A WCS United Nations Ocean Conference Blog
Marine Conservation in Bangladesh: A Bright Future from a Stormy Beginning
By Brian Smith
June 5, 2017
A decade ago, Cyclone Sidr struck the coast of Bangladesh. The storm was one of worst natural disasters in the country’s history. The WCS Bangladesh Program was just getting started and we were worried about our fishermen friends. We knew many were still at-sea and some would not return. Indeed the next day the local press reported 3,000 fishermen missing.
During the night of the cyclone our team sat glumly around a flickering candle in the safety of our new office. It was difficult to be optimistic about marine conservation in Bangladesh. Our program had already made significant discoveries of among the world’s largest populations of threatened dolphins and we understood the importance of engaging fishing communities to save these animals from fatal entanglements in fishing gear.
But how could we possibly expect impoverished fishermen to take an interest in marine conservation when their lives were at risk? And how could we expect the government of this young democracy of more than 160 million people, with almost 15 percent living in extreme poverty, to support our efforts in the midst of such human suffering?
Rubaiyat, a Bangladeshi nature tourism guide turned marine scientist, lamented the needless deaths. When a storm arrives the fishermen immediately head for shelter in the Sundarbans mangrove forest. They are good navigators when the weather is calm but when the sea gets stormy they often miss the channels entering the forest and their boats capsize after hitting a shallow shoal.
That’s when it struck us. We had mapped these channels with our GPS during dolphin surveys. If we gave the fishermen a GPS, we could train them on how to use it to follow the channels to safety.
“How could we possibly expect impoverished fishermen to take an interest in marine conservation when their lives were at risk?”
As soon as Rubaiyat came up with this idea, I recognized the potential to also engage the fishermen in collecting information needed to save not only dolphins but also threatened sharks, rays, and marine turtles. Elisabeth, a Swiss teacher who had moved to Bangladesh to lead our educational outreach work and start a family with Rubaiyat, emphasized that the key to success would be building strong relationships and conducting interactive training in local communities.
Our program in Bangladesh has come a long way since our brainstorming session amidst the howling winds of Cyclone Sidr. As I write this blog, Rubaiyat is in a fishing port near the Meghna River mouth training another batch of gillnet fishermen to join our growing Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network. Meanwhile, in the same town, Elisabeth and her team are convening our Healthy Ocean Healthy People Exhibition that focuses on creating an informed constituency for marine conservation and protecting threatened marine megafauna as flagships for a healthy ocean.
Information gained from the Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network has already contributed to establishing the country’s first marine protected area in the Swatch-of-No-Ground submarine canyon and estuarine waters offshore the Sundarbans mangrove forest. It has also proved vital for a marine spatial planning process to optimize the protection of threatened marine megafauna with the fishing needs of local communities.
The fishermen in our network are highly motivated, especially after another cyclone hit the coast of Bangladesh. During this storm, Captain Akkas Ali, a star fisherman in our network, led several fishing boats to safety using his GPS. The next day he searched along a systematic grid using his GPS to rescue 22 stranded fishermen.
“The fishermen in our network are highly motivated, especially after another cyclone hit the coast of Bangladesh.”
I have always been impressed by the sentimentality of the Bangladeshi people. One gillnet fisherman told us a touching story of how three bottlenose dolphins died after getting accidentally caught in his net, and how he held each one in his arms and cried before releasing them back to sea.
As we approach the UN Ocean Conference, I find it useful to reflect on the vision of Healthy Ocean Healthy People and how we can achieve this vision on the ground and in the water. Like our fisherman friend, we have good reason to shed tears over what we have lost. However, we should also learn from our successes and use them as a spring board to turn tears into smiles and stormy beginnings into a bright future for our ocean and our planet.
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Brian Smith is Bangladesh Country Director for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).