Bangladesh’s Exclusive Economic Zone covers 118,813km2 of the Bay of Bengal’s large marine ecosystem, which is located in the southeast corner of the country. With a 710 km coastline and three major coastal zones Bangladesh possesses a unique coastal and marine habitat. This marine ecosystem is rich in biodiversity that encompasses a large number of fish, mollusk, mangrove, coral, plankton, seagrass and seaweed species.
However, the ecosystem and biodiversity are under threat due to anthropogenic pressure, overexploitation, environmental change, and lack of awareness. Because of this, conservation initiatives are urgently needed for Bangladesh. Most initiatives for marine ecosystem conservation in Bangladesh focus mainly on fisheries management, specifically temporary bans as well as gear and size restrictions. However, to conserve the overall biodiversity of the marine ecosystem, a holistic approach is required.
Declaration of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is one the modern concept to conserve the natural biodiversity. MPAs are dedicated spaces in the ocean for protecting and maintaining biological diversity as well as associated cultural resources. This is implemented by imposing restrictions on human activities through legal and other effective means to achieve long-term conservation of ecosystems and cultural values.
Taking this into account, the government of Bangladesh has already declared two MPAs. In 2014, Swatch of No Ground was declared as the country’s first MPA, covering an area of 1,738 km2. The primary objective of this MPA is to conserve the marine megafauna species, specifically whales, dolphins, sharks and sea turtles, as well as other oceanic species, under the Wildlife Act of 2012. In 2019, the government declared another 3,188 km2 around the NijuhmDwip Island as the second MPA/marine reserve, which increased the country’s MPA coverage to 2.8% of its EEZ.
Read more: St Martin’s conservation gets priority
The Swatch of No Ground MPA, which is in the southwest coastal zone, and the NijhumDwip MPA, which is in the central coastal zone of Bangladesh, aim to conserve biodiversity. The southeast coastal zone Naf River estuary, St. Martin’s Island and adjacent areas encompasses a wide range of biodiversity and ecological habitats, specifically mangroves, coral, saltmarsh and tidal flats and the area suffers from ecological degradation because of tourism, unplanned exploitation of resources and a lack of awareness about the natural value of marine ecosystems.
Although a number of management options are available, most are focused on fisheries, such as fishing ban periods and restrictions on mesh size. Since this area is a hotspot for a wide range of species, from primary producers to top predators, a holistic approach is required to conserve biodiversity, so declaring a new MPA here would be a good option for conserving the rich biodiversity in this area.
It may be added that due to the influx of Rohingyia refugees and increased drug trafficking, the government of Bangladesh has imposed a fishing ban in the Naf River basin since September 2017. This ban has created an opportunity for safe recruitment of a wide variety of marine fish and other aquatic animals, including dolphins in the Naf estuary. It has also opened up an opportunity for conservation of both fish and biodiversity to enhance the marine stock, which is historically important as this area represents the Indo-Himalayan and Indo-Malayan ecological sub-regions, which are transitional grounds for fauna and flora.
The natural scientists con also considered this area a part of an Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. Because of this, the area is considered highly suitable for conservation and included in the proposed Naf - St. Martin’s Island MPA.
The objectives of the studies towards setting up an MPA in this Southeast region of Bangladesh were to protect and recover critical coral habitats for building the resilience of ecosystems, enhance fisheries resources, support afforestation, protect megafauna, and improve the socioecological resilience of fishing communities in the region to environmental and climate changes.
The study found 905 species from the area, including many species found on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species: 1 critically endangered, 20 endangered, 61 vulnerable, 28 nearly endangered and 62 nearly threatened..
Read more: 400 tourists stranded at St Martin’s
In addition, the locations of where fishing boats operate were identified using satellite imagery analysis as well as physical observations. Finally, the potential area of the proposed MPA was identified by integrating ecological data with social data, the latter was obtained through consultations with fishers, local leaders, researchers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government officials.
Considering the responsible restrictions necessary for proper management and monitoring, the proposed MPA is divided into four zones with four levels of restrictions (zone 1: no entry, no take; zone 2: entry, no take; zone 3: partial reserve and zone 4: general reserve).
Zone 1 (41 km2) would be like a red zone, where no fishing or any activities destructive to the habitat would be allowed. In Zone 2 (886 km2), no fishing activities would be allowed, but sailing, mooring and diving activities would be permitted, subject to specific limitations. Zone 3 (1,341 km2) would generally be a buffer zone that lies between the exterior of the water area and the restricted protected zone, with recreational navigations, research and fishing activities beingallowed. Zone 4 (577 km2) would be like green zone, where low-impact tourism activities could be allowed as well as educational and research activities.
A holistic approach for conserving biodiversity and habitat would focus on fisheries and megafauna, with a recommended emphasis on conserving critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable species. Conserving seabirds, as well as the nesting hubs of sea turtles, is also suggested. Special care is also necessary to prevent coral extraction, seaweed harvesting and population growth in the propose MPAs.
In addition, pollution control that focuses on plastic and abandoned nets, as well as mitigation measures of climate change impacts, needs to be taken care of for sustainable biodiversity and habitat conservation in the proposed MPA.
The science-based delineation and declaration for an ecosystem-based management of an MPA is a worldwide-accepted approach to protect and maintain biological diversity, as well as associated cultural resources, in dedicated spaces in the ocean.
This is managed by imposing restrictions on human activities through legal and other effective means to achieve long-term conservation of ecosystems and cultural values. Moreover, due to the increase in local residents, who mainly rely on these coral-based resources and tourism, conservation effort is urgently needed to conserve the unique ecosystems and supporting biodiversity to reduce the effects of these impacts.
As such, the proposed MPA is an important timely initiative to sustainably manage the unique coral habitat and its rich biodiversity, especially the colorful reef fish as well as megafauna, such as sharks, skates, rays, turtles and dolphins.
Through sustainable biodiversity conservation and management, fish production would increase and the socioecological resilience of fishers’communities would improve. Taken together, these actions would protect and restore this unique coral habitat. Finally, by declaring this 2,845 km2 an MPA, the country would add another 2.4% toward its target of having 10% of its EEZ declared as MPAs.
Read more: Overnight stay in St Martin’s to be banned
For the successful implementation of the proposed MPA it important to ensure stakeholder engagement, focusing on the Department of Fisheries, Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock; Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, law enforcement agencies, local administration, local leaders and fishers. It is also important to the proposed MPA area for declaration under the Marine Fisheries Act 2020 (Clause 3) with emphasis on to regulate the number of tourists and tourist activities, in such a way that ensures having no significant impactson resources and habitats, stop extraction of coral completely, and regulate and minimize seaweed collection. A greater emphasis should be given to promote Alternate Income Generating Activities (AIGAs) for the fishing communities dependent on these resources through government supports and introduction of Payment for Ecosystem Services.
Dr Md. Abdul Wahabis Team Leader, USAID/ECOFISH II Activity, WorldFish Bangladesh
Dr. Subrata Sarker is Associate Professor & Head, Department of Oceanography, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST)