The concepts of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), blue economy or global biodiversity targets have gained traction in Bangladesh, so much so that it would not be unfair to say that the terms and phrases are often overly used. However, what is lacking is a coherent understanding of achieving these goals or creating a process pathway at the local level. Existing conservation mechanisms are devoid of meaningful consultation with affected communities, leading to inequality, a vicious cycle of poverty, expensive and ineffective policies and inevitable non-compliance.
I specialise in marine species conservation in the Bay of Bengal, particularly sharks and rays. My work adopts an interdisciplinary lens placed at the crossroads of the biological and social sciences. In my studies, which are heavily dependent on fieldwork in the remotest parts of Bangladesh, from Dublar Char to St Martin’s Island, I am striving to answer critical conservation questions and mainstream local ecological knowledge in the pursuit of answering them. When I began my work in 2016, I only felt passionate about saving all sharks and rays. After five years, I have realised that conservation is not a one-way street where we save the fish and forget the fishers.
I have no qualms admitting that there was a time when I would only think about the fish in our seas. In the not too distant past, I wrote: “Our study (2016-2020), in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh region, found that thousands of individuals of sharks and rays were caught per trip within the artisanal fishery. An average of 8,000-20,000 tonnes of annual shark landing and an 80-335 percent unreported trade is alarming because this includes protected species heading to unnoticed extinction due to their low resilience to fisheries pressure. All these unreported by-catches happen to consist of at least 85 species, including 10 Critically Endangered and 22 Endangered species (sawfish, guitarfish, hammerhead sharks, manta rays), threatened with extinction. The high catch rates are due to either targeted or unintentional interaction of fishing with these species which needs to be halted.”
Yet when I began to envision what by-catch mitigation efforts may look like, I was exposed to vastly untapped vulnerabilities of fishers, which prevented them from taking positive conservation decisions. Coastal fishers in Bangladesh are poverty prone due to debt-driven fishing practices. Most of them do not own boats and nets, and they do not have a secondary source of income, efficient markets, or any facilitation to adhere to regulations. Financial vulnerabilities of fishers are exacerbated by limited access to information and technology, lack of safety at sea, or of basic amenities like education, healthcare and social security. There is little interest or political will in creating better markets that operate sustainably and ensure equal opportunities for all fishers. Yet profits from sustainable practices being returned to fishers, thereby reducing poverty and ensuring better livelihoods, could have been an equitable and effective first step towards sustainable fishing practices and species conservation. What I am trying to say is, fish and fishers are inherently and invariably interconnected. I learned that species conservation is primarily about people. However, there is a huge disconnect between global and national policies for marine conservation and small-scale fisheries protection.
During countless conversations with fishers, my team and I talked about by-catch mitigation, live release of Critically Endangered species and overall protection for critical habitats which may conflict with fishing grounds. It is worth remembering, 29 species of sharks and rays are protected under the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act (WCSA), 2012. However, the WCSA 2012 and other conservation laws and policies do not “speak” to the fishers. And because they do not speak to fishers, they are by and large ineffective.
How do we know that the laws don’t reach the fishers? We interviewed more than a thousand coastal fishers engaged in sharks and ray fisheries in almost all coastal fishing communities. In 2016, most of the fishers we spoke to had limited knowledge about the protected status of sharks and rays. Although in subsequent years, a small number of fishers showed some knowledge of some laws, they did not know which species were protected. They did not know what to do if they accidentally caught a protected shark. Often during our conversations, we would become the interviewees. Fishers would ask us a range of thought-provoking questions: who is going to provide the lost income if targeted fisheries are prohibited? What is going to happen if we discard dead sharks at sea out of fear of being fined or jailed? Will our livelihood-related problems be solved if we take positive conservation decisions? And so on.
These questions come from a place where some fishers “knew” about some of the laws and regulations but hardly possessed any clarity or acceptance about such laws, or access to knowledge/information or facilitation to adhere to them. In short, “awareness” remains mainly absent, despite fisheries compensation schemes and awareness generation programmes in Bangladesh. We need to be conscious of the difference between “knowing” the law and being “aware” of it. The effectiveness of such laws and policies is directly dependent upon awareness of them, which is achieved only when one possesses a deeper understanding and accept why they need to be adhered to.
This brings us to a more fundamental question. Why are these laws not working? In my view, what is critically missing here is democracy in real terms, which ensures fishers’ participation when marine conservation laws, regulations and policies are framed and having their voices heard, respected and represented during that process. This is what will ensure the generation of the so-far elusive “awareness”.
In Bangladesh, the very existence and application of conservation laws are top-down. The law-making process does not consider crucial and indispensable local knowledge of fishers, let alone empower them. They are framed in a way that fails to consider the external impacts of those laws. For instance, when a particular law bans the fishing of sharks from a specific date, it looks good on paper, which may be a triumph for a conservationist. Still, it does not consider the income lost by fishers. As a result, most of the time, these regulations only prevail on paper. Even if they are enforced to an extent, it may come with corruption, and uninformed and unprepared governance.
One cannot help but ask: how will bans be effective when fishers’ earnings are below minimum wage? It all comes down to the overarching capitalistic way of growth that has hazardously increased the unequal distribution of wealth and marginalisation of the poor. When the lion’s share of earnings goes to the money-lending boat owners and private companies, keeping the bare minimum for the actual fishers—we need to seriously think about the existing unjust financial mechanisms relating to marine and coastal fisheries in Bangladesh. Global landings data reveals that the average fishing wages in many countries that are home to a substantial share of fishers are below their national determined minimum wage. These result in the loss of legitimacy of laws and regulations relating to marine conservation.
Collectively, our results from the field portray the marginalisation of fishers, which takes place because global and national conservation laws and policies, in many cases, treat them as less important than marine species. In stark contrast, projects focusing on human well-being look at species as of secondary interest. Our results highlight the unresolved conundrum in marine conservation laws, which seeks to protect threatened sharks and rays but fails to accommodate the welfare of small-scale fishers.
Ecological sustainability must be grounded in the well-being of the fishers and the fish together through well thought out socio-ecological policies. We call for a regime change in the way we frame marine conservation laws and policies devised in high offices, detached from the coastline. Pre-policy discussions with fishers to understand the acceptance level and feasibility of laws and policies that are being framed are the need of the hour. This may sound difficult and time- and resource-consuming, but it will be a worthwhile pursuit given that problems arising from ineffective and impractical policies will lead to expensive and irreversible consequences. Human beings are known to adhere to rules they believe in and have taken part in creating. Abiding by restrictions disseminated through signboards and summons only go so far. Through a true “behavioural change” in the offices of lawmakers, Bangladesh can lead efforts from the Global South that will collectively secure the future of the fish and fishers of the world.
Alifa Haque is DPhil Researcher at the Nature-based Solutions Initiative, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.