Lines On Water Cannot Save Bay Of Bengal Fisheries

by GoNews Desk 2 years ago Views 1984

Lines On Water Cannot Save Bay Of Bengal Fisheries
By Mohammad Arju/

Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar have divided the Bay of Bengal, legally, but neither fish, nor fishers are bound by the lines on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) maps. The fish do not know. In the hope of a better catch, fishers cross boundaries, knowingly or unknowingly. As more boats chase fewer fish, clashes are common.

Fishers based in Cox’s Bazar and Patuakhali fish harbours say that, traditionally, they used to fish side by side with vessels from other countries in the deep sea. Now, as it is becoming harder and harder to find fish, things are changing. Fishers come from long distances to find what they can, and are not welcome competitors. Even vessels from Sri Lanka have been seized and fishers arrested off the shores of Bangladesh. Sometimes the conflicts result in less legal action. The sinking of smaller vessels sometimes goes unreported, said several trawler skippers from Chittagong on the condition of anonymity.

Conservationists and fisheries managers caution that this is not just about the safety of the fishers, but how long there will be enough fish in the bay if the countries cannot transform conflict into collaboration. Absence of cooperation among Bay of Bengal countries to manage marine fisheries and wildlife is risking undermining many conservation measures taken on the national level, they say. There have been attempts to foster cooperation. India has the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). the Global Environment Facility started one process, but not much has changed on the water.

Tensions and arrests in the sea

Bangladeshi fishers view the annual 65-day fishing ban as unjust, because they say fleets from neighbouring countries fish in Bangladesh’s waters during the ban. Mahatub Khan Badhon, a lecturer of zoology at the University of Dhaka, said, “Securing little benefits from the market and perception of uneven enforcement of the marine fishing ban surely affect the compliance of fishers and encourage fishers to delegitimise any such management measures.” Badhon believes that ramping up enforcement is not the answer. Arresting and putting foreign fishers in jail, whether by Bangladesh, India or Myanmar, only increases human suffering. There is no evidence from past decades that it helps conservation or reduces conflicts over fishing.

While a large number of artisanal or small-scale fishers are locked up in foreign jails for months, overfishing continues in the bay. As Nur Islam Majhi from Chittagong put it, “There are always others who will cross boundaries with a hope that there are more fish in the sea.” As skipper of an artisanal gillnetter, he has two decades of fishing experience and ‘numerous’ encounters with boats from other countries just south of Mongla port.

[Many of the small scale fishing boats have minimal sophisticated equipment, and it is easy to believe that they do not know where the limits of the EEZs lie (image by: Mohammad Arju)]

Last year, the Bangladesh coast guard arrested over 519 Indian fishers and seized 32 boats off the coast in Patuakhali– more than 125 kilometres inside the Bangladesh EEZ. This was during the 65-day ban on marine fishing, which kept Bangladeshi fishers stuck on land. The Indian fishers were sent back. But not everyone gets lucky. Statistics from coast guard show that in recent years more than a thousand Indian fishers were held in Bangladeshi waters and spent months in jail before release. On the other hand, it is difficult to find the numbers of Bangladeshi fishers jailed in other countries. When Bangladeshi fishers spend months in jail, in Myanmar, it can take years of imprisonment before return.

The how-to of not jailing fishers

Yugraj Singh Yadava of the Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation refers to the international law of the sea, that clearly directs countries not to jail or deliver any other corporal punishment to foreign fishers arrested in Exclusive Economic Zones. Headquartered in Chennai, the inter-governmental body is pushing for regional cooperation among the Bay of Bengal countries.

Article 73 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) says: “arrested vessels and their crews shall be promptly released upon the posting of a reasonable bond or other security.” The law and subsequent international agreements also direct to have provisions for bilateral agreements, information sharing and other sorts of collaboration to avoid the suffering of fishers and protect fish that travel across national maritime boundaries. Yadava said, “International laws provide enough guidance to States to deal with the issue. However, none of the countries in the region is doing so.”

Mohammed Latifur Rahman, Director of Bangladesh’s marine fisheries office, is of the same view. There is no effective collaboration among countries except a few opportunities for dialogues, he said in an interview from Chittagong. He hoped that India, which has the longest coastline along the Bay of Bengal, could help neighbours conduct collaborative explorations and studies on joint fish stocks. “We need processes and mechanisms for data sharing and a functional platform to cooperate in marine fisheries management,” he said.

Back in 2012, a study commissioned by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem project made several recommendations to deal with the arrest and repatriations of fishers, including joint patrols.

In the long run, countries will need bilateral or multilateral agreements for the repatriation of fishers. The roles of employers, vessel owners, and governments need to be clarified. Countries also need to regularly inform artisanal fishers of the issues involved.

The Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project was the only internationally funded initiative to facilitate trans-boundary collaboration for marine fisheries and environmental issues. But more than one decade after its launch, very few of the recommendations have been accepted by the respective governments.

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