Studies on the abundance of shark population in Bangladesh’s waters are lacking. The lone source yet is the landing data kept by the Bangladesh Fisheries Development Corporation— often fraught with errors or based on somewhat arbitrary estimates. However, during our field trips across the coastal region, we continue to get this common narrative from the fisher-folks: the catch and fish size are gradually declining to a risky, often unprofitable venture for most of the artisanal fleets.
A couple of months ago, I was talking with Mr. Hossain Islam Bahadur, a leader of the shark traders. Mr. Bahadur said, despite the increasing fishing efficiency owing to advancement of technologies, the number of artisanal boats opting for target fishing of sharks and rays is dwindling day by day. Given the lack of knowledge on population structure, the situation should ring a loud and clear bell to any biologists and conservationists. Aren’t Bangladesh fishing for sharks and rays in an unsustainable manner? Is the current situation simply an outcome of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ in our waters? Or has the population of sharks in the Bay of Bengal reached a bottleneck stage due to rampant fishing practices? Unfortunately, we do not know yet.
What we certainly know is that sharks and rays play a major role in the marine food chain as the top predators, and a healthy population is essential for a balanced ecosystem and its functioning. Hence they need protection. While the listing of 13 species of sharks and rays, (apparently four available in Bangladesh’s waters) in Appendix II of CITES at CoP17 is inspiring and laudable, it has very little to offer for Bangladesh where both the infrastructure and capacity to monitor trade is still a distant reality.
The only spatial restriction on shark harvesting exists in the Sundarban mangrove region, while the rest of the waters remains unprotected, where artisanal boats and commercial trawlers have very little to zero regulations on shark fishing. Clearly, the conservation community has failed to make a case to the authority that sharks are a crucial part of the wildlife and there must be legal provisions at least on paper, if not enforced immediately, on shark fishing.
Given the paucity of knowledge on sharks and rays, a science backed policy is subjective, but the regional data is available to make it plausible. Besides, species-specific rules, e.g. Whale shark need no scrutiny since the species can be safely released even after being caught and this species often entangles in the net of Bangladeshi fishermen.
Amidst the massive international advocacy for strong regulatory and enforcement approaches to conserve sharks threatened with commercial fishing and finning, local fishermen and businessmen may achieve better conservation outcome, particularly in rural Bangladesh.
Panna Matubbor from the coastal district of Barguna is engaged in marine fish trade for over 45 years. After a long discussion with Mr. Panna, I realized how local actors can be inspired to save endangered species with simple rules. Being a veteran businessman, Mr. Panna was ‘famous’ for buying and reselling large-sized fish. One of the incidents dealing with Sawfish in January of 2015 changed his view on threatened species.
He bought a 417 kg sawfish and resold at the local fish landing center, however, faced strong resistance from local Fisheries Officer and the civil society despite having no clear legal provisions in place prohibiting sawfish catch and trade in Bangladesh. Had he known about any rules in place for Sawfish, the incident would have never taken place putting his reputation, earned over the period of past 45 years, at stake for one sell. Be it out of fear or respect for law, if any legal provision works for a species risked with extinction, then why not put it in place?
Stricter law enforcement may or may not results in better conservation outcomes in the long run, but the lack of any legal provision simply makes way for illegal trade in endangered shark species, and of course it heralds a wrong message that the respective authorities are careless about protecting marine wildlife.
Incorporating the legalities within the locally diverse political and cultural dynamics, and fishers’ geography is a challenge and may take years to make it effective where poor and marginal fishermen are concerned in the artisanal fishing of Bangladesh. But this is something Bangladesh needs to start pursuing before it is too late to protect the local populations and other migratory species of sharks.
*The article was originally published on the Bay of Bengal Shark Program’s blog.