‘to keep the economic growth sustainable, knowledge based management is necessary and to environmentally manage navigation and other developments in the Sundarban region, a strong baseline needs to be set’.

UNDP Assistant Country Director Mr. Khurshid Alam echoed that the balance between economic growth and nature’s integrity is the key to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. USAID Bangladesh’s Environmental Team Leader Mr Karl Wurster expressed the commitment to collaborate with the government of Bangladesh to keep safe Sundarban, a valued treasure of the nature, in light of the long history of cooperation between Bangladesh and the United States of America.

Lead personnel from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Forest Department, members of the Mangroves for the Future’s National Coordinating Body and many of the volunteers and experts who worked during the cleanup work in 2014 and worked in the joint GoB-UN mission in response to the oil spill, also participated in the event.

The statistics from the Mongla Port Authority shows that navigation in the Sundarban waterways has increased 236 percent in last 7 years. Which means, vessel based regular pollutions may continue to add risks to the world’s largest mangrove habitat’s health even if accidents like Shella Oil Spill can be prevented. Increasing pattern of shipping and navigation volume necessarily indicates growing industrialization in the Sundarban Impact Zone and the Sundarban Ecologically Critical Area, which in turn will increase the land based source of pollution if not managed.

Participants stressed on finalizing the contingency plan for oil spill response and the standard operational guidelines, and declaring Ecologically Critical Area Rules to control pollution from industrialization near the Sundarban.

Photo: © Save Our Sea / Mohammad Arju

Flying crabs: Notes on Bangladesh’s export oriented mud crab fishery

The A great hunt is underway for the Mudcrabs in the Sundarban, world largest mangrove forest. Once just another scavenger in the forest, but since last decade the Mudcrabs are now known for their ‘export-quality’ flesh down here.

From the mudflats, creeks, canals, and rivulets of Sundarban, Mudcrabs are being exploited on an unprecedented scale, to be exported, alive; much to the delight of crustacean loving South East Asians- mainly the Chinese restaurant goers.

During some of my recent trips to the forest and impact zone, I’ve taken following notes on this;

A. The thriving crab fishery emerged as almost a Hobson’s choice for the local communities hard-hit by shrimp aquaculture and climate change. Sundarban dependent poor communities were already struggling hard to cope with disappearing livelihood options in the face of increased salinity, losing agriculture, declining fish stock and repeated floods and cyclones. So when the south-east Asian demand for seafood delicacy knocked at the door, the local traders took the opportunity.

 

IMG_0857
Fishers sleep on their dinghy in the Sundarban.

 

Take Munshiganj for example, a Union under Shyamnagar Upazila of Satkhira district. Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.

When I first visited the area in 2008, bazaars around namely Kolbari, Nowabeki, and Harinagar has only six crab buying house operating seasonally. Now, more than thirty depots operate in only Kolbari bazar all year round. Every fine morning of Kolbari will remind you the hustle and bustle of Karwan Bazar fish market.
The scenario is more or less same for villages located in Sundarban Impact Zone of Bagerhat and Khulna districts too. Crab fishing in the mangrove heartland is spreading so rapidly that loan-givers cum buyers from far north are setting their new businesses throughout the coastal zone.

B. This is not a subsistence or artisanal fishery of local fishing families anymore. exploitation of mud crab is  Poor workers from the north-western regions are migrating seasonally to join this force of fishery workers. It’s easy to start now, as the buyers provide boat and gears with a lump sum of the cash. The newly turned fishers just need to go in with a permit from Forest Department and collect literally whatever they can get.

 

IMG_6679
Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.

 

Satkhira district provides at least thirty percent of total Mudcrab extraction for export. Parulia bazaar is the main crab trade center of the district. On many occasions, I’ve talked to leaders of Parulia Crab Processing Traders Association. According to their account, they process seven to nine tonnes of Mudcrab in Parulia.

In every evening on an average of two truckloads of live Mudcrabs leave for Dhaka, where they wait for maximum two days, then hitch a ride on air cargo to be served as delicious dishes in China, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia.

C. And it does not look like that, policy-makers have any idea about what is going on. Of course, it is not formally recognized as a ‘fishery’. The Forest Department sees it another ‘forest produce’. They just issue ‘permits’ for crab fishing in exchange for very little fees, as many ‘permits’ as the businesses want them to do. The other government agencies related to export promotions are keeping the record on how much foreign currency the crab exporters are earning.

 

Crab fishers
The fishers get only a third of the end value of the crab, which is less than fair, and in turn, pushes overexploitation to increase.

But reinvesting the revenue to maintain overall ecosystem balance or at least for sustaining the crab population is still unheard of.  Even there are no substantial efforts to know more about the crab populations to enable related agencies for sustainable management of the fishery.

 

D. Coastal regions of Bangladesh have very bad experience with another 100% export oriented industry; shrimp farming. Ecosystem balance and livelihoods in the coastal zone have been devastated by unsustainable shrimp farming in the last few decades. Thousands of hectares of Mangrove forest was cleared for shrimp farming in the Chakoria Sundarban region. In the western coast, shrimp farming is responsible for loosing for agricultural lands and salinity intrusion. And now, this wild crab fishery is just like the historic Burma-teak rush.

Back in Dhaka, I’ve talked with many government officials and exporters. But none them are planning anything to bring sustainability in the wild crab fishery.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju

Five ideas for Blue start-ups

Problems we face in the Bay of Bengal and the coastal region are unique and each of these problems has a business solution. I believe, challenges to the marine environment and local livelihoods can be turned into potential economic opportunities, and sustainably addressed at the same time.

But the capacity of our infrastructure is insufficient to sustain and manage marine resources. So we need to do more with the less; and this is what a start-up can and does better than a traditional business organization. Startups with a social-business approach can do a good job to take their share in Blue Economy.

From fighting ocean pollution to seafood, from developing coastal communities to marine electronics; the Bay of Bengal is waiting with the potential of sea-change for Bangladeshi startups.

Earlier this year, I’ve contributed a blog post to FutureStartUp about such ideas. Please read the full post on FutureStartup.com

Photo: Mohammad Arju

Bangladesh’s southernmost community hopes there are more fish in the sea

When entering Teknaf from Ukhiya sub-district, the landscape remains similar on both sides; high and low hill ranges in the east, a narrow strip of tidal floodplain and beach ridges in the west. Communities living in hills and lower plain has a distinctively different socio-cultural structure based on their ethnicity, rights over land and other natural resource uses and religion; their options for livelihoods varies accordingly.  Refugee flow from neighboring Myanmar is a source of social and economic tension. As a border-region refugee crisis, human trafficking and undocumented trans-border business have impact on about every aspect of life and livelihoods in the localities.

Communities living on the western side are largely affected by degradation of beach and dune system, coastal erosion and in the struggle to adapt to agricultural practices in the face of dwindling fish stock in the bay. In the Hnila Union where Naf river enters Teknaf sub-district, a narrow strip of tidal floodplain runs along the river bank towards the bay of Bengal, which was totally covered by mangroves once. On the other side, hill ranges end nearly at the border of Sabrang Union, just before the southernmost settlements of mainland Bangladesh. About half of the areas of the Sadar Union and most of  Sabrang Union remains intermittently flooded throughout the year. The inter-tidal zone provides ground for crab fishing to hundreds of families here. Overall Sadar and Sabrang Union communities are most vulnerable to floods, rising level of tide, increased salinity and other extreme weather events.

Two fishers in Naf Estuary
Nurul Hasan (left) younger brother is still in Malaysia working as an undocumented and illegal worker. The two brothers took the boat to ‘seek a nice job’ and crossed the bay of Bengal as he describes it ‘by evading Bangladeshi border guard’s reluctant eyes and then with help from Burmese and Thai security personnel’. Nurul found the job of gardener as comfortable but returned to the home several months later as he recalls it; ‘I felt like I’m not at home, then took the chance of Malaysian government clemency and took the flight to Dhaka with travel documents issued by them ’. Now he is struggling to cope with very limited income from daily fishing and his family mostly depends on money his younger brothers sending home regularly.

In northern parts of the Sub-district shrub, coarse grasses and bamboos have taken place of degraded hill forests. These hills originally were covered by Dipterocarp forest. Deforestation continues, mainly due to illegal logging and agriculture. Some hills are designated as legally protected forests (read, ‘plantations’). Though illegal, but communities largely depend on agriculture in the forest and highlands. 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 are extensively drained by creeks and small waterfalls, but during monsoon when heavy rainfall continues the saturated hill soils are prone to landslides causing deaths and damage to properties.

In north-western communities, dependence on marine-fishing has decreased rapidly. People say that, with increased costs of operating motorized boats and fallen stocks of fish in the sea, fishing is not considered as a trusted option for livelihoods anymore. They are accustomed to going fishing in August-September and January-March periods only when a number of brackish water small-sized species is found in abundance.

Shah Parir Dweep
Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is difficult now. This portion of Teknaf, from Sabrang to Shah Parir Dweep remains underwater round the year, apparently due to rise of high tide’s level, as the local elders suggest. They use mechanized boats to ferry the essential goods and passenger across this newly created ‘wetland’.

Bombay duck (Harpadon neherues), Greenback mullet (Chelon subvirdis), Gold-spotted grenadier anchovy (Coilia Dussumieri), Ramcarat grenadier anchovy (Coilia ramcarati), Tongue soles (family Cynoglossidae), Bigeye ilisha (Ilisha megalopetra) and Pama croaker (Otolithoides pama) traditionally formed the main catch. Fishers say it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in near-shore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go in the deeper area which they can’t due to lack of the sea-worthy boat.

The case for fishing almost same in the lower parts ( the , southernmost part of mainland Bangladesh) also. This tidal floodplain at the mouth of Naf river is exposed to storm surges and floods.

Fishing Boat
Fishers s it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in near-shore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go in the deeper area which they can’t due to lack of the sea-worthy boat.

What adds to the fishing scenario for southern and south-western Teknaf is the lack of an alternative. Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is difficult now. So the communities of Teknaf Sadar and Sabrang who are dependent on Tidal Floodplains, Naf river, Mangroves and Intertidal Zones always struggle to cope with difficulties in fishing.

Mangroves are largely degraded and deforested, but the bare mudflats provide them the opportunity for crab fishing. Mud crabs are also being harvested from inter-tidal zones and intermittently flooded areas between Sabrang and Shah Parir Dwip. Mud crabs have a relatively high price in the market. Export-oriented crab ‘softening’ farms buy the live crabs from the fishers on daily basis.

Families in Sabrang and Shah Parir Dwip manage the right to operate Estuarine Set Bag Nets in the lower parts of Naf river and river mouth on shared basis. They own and operate the boats in groups, and in some cases, they work as labor with a share in the profit. Whatever small is the size of the catch, they continue the operation around the season, because no other alternative is available. Post-harvest processing such as fish drying is almost absent. They sell the fishes in the local market, sometimes suppliers from the urban market by the catch from local collectors.

Abdur Rahman
Abdur Rahman, a shopkeeper and occasional fisher in his early 30s is one of some 40 men encouraging the youth for trying something hard at home for livelihoods, rather than taking an ‘easy’ boat-ride to Malaysia. He organizes villagers in Sabrang to rehabilitate Mangroves, to sustain it ecosystem services mainly ‘fishes and flood-free life’ in his terms. Their group cooperates with the government and the NGO-run program usually, but sometimes he is pessimistic about ‘reporting and run’ approach to the conservation programs. He says, rather than time-bound funded projects, if the government agencies, NGOs and greater civil society based in Dhaka give only moral support to them and little regular financial aid, they can mitigate the problems created by land grabbers restore the Mangrove ecosystems. The case of degraded hill forest in the upper Teknaf is more or less same, he thinks.

Lastly, one important thing; at least one in every six families here have a member currently working in ‘Melesia’ (as they pronounce ‘Malaysia) as an ‘undocumented’ and illegal migrant worker. And off-course they 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? They can afford their school going kids now and they invest in activities based on natural resources. Given all the adversities, before taking a boat to Malaysia the young guys just hope that there are more fish in the sea!

Though the tides are too high to farm salt- some of the families are trying, though the land is saline- effort to cultivate them is not so rare, and though the marine fish stock is declining apparently- desperate families sometimes build their own boats till now.

Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar
21st January, 2015

Photos: © Mohammad Arju