THE sea is a mystery to most people of Bangladesh. The waves, fish and ships are the ornaments of the sea. People love being at the sea beach and enjoy bathing in the sea and hearing the sound of the mighty waves. Bangladesh has won legal battles over the Bay of Bengal but how far do we comprehend the victory? How much do the common people know about it to cheer the achievements?
On July 7, the International Arbitration court in the Netherlands awarded Bangladesh 19,467 sq km of area out of the estimated total disputed area of 25,602 sq km. Bangladesh could finally establish its sovereign rights on more than 118,813 sq kms of territorial sea, 200 nautical miles (nm) of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and all kinds of animal and non-animal resources under the continental shelf up to 354 nm from the Chittagong coast.
This is a great achievement. When there was no fixed maritime boundary, we couldn't properly measure what we had within the boundary. Bangladesh's marine waters cover an area of roughly 166,000 km2, of which the EEZ accounts for 141,000 km2. Many believe that the verdict went in favour of Bangladesh and we could win more area. But not everyone thinks like that. My opinion is that the issue has been resolved and dispute finally ended. We can now start planning about the resources, prospects and proper maritime management.
How aware are we of the animal and non-animal resources of the sea? What data do we get from scientists, experts, the government, and public and private and international organisations? Do we really know or care about the resources? The Bay of Bengal has principally four categories of resources: fisheries, mineral, water plantains and other water resources. We don't know exactly how much resources are there beneath the sea as no surveys have been conducted during the last three decades.
In 1975, FAO Consultant Dr. W. B. West conducted a survey which said the Bay of Bengal had around 264,000 to 374,000 metric tons (mt) of fish and 9,000 mt of shrimps. As per West's survey, the sea had 467 varieties of fish and 36 shrimp varieties. In 2009, with assistance from Asiatic Society, a database showed that there were approximately 402 varieties of fish. During 1977-1980, research showed that Bangladesh had a reserve of 160,000 mt of fish. Later, it declined to 157,000 mt as per joint research conducted by the Bangladesh government and FAO. Since then, no surveys or research have been conducted.
As per the government and FAO, a report shows that there are 32 shrimp trawlers, 28 mixed fish trawlers and 31 fish catching trawlers in the Bay of Bengal -- 91 in all. But, further investigation showed that the number of trawlers was only 73. It was suggested that the numbers should not be increased anymore because of the amount of fish resources in the Bay. However, the number of trawlers kept on increasing. Some trawlers were caught and resold at an auction because of illegal fishing. We still don't know how many varieties of fish, number of trawlers and the exact amount of marine resources there are in the Bay of Bengal.
Recently, I went to Cox's Bazar fish landing station to film a documentary featuring marine fish resources. I was extremely frustrated. There was no fish at the landing station. The number of fish is decreasing alarmingly. I talked with Scientific Officer Ehsanul Karim of Marine Fisheries & Technology Station in Cox's Bazar. He believes there are still around 110 marine fish species in the sea. If that is true, it's very upsetting news for fisheries resources. This situation was brought about by too much fishing and global warming. As per Department of Fisheries, there are 167 mechanised and 206,859 engine-run trawlers in the sea. Also, there are 233,029 engine-run boats, 43,907 boats, and 218,581 nets and fishing rods.
As per the Marine Fisheries Ordinance 1983, wooden trawlers can go to fishing up to 40 metre depth at best. Only commercial trawlers can go beyond 40 metres. People are catching fish freely from any depth of water, although there are policies and regulations for catching and using equipments. But who cares to abide by the rules and who is the ruler?
Eight years ago, I went to Thailand to work on fish catching and processing. I was really amazed to see their marine management and how they use the marine resources. Thailand, with a population of just above 60 million, has utilised its natural resources and gone forward. Yearly export earning from fisheries is around $5 billion, which is around Tk. 36,000 crore.
South-East Asian Fisheries Development Centre was established by 11 South-East Asian countries in 1967 in Thailand. They have facilities for marine fisheries development and have diversified training for the member countries. As Bangladesh is not a member, we're deprived of effective training, which could have certainly developed our fisheries sector. Although Bangladesh is engaged with Bimstec and international fisheries research and development organisations and projects, it rarely plays a role at these key operational and influential authorities and organisations.
The sea is a golden hub of fish. However, it can be ruined by either natural or man-made disasters. We might fall far behind if we fail to utilise our resources properly. We are already getting the deadly signal. There are no regulations for fish catching. The research organisations that are working on marine resources are almost without work and there is no productivity. There is no project, equipment, monitoring or accountability -- there are only infrastructure and authoritative body. They need to be given proper guidance and mobilised, now.
We had marine resources in the past, we still have them, and the verdict delivered by the International Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is a means to allow us to utilise the marine prospects we actually have. Before anything, what we need is a comprehensive and pragmatic survey of marine resources. That can well unveil the vastness of marine resources to the whole nation. I firmly believe that the government will immediately conduct a research, based on international information technology and knowledge, and tell the people what resources we have in the sea.
The writer is Development Journalist, Ashoka Fellow and FAO A.H. Boerma Recipient.