Who I am
Working for marine conservation is a passion I came upon rather than one that I have grown up with. I was born and brought up in an urban jungle within a conventional social setting. I didn’t know what to do with my zoology degree until I started visiting St Martin’s Island, a region of Bangladesh that is the least explored in terms of marine biodiversity, although 70% of its inhabitants depend on the sea. I realised that conservation is not a goal to achieve but a path to follow and that, whether solutions are being sought, education is being contemplated or practices are being evaluated, the path should always include the perspective of the primary users of the resources – in this case, the fishers. The community that earns its living from the ocean knows more about the ecology and biology of the fish than I do, even though I studied fisheries for my degree. My passion for working for marine conservation comes from not imposing solutions, but rather learning and taking a bottom-up approach. I gained my MSc in biodiversity conservation and management from Oxford University with a view to acquiring a global perspective and met an amazing network of similar-minded people. On my return to Bangladesh, I started to work with people who were catching sharks and rays, as well as people who were trading in these species – another area that needs immediate research and conservation action. It took me a year and a half to gain the trust of these people. It is extremely difficult for a person to find his or her true calling and passion. I would say I’m fortunate that I am on the path to find mine.
Where I work
I work in the coastal region of Bangladesh, especially in the south-eastern areas where the majority of the people depend on fishing for their livelihood – and where the fishing pressure is therefore unimaginably heavy. I have recently extended my work to the south-western areas to focus on the conservation of sawfish. Bangladesh’s extensive coastline hosts an array of fishers who use various different fishing methods. In the Bay of Bengal fish resources are extracted from areas ranging in depth from 40 to 200 metres (130 to 656 feet), covering a large proportion of Bangladeshi waters. About 67,670 artisanal boats use 183,707 sets of gear in the coastal and marine waters of Bangladesh, and that is not taking into consideration illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Shallow-water artisanal boats operate in waters up to 40 metres deep, mid-water trawlers operate in depths of 40 to 200 metres, and longline trawlers operate from 200 metres to the edge of the EEZ. The dynamic coastline of Bangladesh comprises three major regions: the Ganges tidal plain in the west, the Meghna delta plain in the south–centre and the Chittagong coastal plain in the east. Within the Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta in the Bay of Bengal, formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, lies the Sundarbans Reserve Forest. This is the largest contiguous halophytic mangrove forest in the world, spanning 10,000 square kilometres (3,860 square miles), 62% of which is located in south-western Bangladesh and the rest in India. The complex ecology of the Sundarbans includes freshwater, estuarine and marine habitats, which make it a unique cradle for many endangered and evolutionarily distinct species.
What I do
I began to unveil the trading of shark and ray products originating from Bangladesh in 2016. This was the first step to understanding the effectiveness of shark conservation interventions in the context of our country that adopted a three-pronged approach of research, social change and policy implementation – and keeping at its core the perspective of the primary resource users. I conducted detailed interviews, regular field visits and utilised molecular techniques to identify the species being traded. After two years, the cooperative of fishers in Cox’s Bazar trusted me enough to work with me. During this time, I have tried to understand their motivation and consider possible bottom-up conservation approaches. I believe that regulatory measures alone will not work in Bangladesh, where resources are constrained, education is limited and there are few alternative ways to earn a livelihood. Meanwhile, I discovered that sawfish were landed regularly at informal sites due to their high value. I worked with the traders and developed a method to improve the reporting of sawfish landings at sites where I was working. The results were very promising, with the caveat that for sawfish conservation, this was just the first step. Our sawfish work led us to discover the tremendous fishing pressure on all rhino rays and their unprecedented decline in comparison to many marine finfish. I plan to work with policy-makers and fishers to enhance their understanding of the importance of rhino rays in our waters. Furthermore, using the ecological knowledge of fishers and exploratory surveys, I intend to identify their habitats. I am collaborating with renowned scientists and also building a team of young scientists to initiate this. In the coming years, I plan to work closely with all relevant interest groups to set up an educational programme for the conservation of rhino rays in Bangladeshi waters.