Banning bottom-trawling is not about the vessels only. We need sustainability of marine fisheries in the mind of business leaders and an efficient monitoring-control-surveillance system in place.
It was meant to be a success story. Department of Fisheries (DoF) is successfully negotiating with the owners of ‘bottom-trawling only’ marine fishing vessels under the auspices of a ministerial order to convert all bottom-trawlers into ‘eco-friendly mid-water’ trawlers.
Bottom-trawling is regarded as one of the most unsustainable and environmentally destructive fishing methods around the globe. (See the article by famous Carl Safina: Trawls – Bulldozers of the Ocean.)
Though the global community of sustainable marine fishery advocates is against of any kind of Trawling and promotes species specific gears, mid-water trawling is regarded as the lesser evil.
So, banning the bottom trawling initiative could have been good news for sustainable marine fisheries in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh.
As of information provided by DoF Director (Marine) Mr. Nasir M Humayun, total 63 bottom-trawlers have been converted to modern trawling vessels for mid-water trawling till date.
According to official statistics, this means still 97 ‘bottom-trawling only’ vessels remain in operation. The agency hopes rest of the bottom-trawlers will be converted too. Now, with 104 mid-water trawlers and 45 trial-run vessels the size of our marine industrial fishing fleet is 246.
For DoF, it’s a success story if we consider that successfully pursuing the businesses to upgrade their aged fleets of fishing vessels will enable our marine fisheries industry to operate in far and deeper areas of the Bay of Bengal.
But if we assume that, ensuring ‘science based management for sustainable marine fisheries’ is one of the core duty of DoF, then we are of the opinion that, modernizing the fishing fleet is not enough; even not a step to promote environmental sustainability or ‘eco-friendly’ practices as such.
Because, the newly converted trawlers can operate bottom-trawling with more efficiency.
Let me explain.
Traditional small trawlers (wooden or steel-made) based in Chittagong Fish Harbor are purpose-built for bottom-trawling, to operate trawl nets onto the relatively shallow sea-bed. They need minimum structural capacity and engine power to operate trawl in shallow depth for demersal fish species. What barred them to operate in deeper sea and in mid-water is their small size, structural and engine power limitations.
The new 104 heavily-built modern ships have the generic identity ‘mid-water trawler’ attached with them, with almost 3 times more engine power- 8 times more vertical opening of the trawl (net) and modern gears they can easily operate in far and deeper sea for school of pelagic fish species. And most importantly they have more capacity to operate bottom trawl in greater depth for demersal species too.
With emergence of improved fishing gear technologies, one can now use the same trawl net in the surface, into mid-water, and onto the bottom.
For example, we can have a look into the recent sales success of the Danish-Bangladeshi joint venture SRF Cosmos Trawl, which describe itself as ‘the largest and leading netloft in Bangladesh’.
Take a look over their four models of trawl, namely Champion, Original, Modified and WideBody. Every model comes with a ‘can be used both on bottom and mid-water’ feature. The ‘WideBody’ model which is branded as ‘the latest edition’ of ‘range of mid-water trawls’ ‘can be used both on bottom, mid-water and for surface fishing’ too. And every model’s ‘catch efficiency is significantly higher than traditional Thai nets’ used by traditional bottom trawlers.
So, the thing is, with modernizing of the vessels, what is happening actually is, the number of deep sea fishing vessels with capacity of simultaneously bottom, mid and surface trawling is increasing. At the first sight, it’s a very bad scenario if the DoF’s intention is to ban the bulldozers of the sea; bottom trawling.
To operate a bottom-trawl haul, a ‘mid-water trawler’ needs to just lower down its trawl nets onto the sea bed. And the haul will end up with ‘higher catch efficiency than traditional Thai nets’ used by the small bottom trawlers, with more destruction of the sea-bed ecosystem, benthic community, and with more discarded-by catch.
From my encounters with the captains of newly built vessels, I know this is the case in recent months. Necessarily those conversations were ‘off the record’, so I can’t quote them, and I hate anonymous quoting in most cases.
Let’s hear the Captain Sharif from F.T Agro Food-3 who’ve returned from a trip on 11th March and is quoted on SRF Trawl website as saying, ‘WideBody mid-water trawl are simply catching better, are easier to operate (it reacts fast and gets much faster back in shape after turns), can be used both on bottom/mid-water and for surface fishing’. And he informs that, due to these significant results from all three of his company’s trawlers, they have decided to convert our other trawlers too.
So, bottom trawling prevails. Converting the vessels will not help as it seems. Now, how to stop this destructive method of fishing in the Bay of Bengal? We are of the opinion that, there should be clear legal deterrent (preferably in Marine Fisheries Ordinance) and enforcement against destructive fishing practices including bottom trawling. And of course this should be preceded by an effective monitoring-control-surveillance system for industrial fishing fleet.
Most importantly I guess it’s the industry which can bring the change. If the leaders of our industrial marine fishing companies take the leading role to sustain their businesses in long term, there will be changes in practices for sure. A business which is committed for sustainable marine fisheries will not operate bottom trawl. It’s in their own interest to be engaged in preventing the destruction of marine ecosystem and high rate of by-catch currently prevailing in bottom trawling.
Mohammad Arju is a Director of Organization for Social Orientation and Founder of Save Our Sea initiative. He can be reached at [email protected]