The Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem encompasses a marine area of over 6 million km2 between India and Indonesia. It contains important tracts of the world’s most vulnerable marine habitats, including 12% of the world’s coral reefs, 8% of the world’s mangroves, extensive seagrass beds, and large estuaries, which together support some of the most productive fishing grounds on the planet. This LME is a complex area spanning two different geopolitical sub-regions (South and Southeast Asia) bordering countries with a combined human population of 1.78 billion, equal to one quarter of the world’s population: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand (BOBLME TDA Executive Summary, 2012). Fishing is absolutely critical both economically and in terms of food security for the lives of the region’s people; over 4.5 million people are employed in fisheries-related activities, including about 2.2 million fishers working on some 400,000 fishing boats (BOBLME, 2011). Around 6 million tonnes of fish are caught annually, with a value of $4B (BOBLME, 2011). Rapid population growth, a high dependence on marine and coastal resources for food, trade and livelihoods, as well as changing land-use patterns all have negative impacts on the Bay of Bengal. These pressures heighten concerns that the Bay will not be able to support the future needs and aspirations of the 450 million people who live along its coastline.
In 2009, the countries that share the Bay of Bengal launched the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) Project in partnership with the GEF, FAO, and other partners. The $31M, six-year project is funded mainly by the GEF, Norway, Sweden, FAO, national governments in the region, and the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). The BOBLME Project’s overall aim is to ensure that (1) fisheries and other marine living resources are restored and managed sustainably; (2) degraded, vulnerable and critical marine habitats are restored, conserved and maintained; and (3) coastal and marine pollution and water quality are controlled to meet agreed standards for human and ecosystem health. This project is the only intervention in the region that has drawn together all eight countries into one forum, including the national agencies for environmental and fisheries management.
The BOBLME Project has been supporting many activities that help countries implement an ecosystem approach to fisheries management (EAFM) to sustain some of the region’s most important shared fish stocks; including Hilsa shad (Tenualosa ilisha), Indian mackerel (Rastrelliger kanagurta), and shark species. The Hilsa shad fishery is an important subsistence food item for many poor coastal communities and is especially important in India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar for generating employment opportunities for millions of people and is worth over $2B (BOBLME 2012). Hilsa shad is Bangladesh’s national fish species, with around 500,000 fishers involved in harvesting, and another 2-2.5 million involved in distribution and sale, as well as ancillary activities such as net and boat making, fish processing and export (BOBLME 2012). However, urgent action is imperative to safeguard the Hilsa fishery from unsustainable overfishing, as recent stock assessments show major declines in overall abundance.
The EAFM was re-affirmed by the 2012 Rio+20 Conference as the global standard approach to manage capture fisheries. This approach signifies a paradigm shift from traditional fisheries management that focused on target fish species. Instead, EAFM seeks to ensure healthy ecosystems through balancing environmental and human and social well-being without jeopardizing the options for future generations. To assist countries with improving management of shared resources like Hilsa, the BOBLME Project is helping set up a regional EAFM framework with three tiers: (1) technical working groups which provide information and support for ongoing interactions between scientists and/or policy makers from all participating countries; (2) a Regional Fisheries Management Advisory Committee (RFMAC) that interprets fisheries data so that ecosystem based fisheries management advice can be delivered to decision makers; and (3) a Regional Fisheries Management Forum (RFMF) that will provide an opportunity for decision makers to deliberate on the advice of the RFMAC and make decisions for national actions. So far, seven Technical Working Groups (Fisheries Statistics, Hilsa Assessment, Indian Mackerel, Sharks, Ecosystem Indicators, MPAs, and Pollution), made up of fisheries and environment officers from the different countries have been formed and are operational. The RFMAC has been created with members from each BOBLME country, as well as representatives from the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDC), FAO, the Bay of Bengal Programme — Intergovernmental Organisation (BOBP-IGO), and IUCN. The RFMF has not yet been established; management advice is therefore currently directed at national authorities. The process of setting up this EAFM framework has increased collaboration between scientists and policy makers both within and between countries, while encouraging the formation of enduring partnerships with other bodies and agencies working in the region.
In order to effectively implement EAFM, a deep knowledge and understanding of the processes and trade-offs and sophisticated skill must be rooted in the national ministries and management institutions. The BOBLME project recognized this as a gap in the region, and responded with capacity building activities so that countries are able to develop, implement, and monitor their fisheries. These efforts resulted in the development of an EAFM training course called Essential EAFM. This effort is the result of a unique partnership involving the BOBLME Project, the Asia-Pacific Fisheries Commission, the US Coral Triangle Initiative, NOAA and the Coral Triangle Support Partnership. The training course provides participants with the skills to manage fisheries more holistically to reduce user group conflicts, unlock financial resources, work cooperatively with other stakeholders, and resolve fisheries issues and challenges. The first pilot training took place in June, 2013 in Malaysia, and since then the course has been taken up readily by Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia and is being rolled out regionally by SEAFDEC (in South East Asia) and the BOBP-IGO (in South Asia). The ultimate goal is to build knowledge and skills on EAFM and establish a pool of qualified EAFM trainers in the region.
The BOBLME Project is laying the foundation for a cooperative mechanism to develop a better understanding of the Bay of Bengal and to promote a more comprehensive regional approach to the establishment and management of MPAs and fish refugia. In collaboration with the World Fish Centre and the BOBLME Project, an MPA learning network has been developed to facilitate communication among MPA practitioners and help in the diffusion of innovative practices. One positive outcome has taken the form of an MPA Atlas (http://boblme.reefbase.org/mpadatabase. aspx), an interactive, online database of MPAs for the Bay of Bengal LME. This portal contains a variety of information and knowledge products including, but not limited to technical reports, case studies, scientific articles, and maps. The Atlas is accessible to a wide community of MPA practitioners (managers, researcher, policy makers, etc.) and will contribute towards sustainable fishmanagement and conservation in the Bay of Bengal.The BOBLME Project has also developed MPA awareness materials for the Bay as a whole and for each country to promote the use of MPAs in fisheries management and biodiversity conservation.
The BOBLME Project is at the forefront of efforts to improve fisheries management in the Bay of Bengal. This project has greatly enhanced scientific knowledge and understanding of this Large Marine Ecosystem, and has improved the capacity of resources managers throughout the region. These efforts are critical precursors to establishing a functional EAFM regime that will strengthen fisheries governance and ensure a healthy ecosystem for present and future generations. At the heart of the BOBLME Project’s future is a shared vision for healthy ecosystems and sustainable use of marine living resources for the benefit of the countries which rely on the Bay of Bengal LME.
This story was orginally published in "From Coast to Coast: 20 Years of Transboundary Management of our Shared Oceans" in 2015.