Small and artisanal fisherfolk are at a greater risk due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic shocks. Photo: Animesh Prakash/ Oxfam India

A fresh look at fisheries in the Bay of Bengal

November 21 marks the World Fisheries Day.

More than 30.8 million people in Asia who are engaged in the primary sector of marine and inland capture fisheries and small scale fisheries (SSF) are at great risk due to the resulting economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, more than 43% of the newly poor in Bangladesh are a part of the informal sector, namely animal husbandry, crop production and fisheries. UNESCAP estimates the jobs and livelihood loss due to COVID 19 will push more than 132 million in South Asia to extreme poverty and this will further worsen the existing inequalities, leading to further marginalization of women and other vulnerable groups. Amidst such a ravaging pandemic, Super Cyclone Amphan (May 2020) battered the livelihoods of thousands of coastal fisher communities in Bangladesh and India. The damage in Bangladesh alone caused a USD 35 million loss to the aquaculture. These unforeseen challenges are further compounded by the loss of livelihoods for thousands of fisher communities due to seasonal fishing bans aimed at protecting and conserving spawning fish. In most of the cases, these bans are administered without adequate and timely social protection and safety net measures. For example, Bangladesh’s annual 65 days fishing bans in 2019 affected almost half a million and in the peak season this year, many of them can’t find Hilsa, the most prized fish in the region.

It is in this complex context of the pandemic-induced economic shocks, climate-induced natural hazards, and declining fish stocks in the Bay of Bengal, and rising inequality in South Asia, we need to have a fresh look at the fisheries in the region and work towards a more coherent, inclusive, multi-stakeholder and regional approach to fisheries governance as part of the build back better plans.

A fresh look and follow up action could be organized around a FISH framework by:

  1. Facilitating safe spaces of dialogue to mobilize the participation and inclusion of the most vulnerable and marginalized in the fishing communities (including women and youth) to gather evidence and work towards solutions. Such spaces and community-led discussions that have opened up new avenues for collaboration among different stakeholders and in the process and have helped address some of the root causes of vulnerability and marginalization among the fishers communities. As part of the Sida-funded Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project, partners in Bangladesh and India have been facilitating Hilsa Watch - a unique, citizen science-based, bottom-up dialogue process since 2017. Data and information generated through these initiatives have been supporting more evidence-informed engagement and dialogue with local fisheries administration, the private sector, including informal money lenders, and the traders’ associations for policies and practices which are more respectable of the rights of these communities.
  2. Initiating a regional dialogue on fisheries in the Bay of Bengal region build consensus among various stakeholders for cooperation to collectively address the challenges and improve the scopes for more science-informed and inclusive fisheries governance for better economic and ecological outcomes. Existing regional and sub-regional cooperation frameworks could be effectively used for such regional dialogues. For example, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) recognized and included fisheries as one of the first set of six priority sectors of cooperation. In the Fourth BIMSTEC Summit Declaration in 2018, member states committed to continued cooperation in conservation, management and sustainable use of marine resources in the region; agree to deepen cooperation in fisheries and promote sustainable marine and inland fisheries. Meaningful participation of the private sector, civil society groups, including the coalition of fishers communities, would be critical to ensure the dialogues and actions take in to account diverse views and promote more collaborative and partnership-based approach to fisheries governance in the region.
  3. Strengthening the existing fisheries value chain to make it more inclusive, responsible and environmentally sustainable. This can be done by undertaking systematic regional value chain (RVC) analysis and identifying the gaps, as well as opportunities, to improve the harvesting and sanitary practices, market linkages, responsible and ethical business practices, including that of human rights issues, and opportunities for inclusive business models (IBMs) for the small-scale and traditional fisheries. Existing guidelines, such as the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (FAO 2015) offer measure to address the unequal power relations between value chain actors and the vulnerable and marginalized groups. Specific efforts on women economic empowerment (WEE) through such regional value chains should be considered to ensure women’s active participation in, and benefit from, these fisheries value chain improvement. This is critical given the fact although women constitute half of the workforce in fisheries and aquaculture economies worldwide, their work and contributions go undocumented and unrecognized in many development policies and official statistics.
  4. Harnessing the use of technologies for better monitoring, reporting and management of fisheries, including generating credible information on the health of the ecosystems and fisheries, the extent of benefits shared with fishing communities and the challenges they face. Availability of, and accessibility to, real-time high-resolution data on rapid ecological changes in the ocean and river systems which support the fisheries is critical for decision-making. Empirical evidence suggests fisheries which are guided by formal stock assessments and monitoring are better managed than those lacking such comprehensive passements. Blockchain technologies could help promote more fisheries value chain traceability and transparency and help consumer demand for more sustainably-sourced fish and also help tackle the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Information and communications technology (ICT) -based initiatives could effectively delivery social protection for the vast majority of small and marginal fishers during fishing bans, market disruption, accidents, and natural disasters. Use of environmentally friendly fishing gears and fishing technologies are critical for sustainable fisheries and also reduce marine pollution. For example, a recent review of Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), often referred to as ghost gears, found that 5.7% of all fishing nets, 8.6% of all traps, and 29% of all lines are lost around the world each year and are a major source of marine debris, including being the biggest plastic polluter in the ocean. Innovative financing mechanisms, including impact investing and microinsurance, offers new avenues to support sustainable fisheries and the fisheries communities. Such technology and financial innovation in fisheries offer a great opportunity for the vast ecosystem of start-ups in the region many of which are led by young entrepreneurs.

We hope this proposed FISH framework will help us take a fresh look at the fisheries in the region and work towards a more coherent and integrated approach to fisheries governance with special attention to the fisher’s rights.

Jyotiraj Patra is Project Manager – Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project at Oxfam. Views expressed are personal