Thinking about justice and equity in Bangladesh’s fisheries: Where to start?

Early on the night of March 16, 2021, police opened fire on a small fishing boat and killed a young fisherman named Mohammad Masud in the Meghna River. The shots were fired in the river north of Chandpur, the town famous for its well-known trading center of ilish (anglicized as hilsa) – Bangladesh’s most prized fish. Twenty-four-year-old Mr. Masud and his fellow fishermen went fishing during a ban season imposed by the government to protect juvenile ilish. Police said they opened fire in self-defense after the fishermen threw brick chips and attacked the police with sticks (United News of Bangladesh, 2021). When a local journalist went to the home of the deceased Mr. Masud, he found that the family of the poor fisher did not have even a ‘handful of rice’ to feed themselves (Hossain, 2021).

Official estimates tell us that the catch in mixed-species open-water fisheries has been increasing throughout the last decade. Catch in the ilish fishery is also rising; this is the single largest fishery in volume and economic value. Still, fishing families like Mr. Masud’s are either ultra-poor or poor. Fishers go hungry during fishing ban seasons. Armed police, coast guard, and navy patrol the fishing grounds to enforce ban seasons. In recent years, the air force has also conducted aerial surveillance (Ministry of Defence, 2018). During such a ban season in 2020, at least 5533 fishers were jailed (Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, 2020). How did conservation in Bangladesh become so heavy-handed and militarized while the poverty in fishing communities is still proverbial?

Systematic economic and environmental injustices to peasants and fishers date back to the British colonial takeover in Bengal. Exploitation and draining of resources were the main goals of the British colonial authorities. The British East India Company, and later the British monarchy, used a diversity of legal, financial, and trade mechanisms (Mukherjee, 2010) to industrialize England at the expense of the local economy and society in Bengal. To do that, the colonizers uprooted the Indigenous and customary rights to land and environmental commons. The colonial administration took control of water bodies and aquatic commons. 

The British East India Company established its new land administration and revenue regime by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793. It transferred all lands as estates to a newly created small group of Zamindars. Rivers and other open water bodies in or adjacent to such estates were now effectively privatized and part of the estates of these Zamindars. Unlike the previous local revenue collector Zamindars, these new Zamindars had legal proprietorship over the land and virtually no oversight by the civil administration. Without proprietorship and right to public access, the fishers had to pay high rents to the Zamindars and their suzerainty. The absence of tenure rights also diminished the environmental stewardship of fishers.

Later, the colonial administration introduced more legal instruments (Singh & Gupta, 2017), and ultimately there was no public-access fishery in inland and inshore waters. All rivers and open water bodies were divided among Zamindars as their jolmahal (water estate). Only the offshore areas in the Bay of Bengal were an exception. In marine fisheries, the main priority of colonial administration was securing new supply for the urban center of Kolkata (Jenkins, 1911, 1938), the main seat of the British colony in South Asia.

After the colonial empire, we did not see any significant efforts by the independent national government to address distributive and procedural injustice to artisanal fishers. When the British empire was forced out, the newly elected democratic government abolished the colonial Zamindar system and reformed land tenures by enacting a new law, the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950. Successive governments have changed land laws to alter provisions related to existing landowners (Jabbar, 1978). But they did not fully implement fundamental and direct tenure reforms to benefit landless people, such as sharecroppers and traditional fishers. To date, there is no process in place to restore the indigenous and customary tenure rights of fishers.

Instead, the national land and revenue administrations took over all jolmahals in rivers and other water bodies previously owned by colonial Zamindars. Officially stated policy of authorities is to lease out jolmahals to fishers. But the government does not invest public funds in fisheries cooperatives, and fishers do not have access to private investment from the formal financial sector. Public agencies responsible for leasing jolmahal lack accountability and transparency. Consequently, in almost all cases, the fishing rights in jolmahals have always been bought by non-fisher investors.

The rent-seeking governance regime in open water fisheries has been continued for decades aggravating distributive injustices to traditional subsistence and artisanal fishers. Sustaining the fisheries and fishing habitats is not a priority of the lessee or the lessor agencies in the government. The fishers have been working as either laborers under lessees who are the owners of small-scale commercial fishing units or earning extraordinarily little as artisanal fishers after paying rents.

In 1986, the national fisheries agency tried to use the New Fisheries Improvement Policy to address access issues of subsistence and artisanal fishers. The fisheries agency started to take control of three hundred jolmahals from the land administration. The officially stated goal was to start leasing those jolmahals out to ‘genuine’ fishers and introduce fishing license for them. But the fisheries agency failed to achieve the goals. Later in 1995, the government abolished all jolmahals in the rivers and streams and effectively introduced riverine open-access fisheries (Thompson & Hossain, 1998). But other jolmahals in floodplains and other wetlands are still in force and still being leased out to date.

Abolishing private-access fisheries in the rivers could have been an opportunity to start working for equity and justice in artisanal fisheries. Newly introduced open access fisheries in the rivers partially improved access for riverine fishers. But there have been no legal reforms to recognize customary tenures of traditional artisanal fishers. The government does not invest in artisanal fishing communities to enable them to secure a fair share of the income from fisheries. As a result, the fishers have been unable to fully use that window of opportunity. Like marine areas – where fishing was open access from the beginning; structural barriers to equity and justice rooted in tenures, local political-economy, and the state’s economic programs also remained the same in riverine fisheries. So, the rural poor have benefitted little from riverine open-access fisheries.

The peasants and fishing communities did not stand a chance against regional and national policy priorities (such as World Bank led Structural Adjustment Programs, and Flood Action Plans) that resulted in degraded and reduced habitats of open water fisheries. For decades, open water fisheries were shrinking due to a wide range of pressures. Reduced water flow in transboundary rivers due to dams, barrages, and diversion of water in the upstream countries also significantly impacted the aquatic ecosystems in Bangladesh. Industrial and agricultural runoffs have polluted the water and impacted water quality. Changes in land use including intensive farming, flood control measures, water infrastructure, draining for agriculture and land development, and encroachment drastically reduced and degraded the habitats of open water fisheries (Ali, 1997). Especially, water engineering including embankments impacted fish biodiversity, population, and unit value of the catch (Halls, 1997).

No efforts have been made to-date to restore and conserve fisheries’ habitats, to stop or mitigate impacts of those external threats to fisheries. Rather, in the wake of shrinking open water fisheries, the government prioritized expanding aquaculture. Wealthy landowners in the rural areas have benefitted from profitable aquaculture expansion that is often responsible for reducing and degrading habitats of open water fisheries in Bangladesh. When in the late nineties, Bangladesh was experiencing a decline in a total estimated catch in open water fisheries including the single largest contributor among the species – ilish – none of these factors were prioritized to address in fisheries management plans. For instance, the Hilsa Fisheries Management Action Plan (HFMAP) in 2003 was mostly used to establish seasonal no-take zones and ban seasons.

The management plan started with a target to protect jatka (juvenile ilish less than 23 CM in size). Several top-down interventions have been gradually placed since 2003 to increase the ilish catch. These interventions include spatial and temporal restrictions on fishing, limitations on the use of fishing gears and size of ilish at the catch, regulations for fishing vessels, and distributing food-grains as rations among an extremely limited number of fishers during the fishing-ban season.

For the implementation of the conservation measures under the HFMAP, the most notable temporal interventions for the conservation of ilish is two different fishing ban-seasons; one to protect the brood ilish and another to protect the jatka. To protect the brood (mature and about to spawn), there is a 22-days long ban on catching, carrying, transporting, offering, selling, exporting, or possessing ilish fishes in the country; days of this ban period is evenly divided before and after the first full moon of Bengali month of Aswin (usually in October). And the second ban is to protect jatka; the ban is for seven months from November 1 to May 31 every year, during this time, catching, carrying, and selling of jatka (juvenile ilish less than 25 cm in size) is prohibited.

The government relies on heavy-handed enforcement to force subsistence and artisanal fishers to comply with these interventions. The government do not compensate fishers during the fishing ban seasons. Although, in 2004, the authorities have started to distribute limited amount of rice as ration through the Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) (Haldar & Ali, 2014). In the absence of any compensation, the authorities implement strict enforcement to force the fishers to comply with fishing ban seasons. For instance, from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 fiscal year, the mobile courts imposed 2,462 prison sentences and fined 106,509 USD to law-breaking fisherfolks under jatka and brood ilish conservation activities (Md Monirul Islam, Mohammed, & Ali, 2016). The mobile courts are in fact non-judicial summary courts run by ‘executive magistrates’ embedded with law enforcing agencies

All seasonal no-take zones of ilish, aka, sanctuaries are in Ganges and Meghna River systems, and coastal near-shore waters of the Bay of Bengal. There are two declared Marine Protected Areas in offshore waters to protect megafauna species of conservation interest. Planning and designation of these riverine and marine protected areas were done in a way that did not adequately consider social outcomes. Consequently, these protected areas underperforming in ‘effectiveness and social equity’ (M. Mahmudul Islam, 2021). Most of the factors (M. Mahmudul Islam, 2011) behind endemic and proverbial poverty of fishers in Bangladesh can be traced back to the absence of distributive and procedural justice for fishers. Yet, from the beginning of state interventions to govern and manage open water fisheries, the erratic efforts were hardly participatory (Ali, 1997). More than two decades later, that ‘hardly participatory’ approach in fisheries governance has morphed into heavy-handed top-down enforcement-based and increasingly militarized conservation.

The government does not see the well-being of fishing communities as an integral part of sustainability in fisheries. Instead, the authorities are focused on increasing the volume of catch (or ‘production’ as the government says) at any price. Equity and justice for fishers is not a priority of the government as per the existing fisheries policies and plans such as National Fisheries Policy 1988, The Marine Fisheries Act 2020, The Eighth Five Year Plan, and the Workplan for Marine Fisheries Resources Management. The threats to open water fisheries as described by Ali, 1997 are largely unmitigated and still exacerbating the problems in artisanal fisheries. On the other hand, the old pattern of ownership over the means of fishing operations; capital, boats and gears, and other support equipment and infrastructure continues today both in inland and marine fisheries. And now new uses of inland and marine waters in Bangladesh are creating new threats to artisanal fishers. These new uses include unregulated navigation and shipping, sand dredging, rapidly increasing unsustainable economic activity in coastal and marine areas, coastal roads and other mega-infrastructures, military installments, ports, and power plants.

Fishery improvement and enhancement projects failed to remove structural barriers to procedural and distributive justice in the backdrop of such external threats, and systematic deprivation of land rights and tenures of artisanal fishers. For more than a decade, I have been closely observing politics and natural resources governance in Bangladesh. To me, it is clear that, the rural poor whose lives and livelihoods are most intricately related to open water fisheries have very few meaningful democratic ways to change the state’s economic programs and development priorities to change this course. But still, justice in artisanal fisheries is not widely discussed on the national level. For instance, civil society groups are not concerned that fishers are being arrested and jailed after summary trials during fishing ban seasons (Siddique, 2018).

Recently we had a series of conversations on the national level about the need and urgency of environmental justice for artisanal fishers. Late in 2020, I facilitated a series of dialogues about equity and justice in Bangladesh’s fisheries. OXFAM in Bangladesh organized the events as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) program. A significant number of stakeholders – fishers, fisheries managers, fisheries practitioners in NGOs, leaders of civil society organizations, leaders of environmental NGOs, members of the academia, journalists, and other communicators took part in the events.

Although due to public health concerns amid the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, we hosted the events online. And the number of participants was not enough to adequately representing all stakeholders in fisheries. Fisheries are only sustainable when the wellbeing of fishing communities is guaranteed; small-scale fisheries stakeholders are now aware of that. Stakeholders are yet to determine how they can influence related policies to deliver environmental justice for artisanal fishers. In line with those discussions, I am sharing my observations about scenarios in Bangladesh’s small-scale fisheries. I hope these observations will help stakeholders who are willing to engage in policy advocacy for equity and justice for artisanal fishers.

  1. The main strength of fisheries in Bangladesh is small-scale artisanal fishing. Annually, the artisanal fishers bring most of the catch. And these artisanal fishers in Bangladesh are very clear-eyed about what needs to be changed to remove structural barriers to equity and justice in fisheries. The colonial British administration de-commonized open water fishery habitats. And the process of decolonizing water and fisheries governance is yet to run its’ course. The land reform that started with the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950 largely excluded restoring customary tenures of traditional artisanal fishers. Abolishing riverine jolmahals in 1995 did not protect the exclusive rights of traditional artisanal fishers. Consequently, the existing water and fisheries governance regime in Bangladesh does not recognize the customary tenure rights of traditional artisanal fishers, or it does not accommodate customary fisheries governance practices.
  • Influential actors in the development and conservation sectors of Bangladesh consider small-scale fisheries as a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. The fundamental problems with colonial water and fisheries governance and tenure rights are generally not acknowledged. Instead, the dominant narrative is centered on the assumption that SSF is difficult to manage because of data limitations. This narrative also uses wicked problems of SSF as justifications for prioritizing intensive aquaculture (often by encroaching open water fishery habitats) as an alternative to open water fisheries. This is surprising that, in this age and time, many small-scale fisheries researchers and practitioners in Bangladesh still believe in the debunked myth of the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ Many often use this narrative to undermine any discussion about the necessity of equity and justice in fisheries. Discussing the futility, irrelevance, and racist roots of the tragedy of the commons myth is something we should do more.
  • The supposed lack of data should not be a massive challenge. Western science is not the only system of knowing. Despite external adversity and the absence of the policy-support, a small number of traditional artisanal fishing communities still uses local ecological knowledge and wisdom for effective and ecologically sustainable fishing. A few cooperatives of traditional fishers are still functioning even if limited in scopes. But fishers’ knowledge and customary governance practices are not well documented and not reflected in fisheries governance. Facilitating inter-generational learning among fishing communities is also not happening. Positive changes in policy framework and tenures will enable many other fishing communities to revive their indigenous and local fisheries governance system.  
  • At least half of the people in small-scale fisheries are women. Particularly women are leading shore-support in fishing, post-harvest, and processing activities. In the post-harvest sector, particularly in fish-drying yards and shrimp processing plants, women fish-workers work in hazardous conditions with slave-wages risking their health. There is a significant number of women fishers too. But women are not acknowledged as a part of small-scale fisheries in the national public sphere. The government, NGOs, CSOs, and the media exclude women fishers from conversations on fisheries.
  • Fishers think they are not getting a fair share of income from the river fisheries. The lions’ share of the income in the fisheries sector is going to the traders because they own the capital, and the fisherfolks need to borrow from them to finance fishing operations. Traditional artisanal fishers say that they have valid grievances about corruption in the distribution of food-grain rations for fishers during fishing ban seasons. But in final consideration, they prefer public investment so that they can build and own boats and gears and can self-finance fishing operations. Traditional fishers want abolishing of private-access fishing and reform of open-access fisheries to secure exclusive fishing rights of artisanal fishing communities. On the other hand, fishers who work as laborers in small-scale commercial fisheries want good job opportunities. Because to begin with, they are not formally recognized as laborers and not employed as per the labor laws. But these opinions of fishers are rarely heard in relevant forums. Because almost all the time, people who are not genuine traditional and artisanal fishers get invited to participate in such forums related to fisheries.
  • There is virtually no representation of traditional artisanal fishers in fisheries governance and management. Small-scale commercial fishers and fish-workers are not represented in the SSF associations. SSF associations are led by and consist of owners of fishing boats and businesses.  It is nearly structurally impossible for artisanal fishers in the existing fisheries governance regime. Inclusion of fishers in policy advocacy run by non-government actors for more just and equitable governance is also difficult. Because programs by both government and non-government organizations are designed in a way that in the long-term only suitable for local political leaders, informal moneylenders, fish traders, and owners of commercial fishing units to participate. Both traditional and small-scale commercial fishers lack organizing capacity due to poor economic situations and political powerlessness. Fishers are not enabled to organize at a minimum level that is necessary for the representation.
  • The public agencies responsible for water, fisheries, and wildlife management are yet to take equity and justice for small-scale fishers seriously. For instance, the fisheries agency –   Department of Fisheries does not have any policy framework, capacity, or resources to ensure the participation of artisanal fishers in fisheries policymaking. The volume of ‘production’ is the only success indicator for the Department of Fisheries. Environmental justice is not a mandate for the department, and it has no activity designed to ensure equity and inclusion in fisheries. The fisheries agency is heavily focused on aquaculture expansion. Most of the activities with conservation components are concentrated on the ilish fishery and constrained by project-based time and limited resources.
  • Fishers say the stories of increased income of artisanal fishers due to ilish conservation is not evidence-based. Because of inflation and the rising cost of fishing trips associated with fuel, engine, boat building, and fishing gears; the net income of fishing families is still decreasing or stagnant in the best-case scenario. The existing temporal measures for ilish conservation did not consider the diversity of fishing gears and indiscriminately ban all fishing gears during ban season even if those gears are not harmful to juvenile ilish. Even after rising catch-effort, if individual fishing units can catch more fish (ilish, for instance) than before, that does not mean more income for them. The distribution of income in fisheries has not changed, and in many cases, is skewed against the artisanal fishers.

These are my observations as a practitioner, but of course, I believe, is helpful to start thinking about environmental justice in Bangladesh’s small-scale fisheries. A better understanding of the current scenario in Bangladesh’s small-scale fisheries is a prerequisite for finding the most suitable leverages for stakeholders to push for changes.

References

Ali, M. Y. (1997). Fish, Water and People Reflections on Inland Openwater Fisheries Resources of Bangladesh. Dhaka: The University Press Limited.

Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha. (2020, November 7). Mother Ilish Conservation Campaign implemented successfully. Dhaka Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2020/11/07/mother-ilish-conservation-campaign-implemented-successfully

Haldar, G. C., & Ali, L. (2014). The cost of compensation. Transaction and administration costs of hilsa management in Bangladesh. Retrieved from http://pubs.iied.org/15522IIED

Halls, A. S. (1997). An assessment of the impact of hydraulic engineering on floodplain fisheries and species assemblages in Bangladesh (University of London). Retrieved from https://spiral.imperial.ac.uk/bitstream/10044/1/7704/1/Ashley_Stewart_Halls-1998-PhD-Thesis.pdf

Hossain, S. (2021, March 17). Nihoto jele masud er barite ek mutho chal o nei. Daily Star. Retrieved from https://www.thedailystar.net/bangla/শীর্ষ-খবর/নিহত-জেলে-মাসুদের-বাড়িতে-এক-মুঠো-চালও-নেই-211257

Islam, M. Mahmudul. (2011). Living on the Margin: The Poverty- Vulnerability Nexus in the Small-Scale Fisheries of Bangladesh. In S. Jentoft & A. Eide (Eds.), Poverty Mosaics: Realities and Prospects in Small-Scale Fisheries (pp. 71–96). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-1582-0

Islam, M. Mahmudul. (2021). Social Dimensions in Designing and Managing Marine Protected Areas in Bangladesh. Human Ecology, 49(2), 171–185. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-021-00218-z

Islam, Md Monirul, Mohammed, E. Y., & Ali, L. (2016). Economic incentives for sustainable hilsa fishing in Bangladesh: An analysis of the legal and institutional framework. Marine Policy, 68, 8–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2016.02.005

Jabbar, M. A. (1978). Land Reform in Bangladesh. In Agrarian Structure and Rural Change. Report prepared for the First FAO World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development. (pp. 134–148). Dhaka: Ministry of Agriculture, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Jenkins, J. T. (1911). The fisheries of Bengal. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 60(3083), 146–166. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/41339946

Jenkins, J. T. (1938). The Fisheries of Bengal — Can They be Improved and Developed? Current Science, 6(8), 373–375. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/24204411

Ministry of Defence. (2018). Operation of “Mother Hisla Protection Campaign 2018” by Bangladesh Air Force. Retrieved from Inter Services Public Relation Directorate (ISPR) Website website: https://www.ispr.gov.bd/en/operation-of-mother-hilsa-protection-campaign-2018-by-bangladesh-air-force/

Mukherjee, A. (2010). Empire: How colonial India made modern Britain. Economic and Political Weekly, 45(50), 73–82.

Siddique, E. M. K. (2018). Hilsa watch: Evidence-based advocacy for inclusive fisheries governance across shared Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basins. Retrieved from https://cng-cdn.oxfam.org/asia.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/Oxfam-TROSA-Learning-Brief-HILDA-Watch.pdf

Singh, V., & Gupta, S. K. (2017). Modern Acts, Conservation of Fish and Colonial Interest: Inland Fisheries in Mid-Ganga Diara Ecology, India. In A. M. Song, S. D. Bower, P. Onyango, S. J. Cooke, & R. Chuenpagdee (Eds.), Inter-Sectoral Governance of Inland Fisheries (pp. 122–133). Retrieved from http://toobigtoignore.net/research-highlights-1/e-book-inter-sectoral-governance-of-inland-fisheries/

Thompson, P. M., & Hossain, M. M. (1998). Social and distributional issues in open water fisheries management in Bangladesh. Rome.

United News of Bangladesh. (2021, March 16). Fisherman killed during police raid in Meghna river. The Financial Express. Retrieved from https://thefinancialexpress.com.bd/national/fisherman-killed-during-police-raid-in-meghna-river-1615884204

Saving Saint Martin’s Island is not a lost cause, yet

It is true that what is left of the coral colonies in the Bay of Bengal around Saint Martin’s Island is almost a ruin. But it is not lost yet. Still, we’ve time to salvage the almost collapsed social-ecological systems of St. Martin’s Island.

Peoples say the local population is growing rapidly, tourists are coming in droves, in thousands and the island is losing its natural beauty; more than that, the local people are not cooperating with any efforts of environmental protection, so on and so on. In short, the island does not stand any chance when it comes to protecting its biodiversity and touristic attractions.

Such has been the narrative since we’ve started working in St. Martins. At least, I am getting these speeches from the people and institutions that are responsible for the environmental protection of Bangladesh’s only island with coral associations.

In addition, this narrative is being repeated once again in the wake of the government’s recent initiative to promote more tourism in the area, among other seemingly horrific things, which also include making it a destination for a regional Ocean cruise.

Indeed, the scenario is not something which can be described as ‘promising’. Even the government has acknowledged the scenario by declaring the terrestrial area of the SMI as an ‘Ecologically Critical Area’ long ago in 1999. And the irony is, the degradation of coral habitat finally started with introducing irresponsible tourism back in 2013 under a Ministry of Environment and Forest run project titled ‘Promoting eco-tourism in Saint Martin’s Island’.

You just can’t allow ships coming into a very shallow coral habitat carrying thousands of tourists daily and host minimum three-thousand strong entourage on the island overnight. Only responsible ‘marine’ tourism (such as Diving, Snorkeling, Sailing, Angling and harmless watching from the onboard boat without big propeller) is counted as ‘Eco-tourism’ in a coral habitat. But the ministry did the opposite thing under the eco-label of ‘eco-tourism’ with expected consequences.

And now, about 67% of the coral is bleached to death, according to a survey. So, it would, of course, be foolhardy to say that, everything is fine in the SMI. But it would be equally hard to argue that, the island with its coral colonies is beyond saving, which I’ve heard from almost every government officials, conservation practitioners, and researchers I’ve ever met. Because what do we need is just reverse the process; shutting down irresponsible tourism. It works.  A closer look deep into the coral colonies around SMI, in fact, will assure you about this.

Saint Martin's Island

I took this photo last year after two consecutive tourist seasons were largely disrupted by the nation-wide violence erupted in the wake of last general election. Healthy coral colonies; It was an unusual sight in the island during last decade and after tourism fully revived last year. If we can have a planned retreat from the island for more years, say we keep the tourism shut for ten years, help it to regenerate, we will able the salvage the coral habitat.

So chances are good. Besides, the corals here in SMI are more tolerant than purely marine populations, it seems.

Saint Martin's Island

The photo says it all. It seems that species in St. Martin’s Island are too tolerant to be easily defeated by siltation. Like other coral colonies under the influence of estuarine sedimentation, they fight longer with the adverse environmental attribute.

And about the narrative that, the extent of degradation of the ecosystem is so high that, taking any small effort now (like what Save Our Sea is now trying to do by engaging tourism businesses and community) will be like bailing out a barge with a bucket. I do agree about the bucket. And this is what we need.

 

Team Turtle

The ‘Team Turtle’; in nesting season of 2015-16, 38 of the volunteers patrolled the beach at night to protect the nesting sea turtles. Coordinated by Save Our Sea, they were on their own, and thanks to the Department of Environment to house them at the Island. While the government and NGO-run turtle conservation efforts largely produced dubious success stories, the turtle volunteer activity continues to document the real scenarios and engaging local youth in conservation without any monetary incentives.

‘Project-based approach’ did not work in the coastal region (such as Saint Martin’s Eco-tourism Project, Coastal, and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project). Because these sorts of big projects run by desk-based managers and experts are designed to be doomed. Without any understanding of the community and ecosystem, these projects actually accelerated and covered-up the degradation of SMI. They did more harm than good by alienating the local community. So, instead of big fat bideshi or deshi projects, we need to start small.

 

Team Turtle

This photo is something, which testifies to people’s power to protect nature’s magnificent creatures. The turtle nest was saved by the volunteers from disastrous nest-relocation, which saw at least 600 unsuccessful hatchlings in the island in last season only. On the night of nesting, after almost months of intensive activity on the island, the Save Our Sea team was out the money. The price of the fencing materials was bKash-ed by one of our colleague from Dhaka, the fence was made-installed and maintained by local youth. Later we have conserved (in-situ) two more nests in the last season.

Rather than siphoning off foreign or domestic taxpayer’s money on designed-to-be-doomed projects, we need to start to remove the legal restriction on the community (who was the protector of the island before irresponsible tourism started) so that they can simultaneously rehabilitate the ecosystem and revive the marine fisheries, which is their most sustainable option for livelihoods.

 

Save Our Sea Team

Dr. Kazi Ahsan Habib (left) and Alifa Bintha Haque (right); two of the researchers with Save Our Sea, who joined the team voluntarily to delineate ecosystem boundary of the Island. Without any financial consideration, they took conservation as their responsibility to discharge with own capacity. We do hope, the conservationists will get it that, being ‘hired’ by some agencies or projects does not make one a conservationist. Conservation is not something we can wait to be ‘funded’ by some other external forces; rather as part of nature, it is our job to take part and fund conservation efforts with our own capabilities. I am optimistic; I can see many of the young professionals are thinking this way.

The efforts needed to be rooted in the community in a true sense. If we can make it happen, passionate conservationists, other individuals, and institutions will certainly join the efforts with their own capacity, as they are doing right now with Save Our Sea.

 

Save Our Sea

The smile of volunteers. Heroes from our local Turtle Team and cleanup volunteers with Enamul Mazid Khan Siddique (fourth from the left). Despite having a full-time job in a I-NGO, Siddique personally helped the students and other young professionals in Bangladesh with training, guidance, and inspiration to build their lives around coastal and marine conservation. The list of such conservationists by passion we know is much longer in Bangladesh and other Bay of Bengal countries. This brings me the hope that once more organized, these people are going to bring some real change for Saint Martin’s Island and other coastal and marine ecosystems.

This post I guess explains why I’m optimistic, why I’m supporting hope over fear. The photos, I hope, explain that we’ll be able to see a locally-led marine protected area in Saint Martin’s Island very soon.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju

 

(This post was first published on Save Our Sea’s blog)

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’)

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