Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management in International Fisheries Law and Its Implementation in Bangladesh – Abdullah Al Arif

Sustainable management of marine fisheries is a complex, multi-dimensional and multi-stakeholder process that entails sustainable use of marine living resources and conservation of marine biodiversity. Legislative, policy and institutional frameworks play a crucial role in conservation and management of fish stocks at all levels of governance—global, regional, national and local. Like many parts of the world, fisheries resources in the marine waters of Bangladesh are not sustainably managed.

Human activities, including fishing, are responsible for most adverse impacts on marine biodiversity, such as overexploitation, habitat destruction and depletion of non-target species and their food sources. The traditional single‐species management approach to fisheries resources failed to conserve and manage the fish stocks in various regions of the world. This called for the adoption of an integrated approach to fisheries management that would not only consider the target species, but take other species, the interaction and interdependence of species and their environment into account. Therefore, fisheries managers now consider ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) a solution to the multifarious problems of fisheries management in areas within and beyond national jurisdictions. EBFM emerged to minimise the negative impacts of fishing and other human activities on marine ecosystems. While the traditional management plans start with the target species, EBFM starts with ecosystem considerations.

EBFM has been adopted in several international binding and non-binding instruments either explicitly or implicitly and has received wider acceptance from the international community as an important approach/principle of fisheries management. Although EBFM does not have a universally accepted definition, the existing constructions of the concept have several common elements, including the adoption of a multi‐species management regime, taking into account ecosystem considerations like interaction and interdependence among various species, the adoption of the precautionary principle to avoid risks in case of uncertainties, and human factors. EBFM has five central features which are incorporated in international legal instruments: application of a conditional maximum sustainable yield (MSY) concept, adoption of the precautionary principle in fisheries management, promotion of human and ecosystem wellbeing, adaptive management through research and monitoring, and cooperation and coordination among the agencies and stakeholders concerned.

The fisheries sector plays an important role in the overall development of Bangladesh with its economic, social and environmental dimensions. The sector accounts for 3.65 per cent of the national gross domestic product of Bangladesh and contributes about 60 per cent of the total animal protein intake.[1] The marine fisheries sector of Bangladesh is also quite large, and 16.28 per cent of the total fish production (around 0.6 million metric tonnes) was contributed by the marine sector in the 2014–2015 fiscal year.[2] There are more than 500 harvestable species including fish, prawns, lobsters and crabs in the maritime area of Bangladesh and about 90 species among these are considered as commercially important. Around 1.35 million people are directly or indirectly dependent on the marine fisheries sector in Bangladesh, and about 0.27 million fishers are directly involved in fishing in the marine waters of Bangladesh.

However, there has been a growing concern regarding the unsustainable management of marine fisheries within the maritime jurisdiction of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal and it is often argued that weaknesses in the management framework for marine fisheries are to blame. There are several inadequacies and implementation gaps in the legislative, policy and institutional frameworks that contribute to the unsustainable exploitation of marine fish stocks in Bangladesh. The shortcoming of fisheries management in Bangladesh has the following three major dimensions.

Firstly, the marine fisheries management framework in Bangladesh does not fully integrate the essential features of EBFM. Bangladesh’s legislative, policy and institutional frameworks for marine fisheries management still rely on a MSY concept as an objective of fisheries management that does not take into account relevant ecosystem considerations and environmental factors, despite an international shift towards a conditional MSY concept that considers the relevant ecosystem components such as interdependence and interaction among various species and environmental factors such as water quality and temperature. Further, although the precautionary principle has been incorporated in most contemporary international, regional and national fisheries instruments and has become an indispensable part of fisheries management, it is almost absent in regulatory frameworks for exploitation, conservation, and management of marine fisheries in Bangladesh[3] Moreover, fisheries management laws and policies of Bangladesh do not make adequate provision to ensure human and ecosystem wellbeing, cooperation among agencies involved, participation of relevant stakeholders in the management process, and adaptive management.

Secondly, the institutions involved in marine fisheries management in Bangladesh are lacklustre and poorly equipped to implement EBFM for several reasons. Foremost, achieving sustainability in the marine fisheries sector has not been given priority in Bangladesh. Also, the decision-making process in Bangladesh is top-down, centralised and non-participatory, while a desirable decision-making framework should be bottom-up, decentralised and participatory. Integrated management, inter-agency collaboration and good governance—crucial qualities of an efficient institutional framework—are also lacking in the present institutional set-up for fisheries management in Bangladesh.

Thirdly, although the entire maritime area of Bangladesh is in the Bay of Bengal and most fish stocks therein are transboundary in nature, there is no effective regional framework involving all the coastal states of the bay to ensure conservation and management of these stocks. In the absence of a robust regional fisheries management framework, marine fisheries resources in the Bay of Bengal are unsustainably harvested. A regional cooperative regime for the conservation and management of fisheries resources could be established through several avenues, such as implementing a region-wide integrated coastal zone management, strengthening existing regional organisations or establishing a new organisation specially designed for this purpose.  To be successful, these initiatives require meaningful negotiations among the states concerned in good faith and Bangladesh should play a key role in establishing a cooperative framework for the management of fisheries in the region.

To conclude, Bangladeshi legislative, policy, and institutional frameworks and the regional arrangement for marine fisheries management needs major reform to ensure conservation and sustainable management of marine fisheries within and beyond the maritime area of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal.

Abdullah Al Arif is a PhD candidate at Macquarie Law School and currently undertaking research on the legal and policy analysis of sustainable management of marine fisheries with Macquarie University Research Excellence Scholarship. Arif received the prestigious University Grants Commission (Bangladesh) Award in 2014 for his outstanding contribution to research and publications.

[1] Department of Fisheries, Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock (Bangladesh), National Fish Week 2016 Compendium (2016) 13.

[2] Marine Fisheries Office, Department of Fisheries (Bangladesh), Progress Report on Marine Fisheries Office: A Way Forward to Promote Blue Economy (2016) 1.

[3] Al Arif, Abdullah, ‘Legal Status of the Precautionary Principle in International Fisheries Law and Its Application in the Marine Fisheries Regime of Bangladesh’ (2018) 3(1) Asia-Pacific Journal of Ocean Law and Policy 95.