Seas have always been instrumental in defining the destiny of the world, be it as means of transportation or as trade routes or as hub of resources. They have also played a significant role in bringing people closer, breaking barriers down cultures and religions; and it definitely helped in spreading new ideas and thoughts. Today, as we stand in the 21st century, seas are important not only for military needs but also for the economy. Today, almost as high as 90 percent of world trade and commerce travels through the sea. Majority of the much needed source of energy, like oil, gas, petroleum is being extracted from and transported through the seas. In fact, maritime trade routes form the life-lines of modern civilisation. Today, the whole rhythm of human civilisation's development and prosperity depends on the prowess of nations at sea.
Today, seas are crucial for global food security, human health and regulation of climate. The livelihoods of over 3 billion people worldwide depend upon services from marine and coastal biodiversity. Earlier, seas brought development and prosperity by facilitating trade and commerce, ensuring uninterrupted supply of raw materials for industrialisation and redistribution of finished products and goods around different corners of the world. In those days technology was not very advanced and people only focused on fishing and extraction of oil. But today, advent of advanced new technologies has opened up new vistas of opportunity for nations. Basing on the states' rights and jurisdictions on their sea front, nations are now trying to exploit and explore the marine resources (both living and non-living) of the sea for their economic well-being. These days it is hard not to be aware of the importance of the sea and the sea bed as sources of energy (oil, gas, even wave and tidal power and of vital raw materials). There is an apparently endless list of chemical and mineral resources to be found in the seas, everything in fact from thorium to gravel; and already explorations are underway of the ocean beds beyond the continental shelf where yet more of these assets doubtless lie in rich profusion.
In case of Bangladesh, the sea plays an even greater role. Being blocked from three sides, the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in the south is the only exit for us for international trade, and as a source of marine assets. One fifth of the country's total population is directly dependent on the marine or maritime sector for economic activities, ranging from fishing, salt cultivation, shrimp production, other aqua-culture, oil and gas production. While inaugurating an international workshop on Blue Economy in September 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has very lucidly mentioned that “the role of marine resources in poverty alleviation, acquiring autarky in food production, protecting environmental balance, facing adverse impacts of climate change and other economic activities is unlimited”. Our economy is advancing towards a prosperous future and very shortly Bangladesh will transform itself into a middle-income country. At that time, for maintaining the pace of development and industrialisation, and in view of depleting land-based resources and population growth, Bangladesh has to look more towards the sea as a source of energy, food, medicine and other strategic minerals. In the past, our main setbacks were in terms of technological limitations and non-delimitations of maritime boundaries with the neighbours. But today, Bangladesh has very successfully resolved the delimitation issue and gained a total of 118,813 sq. km of territorial sea, 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and a substantial share of extended continental shelf in the Bay of Bengal. On the other hand, we now have the economic wherewithal to go for state-of-the-art technologies.
We have proved our capacity by undertaking mega projects like the Padma Bridge. All these have opened up opportunities for ocean-based economic growth and development for Bangladesh by the prudent use of marine resources. Utilising these marine resources, a whole plethora of ocean activities can take place in the form of harvesting of living resources (for sustainable fisheries, aquaculture, pharmaceuticals, chemicals etc.), extraction of non-living resources and response to ocean health challenges. Interest in marine biotechnology has been gaining momentum across the globe and the activity is expected to generate 10-12 percent annual growth in the coming years. The promising pharmaceutical and coastal aquaculture sectors as well as livelihoods of poor people of the country would benefit if marine organisms can be used as a source of new materials/products especially for applications in health (antibiotics, anti-cancer, bioactive compounds, nutritional supplements, etc.) and food (marine fish, shrimp, seaweed farming). Nevertheless, BoB is the largest bay in the world but we know little about it. Therefore, we must acquire as much knowledge about it, or we will be unable to go towards economically and ecologically viable options.
The harvest of marine capture fisheries in the coastal and marine waters of Bangladesh was 3.548 m MT (DoF 2016), which is about 16.78 percent of the total fish catch. Hilsha is the largest and single most valuable species with an average annual catch of 340,000 MT, representing 50-60 percent of the global hilsha catch and generating employment and income for 2.5 million people (BOBLME, 2012). There are about 486 types of marine fish species and 36 types of marine shrimp in our sea area. 225 industrial trawlers, 68 thousand mechanised boats and more than 0.5 million people are in involved in marine fishery sector. A number of surveys examined the status of marine fisheries resources between 1970s and 1980s, but no recent and comprehensive knowledge is available on the fisheries, systematic, biological and ecological aspects of the coastal and marine fisheries of Bangladesh.
While an impressive gas success ratio of 3:1 (3 exploration wells drillings, resulting in 1 discovery) was observed in the onshore area, the success ratio in the offshore is less impressive, i.e. 9:1. Until 2014, 19 exploratory wells were drilled in BoB, resulting in only two gas discoveries, i.e. the Sangu and the Kutubdia, with small reserves. Bangladesh is yet to assess the true potential of its offshore oil and gas prospects. The Bangladesh government is likely to take up a Tk. 1600 crore project to explore the marine resources. Already, presence of uranium, thorium, white clay, glass sand, metallic monazite, zirconium, stornium, rubidium, chromium yttrium, nioblum and ruthium have been detected in the Bay of Bengal. But we are yet to ascertain whether exploitation of these would be economically viable.
The concept of the Blue Economy is currently resonating among a number of countries across the world. Bangladesh is perhaps most vocal about the Blue Economy. In September 2014, it hosted a major conference in Dhaka, and proposed the Bay of Bengal Partnership for a Blue Economy. At the core of the Blue Economy lies the idea of “optimisation of natural marine resources within ecological limits”, and the “de-coupling of socioeconomic development from environmental degradation”. Hence the management paradigm for our marine resources should consider these points. A number of challenges are associated for ensuring the proper management of marine resources. Firstly, the knowledge-gap with regard to ascertaining concentration and size of the resources. Secondly, there is lack of Ocean Governance Framework and adoption of “Ocean Policy” to address the complex interactions of resource base, users, stakeholders, opportunities, threats and Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) etc. and for ensuring smooth interagency co-ordination. Thirdly, legal and institutional framework needs further refinement, for example limit of maximum catch, fishing boats registration, maximum/minimum depth determination, environmental norms etc. Fourthly, lack of knowledge, research, needed human resources and technology base etc. is yet another stumbling block. Fifthly, there is a challenge in terms of environmental and social impact study. Sixthly, is a lack of investment. Seventh is improper allocation of roles and designation of focal points.
Eighth is the inadequate public participation and stakeholder inclusion. Ninth is the lack of coordination and integration among laws, agencies, and stakeholders.
In the past ocean uses were limited to navigation and fishing, as mentioned earlier. Hence conflict between different uses of the ocean and coast were few and far between. As a result single-sector management approaches gained wide acceptance as an effective management tool for marine and ocean resource management. But with the increase of multiple uses of these resources, conflicts among different uses of the ocean tend to arise and the single-sector management approach proves no longer effective. These days, integrated coastal and ocean management (ICOM) is being adopted to manage not only coastal areas but EEZ and large marine ecosystems as well.
Sustainable development is the ultimate goal of coastal and ocean management. China decided to initiate an integrated coastal management system in the 1990s. The experience of last two decades' coastal and ocean management of China has proved its worth, benefiting all stakeholders. Similarly, experience of the Netherlands' integrated coast and delta management has shown its value. A country which was constantly fighting against floods is now said to be living with water and water is bringing the wealth for the Netherlands. Hence, Bangladesh may also think about going towards an integrated approach. We have inherent strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. For example our strength lies in terms of diverse coastal habitat, productive estuaries, existing and potential fishing grounds etc. But weaknesses lie in interagency coordination, monitoring mechanism,lack of knowledge, technology and human resources etc. Our opportunity lies in developing bio-technology, bio-resources, pharmaceuticals, mineral extraction, aquaculture and deep sea fishing. Nevertheless we must not lose sight of emerging threats of sea-level rise, coastal inundation, salinity intrusion, depletion of fish resources, pollution, frequent natural disasters etc.
Bangladesh is amongst the pioneering countries to talk about the sea, marine resources and the concept of Blue Economy. We are fortunate that our honourable Prime Minister has already given her vision on these; and very appropriately termed the BoB as our “third neighbour.” What is the rallying cry of the moment is the need for harmonising the activities of all under a common umbrella, may be under the Prime Minister's Office; and sensitising all the stakeholders, especially in the private sector and community levels. Thereafter we need to go towards proper planning, acquiring appropriate knowledge and methods for coordinated exploitation, exploration and utilisation of marine resources. Definitely a better tomorrow awaits Bangladesh if we remain focused on our direction of this journey. It will definitely help us to materialise our long cherished dream of becoming a developed country by 2041.
The writer is a freelance contributor.