We all know how fish is a vital source of protein for people and fishing is a livelihood that millions depend on. But the fisheries sector is also a source of foreign exchange as it provides one of the most traded food commodities worldwide. In fact, marine fisheries have become one of the important components of the "Blue economy". So what about Bangladesh, are we exploiting the opportunities at hand? After the legal battle with Myanmar (2012) and India (2014), maritime zones and especially Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ i.e., where a state has sovereign right to explore and exploit marine resources) were increased by three times which opened a door of immense prosperity. But how far could we be benefited in terms of marine fisheries from such vast waters?
Unfortunately, the marine fisheries sector has very poor contribution to the overall national economy. Our maritime zones are enriched with diversified fisheries resources comprised of more than 500 marine species, together with shrimps. In 2009-10 fiscal year, contribution of marine fisheries was around 5 lakh MT. But after a three times increase of EEZ (Exclusive economic zones) and with more than 90 commercially important fish species, its contribution remains only around 8 lakh MT in 2018-19. Over 250 industrial trawlers and over 67 thousand mechanised fishing boats can catch fish up to 70 km from the shoreline out of the total of 660 km available. The rest of the area (around 600km) remains untapped due to lack of proper vessels, modern technology and skilled manpower. To explore this unexploited area, the Bangladesh government tried to start negotiations to enter into joint ventures with foreign countries which, however, proved unsuccessful. Later, the government granted permission to a few firms to launch long liners for deep sea fishing, but due to a lack of necessary survey regarding the availability of fish stocks, none of them were willing to take the risk till date. Although a multipurpose survey and research vessel, named, Meen Sandhani has been working since 2016, any reference point for stock assessment is not yet possible from these surveys.
With the increase of our population, we need to take initiatives to explore and exploit the full 118,813 km2 EEZ to fulfil the protein demand of the people. It has not only capabilities to fulfil the protein need, but it can also be a secure source of foreign currency. As Bangladesh does not have long liners, modern technologies and other logistical support and cooperation with developed countries to explore maritime zones is crucial now. Although we did not realise the importance of cooperation to explore marine fisheries, many African countries have already shown the effectiveness of cooperation in reality through fisheries access agreement with the European Union.
International fisheries access agreements have been instrumental in the exploration of untapped fisheries by developing countries. However, this is a new concept to South-Asian countries. These agreements allow fishermen from one country to harvest fish in another country's maritime waters. Generally these agreements are concluded between distant water fishing nations and developing countries for ensuring access to EEZ waters and resources of developing countries. These agreements help developing countries not only to earn foreign currency by allowing other nations to catch fish in their maritime zones, but also ensure sustainable fisheries and development of fisheries sector. The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea empowers the coastal states with sovereign rights to explore and exploit marine resources within EEZ. On the contrary, it imposed a duty on the coastal state to determine total allowable catch for its marine fisheries. Allowable catch is the maximum fishing limit which will not hamper the regeneration of the fish stock. If a country cannot harvest the entire allowable catch within its EEZ, it is obligated to permit other countries regulated access to the "surplus" marine resources.
Access agreements of African countries with the European Union improved the performance of their local fisheries sectors. In many African countries, these agreements have become a source of income that got reinvested into domestic industries and ensured partnerships in management and enforcement. With a small area of EEZ, many African countries such as, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mauritania, etc., are entering into access agreements which are contributing to their national economy a lot. Due to the contributions to the national economies, with 158,861 km2 and 23,184 km2 EEZ area, Senegal and Gambia have been entering into agreements with the European Union from 1980 and 1987 respectively.
Although Bangladesh has been a member of Law of the Sea Convention from 2001, there is no determination of total allowable catch for our marine fisheries yet. No fisheries law of Bangladesh provides any provision for it. Let alone determine the total allowable catch and entering into access agreements—we are unable to assess our fish stocks yet. Under the circumstances, cooperation with developed countries can play a vital role which has been seen in African countries. The convention also imposed an obligation for optimum and sustainable use of marine fisheries. But Bangladesh is extracting fish from the reachable marine area with traditional vessels unsustainably; on the other hand, unreachable areas are totally unexplored and unexploited. It is the high time for Bangladesh to think about fisheries access agreements to ensure sustainable marine fisheries.
One of the noteworthy initiatives taken by the Bangladesh government to ensure sustainable blue economy is the establishment of a specialised university, named, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University. Beside carrying out various researches, this university is conducting research regarding fisheries access agreements and their prospective impact on the national economy. Such research will reveal the existing problems of deep sea fishing and whether the littorals of the Bay of Bengal should proceed for strong cooperation with developed countries through fisheries access agreements in order to reap the benefits of the blue economy. Besides giving impetus to these research studies, the Bangladesh government should be sincere enough to implement the research results and take all other necessary initiatives to explore our enormous undiscovered marine fisheries.
Jenifar Nesa Popi, lecturer, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University.