Breaking Barriers in the Bay of Bengal

A young female scientist in a male-dominated marine fisheries sector.

By Shamsunnahar Shanta
January 18, 2019

[Note: This is the first in a series about the Bangladesh Marine Megafauna Survey being conducted by the WCS Bangladesh Program. You can read about last year’s trip on our WCS Marine Conservation Program page.]

We are about to embark on our second annual survey of marine megafauna in the Bay of Bengal. It’s not the most opportune time. The uncertainties of Bangladesh’s national elections, marked by violence in the streets, and an unusual winter cyclone hang over the survey team as we meet for an intensive training course on survey methods and safety at-sea.

Carpenters rush to finish building temporary cabins, bunks, and makeshift kitchens on our boats. And our hired crew hauls drums of fresh water and fuel and boxes of food and stow them safely in the bowels of the fishing boats, F.B Ripa and F.B Saat Bhai Champa, which we chartered for the survey.

Carpenters build temporary cabins, bunks, and makeshift kitchens on the team’s boats. ©H. Sujon/WCS Bangladesh

Whereas last year the goals of the project were to cover the entire coast of Bangladesh and replicate a landmark 2004 survey WCS conducted for cetaceans (the scientific grouping of dolphins, porpoises, and whales), this year we are targeting two potential new marine protected areas in the waters surrounding Nijhum Dwip and Sonadia islands.

But first we need to give our survey team practical experience. So we set out for an area where we know we will find lots of dolphins, whales, and sharks: the Swatch-of-No-Ground submarine canyon.

Coordinating this year’s survey as a young female scientist, I am particularly conscious of the social apprehensions I might encounter in a male-dominated marine fisheries sector in Bangladesh. Fishing boat owners and even some of my own colleagues question the presence of women at-sea.

But I feel strongly that I must continue breaking barriers, both for my own sake as well as for the many promising young female scientists (and perhaps one day fisherwomen) of Bangladesh.

[Note: Read more about Bangladesh’s female conservationists.]

This wasn’t a problem when we approached our fishing boats, however. The captain and crew welcomed me without hesitation. Their generosity and appreciation of our efforts reaffirm my commitment to success.

Our two survey vessels make their way from Khulna to the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. After we spot two species of endangered freshwater dolphins (Ganges and Irrawaddy dolphins), we anchor for the night.

The crew’s “generosity and appreciation of our efforts reaffirm my commitment to success.” ©H. Sujon/WCS Bangladesh

On December 18, we arrive in the Bay of Bengal and head out to the Swatch-of-No-Ground. This deep submarine canyon has a special significance, not only for its importance as a major source of upwelling and biological productivity, but also because it was here 15 years ago that WCS began its marine research in Bangladesh.

After the 2004 survey discovered the Swatch-of-No-Ground as a major hotspot of cetacean diversity and abundance, my mentor Rubaiyat Mansur spent seven winter seasons studying these amazing animals in the submarine canyon and estuarine waters off the Sundarbans. Rubaiyat’s investigation provided essential scientific data on cetaceans and the fisheries impacting their populations and led to the declaration of Bangladesh’s first marine protected area.

The 2018–19 WCS marine megafauna survey and fisheries investigation builds on WCS’s earlier experiences, identifying hotspots of marine biodiversity and supporting the Government of Bangladesh in protecting marine wildlife and sustainable fisheries.

While marine fisheries support millions of livelihoods and are essential to food security and the national economy here, they are generally unmanaged and unsustainable. They also threaten cetaceans and marine turtles with accidental entanglements and sharks and rays with directed catches.

The results from this year’s survey will provide vital information for marine spatial planning.

The results from this year’s survey will provide vital information for marine spatial planning that includes the declaration and sustainable management of new marine protected areas that balance vital fishing needs with the survival of threatened marine wildlife.

Ultimately, we must work together to find equitable and viable solutions to destructive and unsustainable fishing practices. There is no easy solution and no single person or organization can achieve this on their own. Scientific research improves our understanding and enables solutions but to bring about the necessary changes that ensure a healthy ocean and healthy people we must have the courage to listen, learn, and change.

[Note: Read the second blog in the series, “Dolphins from Dawn to Dusk,” and the third, “Humbling Encounters at Sea.”]

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Shamsunnahar Shanta is WCS Bangladesh Marine Protected Area Program Coordinator.