World Mangrove Day 2018

Changing Fishery Practice in the World’s Largest Mangrove Forest

The world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans is home to tigers and two species of rare freshwater dolphins. Photo credit: Rubaiyat Mansur Mowgli.

By Nadim Parves
July 26, 2018

Renuka Aktar, a woman well over 70 years of age, sits in a corner of the cyclone shelter near the village market. It is pouring rain and doesn’t look like it will lighten up soon. Renuka doesn’t mind. She is among the first visitors to arrive at our travelling Fish for Future — Playing by the Rules exhibition set up on the ground floor of the cyclone shelter. She enjoys the bustle of villagers following her lead.

Our guests include political and religious leaders, fisherfolk, teachers, and many schoolchildren. By the end of the day, more than 300 people visited the exhibition, which was advertised using a loudspeaker from a travelling rickshaw. This extended our reach deep into local fishing communities of the Sundarbans — the world’s largest mangrove forest, home to tigers and two species of rare freshwater dolphins.

Local villagers play a board game modeled on the ancient Snakes and Ladders game, which originated in South Asia as a tool for teaching good behavior, to communicate information on laws and rules in the Sundarbans and how communities can sustain productive fisheries and protect threatened biodiversity. Photo credit: Nadim Parvez/WCS Bangladesh.

Rules governing legal fisheries are complex and in fact fully half of the arrests made in previous years during enforcement patrols were for illegal fishing conducted by permitted fishermen. Meanwhile, illegal fishing methods such as the use of poison pose an immediate threat to fisheries and at-risk aquatic wildlife in the Sundarbans.

“Poison fishing is a common concern across the fishing villages we visited. An elderly fisherman told us, ‘Once the volume of fish in the Sundarbans was equal to the volume of water. But now the poison fishers have cleared our rivers of fish.’”

To increase compliance with fishery rules in the Sundarbans, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Bangladesh Program developed Fish for Future — Playing by the Rules, a community outreach initiative built around interactive game stations that provide visitors with experiences and emotional connections to sustainable fisheries and biodiversity conservation.

Renuka is a former president of her Village Conservation Forum and she agrees that poison fishing has resulted in drastic declines in fish catches during recent years. She says this destructive practice can only be stopped through awareness-raising efforts like our exhibition and strict, unbiased enforcement of fishing rules.

Renuka Akter Holds water-proof pouch with Calendar noting seasonal closures and a Fish Ruler indicating the legal fish and net mesh sizes. Photo credit: Nadim Parvez/WCS Bangladesh

While leaning over the educational game station that depicts the harmful effects of poison fishing and listening to our conversation, a teen-age boy named Alamin confesses that he has entered the jungle and spread poison for fishing. His friends are embarrassed by his confession and I encourage him to come up with solutions to stop this destructive fishing practice.

Alamin contributes some good ideas about alternative livelihoods and getting rid of forest criminals who extort money from the fishermen, which increases the demands on them to catch more fish. After our discussion, I offer Alamin my job of explaining the impacts of poison fishing to his fellow villagers. He proudly takes on this leadership role, transforming from a forest criminal to a forest protector.

That evening Alamin takes us on a tour of his village, including a holy place where people leave offerings for the forest goddess Bonbibi. He explains that life is difficult in these fishing villages. This year a tiger took a cow from his neighbor’s household, leaving them without milk to sell and drink. Fishing was now the family’s only source of income and protein.

“To increase compliance with fishery rules in the Sundarbans, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Bangladesh Program developed Fish for Future — Playing by the Rules, a community outreach initiative.”

Poison fishing is a common concern across the fishing villages we visited. An elderly fisherman told us, “Once the volume of fish in the Sundarbans was equal to the volume of water. But now the poison fishers have cleared our rivers of fish.”

In the markets we visited in villages along the fringes the Sundarbans, our country’s most productive fish nursery, we found only two fish species for sale: Pangasius and Tilapia. Villagers confirmed that they depend almost entirely on these two cultured fish species for protein. Are these the only fish with a future?

Game stations include a Carom game where threatened species must not be allowed to fall off the board (top left); a Hilsa Puzzle depicting the life cycle of the Bangladesh’s national fish and a species of strong economic importance for local communities (top right); a Magic Box explaining the impacts of poison fishing (bottom left); and a Fishing Game to practice identifying legal size of fish found in the Sundarbans (bottom right). Photo credit: NADIM PARVEZ/WCS Bangladesh.

The next day we move the exhibition to a new location. Visitors flow in like water in the tidal channels of the mangrove forest nearby. Our interpreter team welcomes more visitors; so far, more than 800 people have visited our community outreach events.

“These connections are what inspire me to share information, discuss conservation solutions, and strengthen the ability of local villages to save the mangrove ecosystem.”

A few days later, while sitting at my workstation in the WCS Bangladesh Office in Dhaka, I get a phone call. It is from Renuka Akter. She tells me that Alamin wants advice about starting his own campaign to stop people from using poison to catch fish.

I feel indescribable gratitude. These connections are what inspire me to share information, discuss conservation solutions, and strengthen the ability of local villages to save the mangrove ecosystem upon which they, and millions of other people, depend.

Nadim Parves is the Education and Livelihoods Program Officer for the Bangladesh Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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The Fish for Future — Playing by the Rules exhibition was developed under the umbrella of the Management of the Sundarbans Mangrove Forests for Biodiversity Conservation and Increased Adaptation to Climate Change Project (SMP), a project commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and jointly implemented by the Bangladesh Forest Department and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

The collaboration of SMP and WCS aims to strengthen and build sustainability into the management capacity of the Bangladesh Forest Department in the Sundarbans mangrove forest through a SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) law enforcement approach and thereby increase the survival prospects of some of the world’s most endangered and iconic wildlife and protect forest resources vital to local livelihoods.

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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.