From an early age I dreamed of doing something that would have a positive impact, but I never thought I would work in marine conservation. Born and brought up in the heart of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, I seldom had an opportunity to get close to nature, but when I did get a chance to head out of the city, I invariably found myself going to the ocean rather than the mountains. My life as an undergraduate started with zoology and soon I was immersed in this world. I started exploring different fields, sometimes running after butterflies, sometimes after birds. But none of these subjects brought me the inner peace I was looking for. Then, in my third year of undergraduate life, I came into contact with an amazing person: Alifa Bintha Haque, an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Dhaka, who introduced me to the vast world of marine megafauna.
Through my association with her I gradually became familiar with these mighty creatures and began to feel an affinity for them. I realised that in my country there is very little focus on the conservation of marine megafauna, so there is a great deal to do. As I love the ocean more than anything else, I had finally found work that would challenge me intellectually and at the same time fulfil my desire to make a positive impact. I started going to coastal areas and learning more about fishing communities and fisheries, and these experiences encouraged me to focus not only on mighty ocean creatures, but also the communities that catch them. I’m very fortunate to be part of an excellent and enthusiastic research group with an amazing mentor. And now I’m lucky enough to say that, finally, I can work in a sector where I can find my inner peace of mind.
My work takes me to the coastal regions of Bangladesh, where most of the people earn their livelihoods from fishing, especially at sea. I cover the entire coastal region from St Martin’s Island in the south-east to the Sundarbans in the south-west, with a focus on Khulna, Mohipur, Alipur, Kuakata, Chattogram, Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf. Very soon Nijhum Dwip, a coastal area in south-central Bangladesh, will be added to these locations. All these areas are subject to heavy fishing pressure on marine species, including the megafauna our team is working with. Almost 68,000 artisanal fishing boats and 247 industrial trawlers operate every day, the artisanal boats where the water is 40 metres (130 feet) deep and the trawlers right to the edge of the exclusive economic zone, so it is easy to imagine the extent of the fishing pressure.
The coast of Bangladesh, from Satkhira and the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans in the far south-west to Chera Dwip on St Martin’s Island in the south-east, is about 710 kilometres (440 miles) long and can be divided into three main regions: the Ganges tidal plain in the west, the Meghna delta plain in the centre and the Chittagong coastal plain in the east. This entire coast is suitable habitat for not only hammerhead sharks and their pups, but also many other marine species.
Since my third year as an undergraduate I have been involved in elasmobranch research, gaining experience of working with large marine species and helping to conserve them. This experience has enabled me to conduct field work in coastal areas with fishing communities. As a member of an enthusiastic research team with an amazing mentor in Alifa Bintha Haque, I am able to communicate directly with the communities and this in turn gives me deep insights into their socio-economic situation.
While working in the field I found that fish landings in these coastal areas are huge and that elasmobranchs make up at least 1% of the total marine landings each year. Yet although the landings are large, the fishing communities’ socio-economic structure is poor. I realised that to bring about positive change in the conservation of elasmobranchs we have to work from the bottom up: by improving the fishers’ livelihoods we can at the same time increase the effectiveness of our conservation initiatives.
Our team has been working with the coastal communities for many years and has built up a close bond of trust with them. By combining their ecological knowledge and fishing experience with our landing site data, I intend to determine the fishing pressure on hammerhead sharks, which make up the second-largest catch in the elasmobranch fishery of Bangladesh. I also aim to use all the data as a foundation for an effective, evidence-based conservation action plan that will lead to positive changes in Bangladesh’s elasmobranch fishery and improved livelihoods for fishers.