A subregional grouping that must get back on course

BIMSTEC is in need of a framework to tackle the specific challenges confronting the Bay of Bengal region

March 29, 2022 12:08 am | Updated 12:08 am IST

Problems and opportunities

Problems and opportunities | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As world attention remains focused on the war in Ukraine, leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) will attend a summit meeting of the regional organisation. The meet, which is to be held in virtual mode, will be hosted by Sri Lanka, the current BIMSTEC chair.

Founded in 1997, the seven-member BIMSTEC, which includes the littoral states of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Thailand is a member too) and the land-locked states of Nepal and Bhutan, has identified 14 pillars for special focus. These are trade and investment, transport and communication, energy, tourism, technology, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter terrorism and transnational crime, environment and disaster management, people-to-people contact, cultural cooperation and climate change. While each sector is important, the segmented approach has resulted in omnibus end summit communiqués full of aspirations rather than action. The upcoming summit is an opportunity for BIMSTEC leaders to go beyond generalised statements and take concrete steps to address critical challenges confronting the region.

A Bay of Bengal Maritime Dialogue (BOBMD) organised recently by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Pathfinder Foundation brought together government officials, maritime experts, and representatives of prominent think tanks from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. Participants called for stepped up efforts in areas such as environmental protection; scientific research; curtailing illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as the development of standard operating procedures that could govern interaction between fishing vessels of one country with maritime law enforcement agencies of another.

Rich marine ecosystem

Presentations made at the BOBMD highlighted the fact that the Bay of Bengal is home to a large network of beautiful yet fragile estuaries, mangrove forests of around 15,792 square kilometres, coral reefs of around 8,471 sq.km, sea grass meadows and mass nesting sites of sea turtles. The annual loss of mangrove areas is estimated at 0.4% to 1.7% and coral reefs at 0.7%. It is predicted that the sea level will increase 0.5 metres in the next 50 years. Moreover, there have been 13 cyclonic storms in the last five years. The Bay is an important source of natural resources for a coastal population of approximately 185 million people. The fishermen population alone is estimated to be around 3.7 million, with an annual fish catch of around six million tonnes, constituting 7% of the world’s catch and valued at around U.S.$4 billion. Around 4,15,000 fishing boats operate in the Bay and it is estimated that 33% of fish stocks are fished unsustainably (Source: presentation in February 2022 by E. Vivekanandan, senior consultant, ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Bay of Bengal is one of IUU fishing hotspots in the Asia-Pacific.

The pressing challenges that confront the Bay of Bengal include the emergence of a dead zone with zero oxygen where no fish survive; leaching of plastic from rivers as well as the Indian Ocean; destruction of natural protection against floods such as mangroves; sea erosion; growing population pressure and industrial growth in the coastal areas and consequently, huge quantities of untreated waste flow. Security threats such as terrorism, piracy and tensions between countries caused by the arrests of fishermen who cross maritime boundaries are additional problems. It also needs to be kept in mind that the problem of fishermen crossing into the territorial waters of neighbouring countries affect India and Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Myanmar (also Pakistan on the west coast).

Need for regional interaction

The blue economy potential of the Bay of Bengal is huge. There are many opportunities to develop maritime trade, shipping, aquaculture and tourism. However, tapping these opportunities requires coordinated and concerted action by governments, scientists and other experts. The BIMSTEC Summit must create a new regional mechanism for coordinated activities on maritime issues of a transboundary nature. This mechanism must initiate urgent measures to strengthen fisheries management, promote sustainable fishing methods, establish protected areas and develop frameworks to prevent and manage pollution, especially industrial and agricultural waste as well as oil spills. There is also a need for greater scientific research on the impact of climate change in general and on fisheries in particular.

At present, there is limited cooperation between countries of the region in marine research. Most BIMSTEC countries have premier institutions and excellent scientists but their interaction with the West is far more than within the region. The use of modern technology and improved fishing practices can go a long way in restoring the health of the Bay.

This should be a priority area

Marine environmental protection must become a priority area for cooperation in the Bay of Bengal. Enforcement must be strengthened and information shared on best practices. Regional protocols need to be developed and guidelines and standards on pollution control established. Decision-making must be based on science and reliable data, information and tools.

There is a need for home-grown solutions based on capabilities of local institutions and for mutual learning through regional success stories. There is a need to create regional frameworks for data collection. Participatory approaches must be evolved for near-real-time stock assessment and the creation of an regional open fisheries data alliance. The Bay of Bengal Programme (BOBP), an inter-governmental organisation based in Chennai, is doing good work to promote sustainable fishing.

A Bay Of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) project is also being launched by the FAO with funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and others. The BIMSTEC summit must express full support for both BOBP and BOBLME. The summit must mandate officials to come up with measures to curtail unsustainable as well as IUU fishing. These could include setting up an international vessel tracking system and making it mandatory for vessels to be equipped with automatic identification system (AIS) trackers; establishing a regional fishing vessel registry system and publishing vessel licence lists to help identify illegal vessels; increasing monitoring, control and surveillance in IUU fishing hotspots; establishing regional guidelines on how to deter and prevent IUU practices; improving the implementation of joint regional patrols, and regional fishing moratoriums and outreach programmes targeted at fisherfolk. Laws and policies in littoral states must be harmonised and the humanitarian treatment of fishermen ensured during any encounter with maritime law enforcement agencies.

The challenges that confront the Bay of Bengal region brook no more delay. BIMSTEC must arise, awake and act before it is too late. The summit must set in process regular meetings of officials, supported by scientists and experts, to tackle illegal and unsustainable fishing as well as prevent the further environmental degradation of the Bay of Bengal.

Venu Rajamony is Professor of Diplomatic Practice, O.P. Jindal Global University, Senior Adviser, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the former Ambassador of India to the Netherlands

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